Soar above the storm of panic attacks, anxiety attacks, and mental ruminations
I never knew what a panic attack was until I lost my mother.
One crisp January morning, as I coasted down East Village's sidewalks in Manhattan, NY, an intense and overwhelming fear like a black cloud suddenly descended upon me.
My heart started pounding as I struggled to gulp air.
In complete confusion and terror, I ran into a nearby Buddha store and hid behind an empty aisle. I could feel sweat plastering my sweater to my back although it was about 30 degrees Fahrenheit outside.
All I could do was sit on the floor as a wave of dizziness clouded my vision.
I thought I was dying.
I didn’t know I was having a panic attack – the first of many in the years to come.
When death takes someone close to you, your entire being shifts into survival mode and you find yourself trapped in a hypervigilant, overwhelmed high anxiety state with triggers in your environment that cause you to spiral out of control in an ant’s breath.
What I experienced that day was a panic attack: one of many types of grief attacks.
According to Dr. Alan Wolfelt in his book Understanding Your Grief, “a grief attack or memory embrace is a period when you may have intense anxiety and sharp pain associated with grieving.
What’s more, clinical psychologist, Niemeyer says these grief attacks can range in type and severity from small waves of nostalgia colored by sadness to very profound and unsettling experiences like night terrors, panic, and anxiety attacks.
Over the years, I found out that the frequency and intensity of the grief attacks I had decreased as I had time to integrate the death of my mother into my life story.
Grounding rituals were the medium that provided me with a modicum of safety and a sense of control and stability when everything around me was crashing.
In this article, I offer you 5 grounding rituals to quickly calm your body and anchor your awareness in the present moment when you experience the most common grief attacks like anxiety attacks, panic attacks, mental ruminations, shock, numbness, PTSD, and grief ambushes in public.
What is a Grounding Ritual?
Grounding is a practice that has been proven through studies to pull you out of the storm by calling forth the calming effects of the parasympathetic nervous system that switches off the fight-flight-freeze response and brings your awareness into your body and the present moment where you are safe.
"When we are firmly grounded in our bodies as Heather Stang and other contributors demonstrate, we are better able to literally and metaphorically find a new footing in the world and to restore a life of meaning and coherence" - Robert A. Neimeyer
If a grounding technique takes you to the eye of the storm, a ritual takes you completely above the storm.
As Renee Beck says in her book The Art of Ritual, “rituals are actions done in purposeful ways that symbolize something much more than the acts themselves. Rituals give purpose to action and always serve to connect us to something else, generally something greater than our own solitary lives.”
You can perform your own rituals using the 7 steps below when you find yourself in a place of deep overwhelm and disorientation.
- Step 1: Create a sacred space
- Step 2: Write or say your intention
- Step 3: Invoke energies greater than you
- Step 4: Enact ritual steps (the different rituals in this article)
- Step 5: Express and release
- Step 6: Close your ritual
- Step 7: Reflect and root the experience
Depending on the grounding ritual you perform, some of the steps might not apply. For example, it might be hard to enact step 5 if you are having a panic attack in public or step 7 if you are performing a daily ritual to ground and center yourself.
5 Grounding Rituals to Support your grieving process
Ritual 1: Shock and Numbness
You might have gone into shock at the news of your loved one’s death. Most people do.
You shut down emotionally and feel totally numb and dead inside like a zombie. Events feel blurry, surreal as though you are in a dream you can’t wake up from. You might even be losing time – have lapses where you disappear midsentence, find yourself in places, and don’t know how you got there.
Shock in grief can manifest as numbness, disbelief, fear, confusion to the point of disorganization, and in extreme cases dissociation. Try not to worry too much if you experience any of these reactions.
It is a coping mechanism that protects you from the magnitude of pain the loss has procured.
Here is a daily grounding ritual you can perform to help process the shock out of your system and turn off the freeze response so that you feel more embodied.
- Sitting or standing, place all your awareness on the bottom of your feet as you press down through the soles of your feet.
- Feel your feet supporting the weight of your body. Pay attention to the different parts of your feet; your toes, the ball, the heel.
- Sometimes, bringing your awareness to your feet is all you can do, and if this is you today, imagine there is a nose under your feet and just breathe in and out like this for 3 – 5 minutes.
- If you feel able to, proceed to the visualization below.
- Imagine your feet are webs of light and there are red roots coming out of the bottom, going all the way down and anchoring at the center of the earth.
- With each inhale, imagine pulling golden light from the center of the earth’s core up through your arches, as if receiving nutrients from the earth that fill up your body like a container.
- With each exhale, imagine rooting down into the earth like a tree and visualize any stress and anxiety leaving your body through the base of your feet.
- If available, you can perform this by standing bare feet on the grass in your backyard, apartment complex, or park. You can also use grounding mats and other grounding products to receive the same benefits from this ritual.
Total Time: 5 – 10 minutes
Ritual 2 – Anxiety attacks
Most people confuse anxiety attacks with panic attacks because many of the physical, emotional, and mental symptoms are similar.
An anxiety attack is less severe than a panic attack although it can range from mild to severe. For example, about a year after my mother passed, around mother's day or her birthday, I would feel the anxiety growing in my mind and body and this could go on for days or in even weeks in the background as I went about my life. On the other hand, when I had panic attacks, everything came to a standstill. It was a life-or-death situation at that moment but would only last for 10 – 20 minutes. An hour at the most.
Here is a ritual, I have used for anxiety to help bring me back into homeostasis.
Color Me Gold
- Light a candle to begin, burn some sage or palo santo or patchouli essential oil in a diffuser
- Put on this grounding playlist and find a comfortable position to sit either on the floor, a sofa or the bed.
- Place your right hand just above your pubic bone and your left hand on the base of your ribcage to hold yourself with compassion.
- Close your eyes and slowly inhale through your nose for a count of three, hold your breath for a count of 3 and then exhale for a count of three.
- You can also visualize golden light filling you up with each exhale and visualize all the anxiety leaving your body with each exhale.
Total Time: 5 – 10 minutes
Ritual 3 – Panic attacks
Panic attacks are typical in grief, and it is important to know what to expect and how to cope with the very disturbing symptoms like shortness of breath, and tightness in your chest that feels as though you are on the verge of death. The scary thing is that it comes seemingly out of the blue as your flight-fight-freeze response is triggered.
Try this ritual the next time you feel an attack coming.
Be still my heart
- Find the nearest sink with running water
- Turn the faucet to the coldest setting and place your hands from the elbows down under the cold water and let it run for about 30 seconds.
- Next, submerge your face in a bowl of cold water for 30 seconds. This induces the dive response and causes the activation of your parasympathetic nervous system associated with relaxation.
- If you don’t have a bowl, you can also just splash your face with cold water
- Once about a minute has passed, take deep slow breathes through your nose to calm down your heart rate and nervous system
- Repeat the mantra “I am not dying; I am having a panic attack because I miss <insert loved one’s name>. It will pass in a few minutes.”
- As you continue your mantra, focus your awareness on your feet and the ground beneath you supporting you.
Total Time: 5 – 15 minutes
Ritual 4 – Mental Ruminations
In grief, you have many moments when you are overwhelmed by mental ruminations. I remember replaying the last 24 hours of my mother’s life in my head in an endless loop. The last kiss we shared, her orange preppy nails I had just painted to match mine, our breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast.
The questions might also be pouring out you as if only scenarios materialize that make you wonder if you could have prevented their death in some way.
Once you get into a ruminating cycle, your rational mind is on lockdown while your amygdala runs the show, and it feels like a broken washing machine stuck on a spin cycle.
The grounding ritual below can put a cog in the wheel of your mind and stop the cycle in its tracks by combining rhythmic movement that grounds awareness in the body and vocal toning to stimulate your vagus nerve and calm down the mental body.
Humming to Heaven
- Do three sets of 5-10 jumping jacks, pushups, or cat/cow pose
- Once you complete the sets, find a comfortable sitting position and begin to either chant the mantra OM pronounced AH-UH-MM or hum the sounds of the different vowels, or simple songs like “twinkle twinkle little star” or one of your favorites
- Continue to do this for about 5 minutes or until you feel calmer
- You can also listen to this 11-minute vocal toning and humming meditation for inspiration
- Once the intensity of ruminations has declined, set a timer for 5 – 10 minutes and begin to empty out all the thoughts, and scenarios in a journal
Total Time: 5 – 20 minutes
Ritual 5 – Out and about
You don’t always have the luxury of picking your location because sometimes grief will ambush you in the middle of the grocery store, at the bank, or even in the middle of a work presentation.
Out of nowhere a wave of panic crashes, a landslide of tears, or anxiety finds you.
Grief attacks are normal and happen more frequently in the early days and months when the pain is raw, and the world seems to be bursting with reminders and triggers waiting to set you off.
It helps to carry a small coping box in your purse or car with items that can calm you quickly like a grounding crystal, a spray bottle with lavender essential oil, a stress ball, and nuts like almonds, and walnuts which help to ground you. Tissue is also helpful.
The next time you begin to feel a wave of grief, you can try the ritual below
Safe in my cocoon
- Get yourself to a safe space – this could mean going outside where there is fresh air, stepping into an empty office or grocery store aisle, going to the bathroom, or sitting in an empty row on public transportation.
- Sniff some lavender or patchouli if you have it
- Put on your headphones and listen to a soothing playlist as you take slow and deep breaths through your nose – try to keep your mouth closed.
- As you breathe in and out, firmly plant your feet on the ground and bring all of your awareness to your feet, the feel of your shoes, the ground beneath it
- Continue to do this for about 5-10 minutes or until you feel calmer
- Once you feel calmer, engage in self-soothing practices like eating some walnuts, drinking warm chamomile tea, or calling someone.
- Stay where you are and don’t try to return home for at least 30 minutes or when you feel calmer.
Total Time: 5 – 20 minutes
Pro Tip: Make sure you have purchased/curated any resources beforehand and have them ready as well as the ritual written down somewhere so that when a storm hits, you don’t have to think. It becomes second nature.
When you choose to engage in a grounding ritual, you honor where you are in your life, and the helplessness associated with feeling overwhelmed and anxious at the same time you take responsibility for your current experience and empower yourself to weather these difficult and painful moments with equanimity.
The next time you feel that wave of panic or anxiety building, perform your grounding ritual and break out of the cycle.