Grounding exercises for stress, anxiety and fatigue

When we talk about grounding, sometimes we mean different things. But regardless of the exact meaning, the benefits of grounding for chronic fatigue and other chronic issues have been recognised by many researchers and patients.

What do we mean when we say ‘grounding’?

According to one definition, grounding, also called ‘earthing’, refers to direct skin contact with the surface of the Earth, such as with bare feet or hands, or with various grounding systems, which helps to reduce oxidative stress levels (high both in people with chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia) and inflammation.

Walking barefoot on the ground is something you can do mostly when the weather is warm enough, and if you live in a big city, it may not be that easy to find a place where you can have direct contact with the ground. The health benefits of ‘earthing’, however, as noted by a number of researches, have been remarkable when it comes to treating chronic conditions. For more information, check The Earthing Movie – a fascinating documentary on grounding/ earthing and the science behind it.

Another definition suggests that “grounding is the act of connecting more deeply and completely to the body, strengthening the feeling of being inside the body and connected to the ground or earth. Many grounding exercises help deepen our connection to anything that is supporting the weight of the body. Other grounding exercises help deepen our connection to our 5 senses, using them to connect us with our body in general.” [1]

Grounding exercises to down-regulate of the nervous system

There is an overlap between these two types of grounding and how they work in practice. For instance, one of the grounding exercises is connecting to physical surfaces, not only through contact with the ground but by feeling the support of the floor, chair, bed or any other surface which gives a sense of stability and safety and enhances our attunement to ourselves and our surroundings.

In this post, we’ll focus on the grounding exercises and techniques that can be practiced anytime and anywhere to activate the parasympathetic nervous system – the branch of the autonomic nervous system responsible for rest and relaxation.

In a sense, grounding is an emergency mindfulness tool that helps to engage the parts of the prefrontal cortex that control attention and mute the part of your brain that becomes preoccupied with negative possibilities, worries and anxiety. [2]

Grounding and fatigue

Even though there are many causes of adrenal and chronic fatigue (physical, psychological, environmental etc.), the bottom line is that the body remains under constant stress with the nervous system being in a continuous state of alertness. This is extremely draining and taxing for the body leading to more physical and emotional stress, which causes even more exhaustion, which causes even more stress, and so on.

To get out of this loop, it may be necessary to re-evaluate our lifestyle choices and behavioural patterns causing this stress. But when it is not immediately possible, especially with severe cases of fatigue, grounding techniques are a quick and effective self-help tool to down-regulate the nervous system, allowing the body to rest and recuperate enough to feel a relief and a shift in the energy level.

Grounding and trauma

Often, there’s a correlation between chronic conditions including chronic fatigue and some form of traumatic experience. If the word ‘trauma’ seems too extreme and unrelatable (something only survivors of a natural disaster or victims of abuse can experience), think of trauma as anything that is too overwhelming for our body and mind that it remains in the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mode for months and years. Anything from a stressful childhood experience or a work burnout to a car accident or a serious illness can throw our whole system into a state of shock, which, if not processed and released, leads to what is called ‘trauma’.

Grounding allows the person that has experienced trauma, to feel safe and connected to their own body and surroundings which makes it possible to process and make sense of the traumatic event without being flooded by the difficult emotions and sensations.

Grounding tools have been used as an integral part of somatic therapy, Somatic Experiencing developed by Peter Levine, TRE or Tension and Trauma Release Exercises created by David Berceli and other trauma healing modalities that work with the body.

Hacking the Vagus Nerve

According to Simmaron Research, the largest nerve in the body, the Vagus Nerve, is potentially a key player in the development of neuroinflammatory conditions that include chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS).

“Called the wanderer, the Vagus Nerve is the longest cranial nerve (a nerve that emanates from the head) in the body. Attaching at the medulla at the bottom of the brainstem, the many fingers of the Vagus Nerve reach down our torso to infiltrate most of our organs. The extensive network it forms – it’s the largest neural network in the body – provides a pathway through which information is sent to the brain regarding the status of our organs.” [3]

It acts as an immune regulator, autonomic nervous system regulator and pain reducer. Thus stimulating the Vagus Nerve can help reduce symptoms related to many chronic diseases and conditions including CFS.

There are both non-invasive technological devices, as well as some physical practices that can stimulate the Vagus Nerve and effectively ground you.

Here are some of these practices that you can try right away.   

Grounding tools and techniques

Breathing techniques

Deep belly or diaphragmatic breathing

“Taking a few deep breaths is powerful for two reasons: it grounds you in your body and it activates the Vagus Nerve, which calms you down. Psychologists and practitioners recommend diaphragmatic breathing (or “belly breathing”) in which you imagine there is a balloon in your stomach that you inflate as you breathe. To get the most out of deep breathing, pay attention to the sensations of your breath. See what’s most prominent. It could be the cool air coming in your nose, the rise of your stomach as you breathe in, or the faint sound of the exhale. Notice these sensations as you breathe. Next, while you’re noticing these sensations, start breathing to a steady count. A standard way of doing it is to breathe in for four seconds, breathe out for four, and repeat. You’ll notice counting changes some of the sensations you feel while breathing. Counting also engages more of your attention so your mind can’t wander back to the anxiety-provoking thoughts. Although it sometimes helps you to relax by breathing with your eyes closed, for the purposes of grounding, it’s better to keep your eyes open to be more aware of your surroundings.” [4]

Breathing with a sound

The Ocean Breath or Ujjayi pranayama – done by moving the glottis and narrowing the throat passage which creates a sound similar to one of wind or waves. Although there is a constriction of the throat, the Ujjayi breath flows in and out through the nostrils, with the lips remaining gently closed.

Humming breath of Brahmari pranayama – inhale through the nose and exhale with a humming sound like a bee; you can experiment with the pitch of the sound and placing your index fingers on the cartilage of your ears or in a ‘shanmukha’ hand position on your face.

The Vagus Nerve is connected to the vocal cords, thus humming creates vibration in the vocal cords that mechanically stimulates the nerve. A similar effect has exhalation while chanting “OM” or breathing out with a sound of relief “AHHH”.

Breathing with a longer exhalation

A breathing technique where the exhalation is twice as long as the inhalation is another effective way to stimulate the Vagus Nerve through breathing. Longer exhalations slow down the heart rate which allows accessing the parasympathetic state and a deeper sense of relaxation and calmness. You can either gradually increase the length of your exhalation, or follow the 4-7-8 pattern (where you take a deep breath for the count of 4, hold for 7, and exhale for the count if 8) or 4:8 ratio (without holding the breath).

Try combining these breathing techniques for better results, e.g. belly breathing with an ocean sound or a humming breath with a longer exhalation.

Tapping, brushing, rubbing and squeezing

Brushing or gently rubbing your chest or your face, squeezing or massaging your hands, arms and feet, or softly tapping the whole body is another great way to ground and connect to the body.

These simple actions can help turn down the intensity of emotions when dealing with anxiety, stress and overwhelm. It creates a sense of containment, making emotions more manageable.

As you do that, pay attention to your physical sensations and your immediate environment. When experiencing strong overwhelm, it is very common to disconnect from both the body and from our surroundings. These actions make you aware of the boundaries of your body and its sensations, while orienting yourself in space (turning your head to look around, registering the sounds, colours, objects etc.) allows to ground you in the current moment.

“Allow your eyes and shoulders and head to just look around and take in where you actually are. Sometimes this just helps us bring us back to the present moment, rather than spinning in our thoughts, or head. We’re going to start by taking a big hug around ourselves. Just squeezing the backs of the arms or whatever part of the arms you can connect with. Take the opposite arms to the upper shoulder.

And as we go down, make some contact, give yourself a little squeeze down the triceps to the elbows, through the forearms. If you’re feeling really disconnected today, you might even say to yourself: “These are my arms. Here I am.” And then go to your hands. And play around with the different connections of the hands.

And now, shift the awareness down to the legs. Make some connections with your hands on the thighs. You might even rub them or squeeze the thighs. And again, if you’re feeling disconnected, say: “These are my leg, I am here.” Feel free to say that over and over to yourself as many times as you need to until you start to feel present.”

(From Yoga for Trauma with Kyra Haglund available through Yoga Anytime)

You can also try these video exercises and follow along:

Tapping along the energy lines of the body for grounding

Deeply calming brushing exercise

Hand positions

Jin Shin Jyutsu body holds

All Jin Shin Jyutsu body holds and finger holds are wonderfully simple grounding tools that help to harmonise the Vagus Nerve, activate the parasympathetic nervous system, relieve stress and anxiety and promote relaxation.

Here are two very soothing hand positions to calm your nervous system and quieten the mind (for more details, check my previous post on Jin Shin Jyutsu for stress, anxiety and fatigue):

Find a quiet and comfortable place. Sit or lie down with your eyes closed and breathe naturally. Keep each hand position from two to ten minutes, or longer if you like.

  • First, place your left hand on the chest and the right one on your forehead;
  • Focus on your breathing and the sensations in your body, notice how you are feeling.
  • When you are ready, place the right hand on your belly while keeping the left hand on your chest.
  • As an alternative, you can also place your right hand on the base of your neck, gently cradling your skull.
  • Place your right hand under the left armpit (around the area of your heart), keep the left arm relaxed.
  • Make sure you are not tensing your shoulders. Breathe normally.
  • When you are ready, place the left hand on your right upper arm, while keeping the right hand where it is, just below the armpit.
Finger holds

Finger holds are another way to regulate emotions and bring you back in contact with your body in the present moment. According to Jin Shin Jyutsu, there is a primary emotion (or “attitude”) associated with each finger.

Hold each finger with your hand for a few seconds to several minutes, breathe deeply, notice the emotions and sensations that arise. You may even want to gently rub your fingers to bring you back into the present moment, and with each exhalation, release the tension or strong emotion you might be feeling. (Read more on how to do finger holds)

Hands on the chest

Crossing the arms on the chest is an inborn protective gesture we all naturally resort to when feeling uncomfortable or nervous. Although the exact origin of this particular hand position is unknown, it is deeply soothing, especially when dealing with anxiety.

This is how you get into the position:

  • Reach the arms forward and turn your thumbs down;
  • Cross one wrist over the other;
  • Interlace your fingers;
  • Bring your arms down and up towards the chest (with a loud exhale).
  • Try squeezing the hands and see what pressure is right for you. If you are sitting on a chair, try also crossing the legs. Breathe deeply and observe your feelings and sensations.

(From Yoga for Trauma video series by Kyra Haglund)

A very simple variation would be also just placing both hands on the chest, one on top of the other, and feeling their soothing warmth on your skin while breathing deeply. Notice how your chest rises and falls as you breathe.

Again, you can orient yourself by keeping your eyes open as you keep these hand positions, but if your immediate environment doesn’t feel safe, close your eyes and imagine being in a safe space. Imagine looking around that space and notice the details.

Grounding yoga poses

There are a number of yoga poses that can ground you, each one in a slightly different way. Pay attention to what you currently need.

If you are feeling overwhelmed and anxious, resting low to the ground poses such as child’s pose, knees to the chest, seated butterfly pose (where you are folded over and remain in a so-called ‘safety cocoon’) can help you regain peace and containment.

But if you need more strength, concentration and stability – standing poses such as mountain pose, tree pose or a warrior pose are perfect for that. In these poses, your feet are firmly planted on the ground while the upper body remains open and erect, which engages your core muscles and makes you connect to your strength and open up to the environment around you.  

If the standing poses are not accessible to you, try seated (chair yoga) variations of these poses.

Check these 9 grounding yoga poses for more ideas.

Other resources for grounding

More grounding exercises

Brain Gym Exercises

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