Joseph Hunt Wassink
Iowans are facing racism and the tensions surrounding it, a pandemic that has taken more than 180,000 American lives, and a massive natural disaster that likely shattered our last vestige of normalcy. Let’s face it: Each of these events would be enough on its own, but this year we are facing the prospect of learning to cope and live through all three. Even so, there are steps we can take right now to help restore ourselves and keep our emotions in check.
Begin by taking stock of your body and mind. Notice what you are experiencing so that you are better prepared to respond. A pounding heart, tight muscles and flushed feeling may point to feelings of anger, which can result in physical or verbal aggression. Feeling shaky or as if you cannot breathe could be symptoms of fear, which can lead to isolation. Empty feelings, a tight throat or significant fatigue can be symptoms of depression, which too often results in people shutting down.
Each of these emotions — as well as many others — often leave clues in our thought processes. Someone experiencing anger may believe that others, or whole sections of a community, are bad and actively working against him. A person experiencing fear may think she is helpless when it comes to her own safety and well-being. Severe depression can lead people to give up because they tell themselves that everything is already lost.
Short bursts of all of these emotions go hand-in-hand with life during a pandemic, following a natural disaster, or facing a rise in overt racism. It is normal to feel threatened when your health is at risk, and angry when things happen that are out of your control. But when such experiences compound, our thoughts can overwhelm us and we can lose our connection with the present moment. Grounding techniques revert our attention to the here and now, which helps establish distance between ourselves and potentially destructive thoughts. They are coping skills that focus on “grounding” you in the present space, time, and body you occupy.
When using a grounding technique first consider your breath. Breathing slowly and purposefully helps you be present in the moment. For each technique below inhale on a count of five and exhale on a count of five.
• Belly Breathing: Place one hand on your belly and one on your chest. As you breathe, your belly should rise with inhales and fall with exhales while your chest is still.
• Butterfly Breathing: Cross your arms over your chest, so that the fingers of each hand fall on the muscle below the collarbone. Lock your thumbs together. Either slowly tap one hand and then the other against the chest, or use both hands to slowly massage the chest. Breathe deeply.
Continue your chosen breathing technique while working through one of these two grounding exercises:
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
• 5, 4, 3, 2, 1: Focus on your five senses. Notice five things you see, four things you feel, three things you hear, two things you smell, and one thing you taste. Now notice what you feel in your body.
• Elemental Grounding (good for children): Focus on the four elements (earth, air, water and fire). For earth, notice the ground and how it feels. For air, notice what you smell and your breathing. For water, notice the saliva in your mouth and how it tastes. For fire, notice red or orange objects and how they look. Now notice what you feel in your body.
Additionally, consider using either of these coping skills:
• Safe Space: Imagine a space where you are safe, secure and comfortable. What do you see, feel, hear, smell and taste? What positive emotions are present?
• Secure Container: Imagine a container that stores overwhelming thoughts and feelings. Picture yourself placing overwhelming thoughts and feelings in the container and closing it. Just keep in mind your container is not for permanent storage.
Finally, remember humans need connection. We become ungrounded when we are disconnected, and become grounded again when we reconnect. Crisis and trauma often lead to physical and emotional isolation. What is one thing you can do today to reconnect safely with your friends and family?
Joseph Hunt Wassink, LISW, is a school based therapist with Tanager Place.