Research continues to observe a clear connection between presence, focus, and psychological health. Yet, the tug of distractions, unwanted memories, challenging emotions, and rumination can persist, pulling your attention away and making it difficult to cope or concentrate on the present moment.
Grounding can help bring you back.
“The reason grounding exercises work so well at rooting you in the present moment is because they put you into your prefrontal cortex, which is the highly developed part of the brain responsible for cognitive control functions and therefore influences attention, impulse inhibition, memory, and cognitive flexibility, and helps regulate emotions,” said Kate Nielsen, a licensed clinical social worker specializing in virtual therapy through Radiance Counseling in Denver. “If you’re distracted, anxious, or dealing with a stressful emotion, your limbic brain has a tendency to take over, trigger your fight-or-flight response, and make it difficult to rationalize or focus. When you’re in your prefrontal cortex, you’re in the driver’s seat.”
Put simply, grounding uses your five senses to shift your thoughts to what’s currently happening in your body or surroundings. Grounding techniques, such as the following, can release the intensity of memories or worry about the future, make it easier to focus on the present, and support your mental health overall.
Spell the Weather
Nielsen provides cognitive behavioral therapy to people who are working through a variety of mental health concerns, including past traumas, stress, anxiety, and depression. Among the grounding techniques she teaches her clients is to observe the weather and then spell out what they see. If it’s raining, she asks them to spell R-A-I-N.
“It can be done out loud or quietly in the mind — wherever you are,” Nielsen said. “The process of spelling something you observe is simple, yet it requires focus, and focus naturally brings the mind into the present and into a more peaceful state.”
Once the most prominent weather condition, such as rain, is spelled out, then Nielsen may ask a client to continue spelling out supporting weather elements, such as T-H-U-N-D-E-R and L-I-G-H-T-N-I-N-G until the person feels grounded and calm.
Similar to spelling the weather, doing an activity that requires numbers and math can quiet mental chatter. It could be as simple as counting.
In independent studies of over 400 participants, researchers found that breath counting improved mindfulness and decreased mind wandering.
In addition to breath counting, you could also try counting objects in the room. Choose a category of objects and count every object in one category before moving on to the next. For example, start with windows, then move on to doors, then pieces of furniture, then pictures, and so on.
Move Your Body
Have you ever felt distracted while working on a difficult project and it seems like the more you try and tell yourself to focus, the more you think about everything but the project?
Sometimes the mind, particularly during extended periods of work or deep thought, simply needs a reset. Movement can help. One study of university students found that short exercise breaks aided the students’ ability to focus.
You could do a 20-minute workout using your favorite exercise app or play a game of tag with your kids. Or you could pick something simpler, like doing 10 jumping jacks right where you are or walking 200 steps around the block. All of these activities achieve the same goal: to help you pause your thinking and pay attention to how your body feels as it moves so you can reboot your brain and once again be present.
Savor a Scent
Scents are managed by the olfactory bulb, the structure in the front of the brain that sends information to the amygdala and the hippocampus, where emotions, mood, memory, and creativity are processed. The perfume, candle, and other scent-focused consumer industries thrive on this connection. Perfumers and candle makers create fragrances intended to grab your attention by sparking an array of internal responses, such as happiness, confidence, relaxation, and focus.
What perfume or candle fragrance do you like? Is it earthy, sweet, citrusy, or spicy? Inhale it slowly and deeply and observe how its notes make you feel as you breathe it in. You could also try this with teas, lotions, spices, or herbs.
Listen Without Judgment
Whether you hear music playing, birds chirping, or the voices of people sitting at the table next to you at your favorite coffee shop, intently listening to the sounds around you can remind you where you are in this moment.
Can you focus on only one sound at a time? Try not to assign meaning or a particular reaction to the sounds. Simply listen and be aware of what you hear.
Humans are wired to be solo taskers. When you attempt to multi-task, which is actually task-switching in rapid succession, your ability to be in the present moment instantly wanes.
Studies suggest that people who frequently “media multi-task,” such as scrolling through social media while watching a movie, are more distracted and less able to focus their attention even when they’re performing only one task. They may also find it more difficult to absorb information, learn, reflect, and make thoughtful decisions. Multi-tasking causes an increase in the production of the stress hormone, cortisol, and leaves you feeling scattered, overwhelmed, and mentally exhausted.
The antidote is solo-tasking or doing one thing at a time.
Nielsen encourages her clients to start the day by making a list of what they want to accomplish and then work through each thing on the list one by one.
“Life gets messy, but if you set your intentions and use grounding techniques as you work through those intentions, you may find it easier to remain calm and focused on what’s most important in the present moment,” she said.