Chaos to Calm: 4 Grounding Practices to Release the Agitation and Overwhelm of Early Grief

Chaos to Calm: 4 Grounding Practices to Release the Agitation and Overwhelm of Early Grief
Photo by Bankim Desai on Unsplash

Find a cocoon of safety and respite in the present moment

When you hear the news of your loved one’s death, your brain interprets this as a direct threat to your survival.

And in many ways, it is: someone who made you feel loved, valued, and seen has died.

Your body reacts by immediately activating the fight-flight-freeze stress response and causes hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to be secreted into your bloodstream to sound the alarm.

This carefully orchestrated near-instantaneous sequence of hormonal changes is what causes your heart rate to speed up, blood pressure to skyrocket, and your muscles to tense. This is why you might feel floaty, jittery, dizzy, and nauseous in those first moments when you hear the words, you hoped never to hear.

What’s more, your thoughts might be racing through if-of-only scenarios, because the amygdala, the part of the brain that detects and processes fear is on overdrive and hijacks your prefrontal context.

Reality and rationality feel like a galaxy away.

It might have been days, weeks, or even months since your loved one died and you still find yourself trapped in a hypervigilant, overwhelmed high anxiety state and spiraling out of control as your fears become magnified – completely unreachable by the present moment and rationality.

The world feels very unsafe and hostile.

I want you to know that what you are experiencing is normal. Your body, your mind, your psyche have taken a catastrophic hit. In time, the tears will become manageable and the storm will eventually calm down.

After my mother died in 2018, in those first few days and weeks, I felt like a basket case. I was in the tight grip of a fight-flight-freeze response, and it felt impossible to catch my thoughts and quiet the blood that was squealing in my veins.

My heart had gone berserk from terror and grounding was the only thing that could provide me some moments of respite.

What is Grounding?

Grounding is a simple practice that pulls you out of the storm by calling forth the calming effects of the parasympathetic nervous system which switches off the fight-flight-freeze response.

It creates space from overwhelming emotions and thoughts by anchoring your awareness and attention into your body.

Grounding will help you snap you back into your body which is the quickest way to pull you into the present moment and out of the corner of your mind where you have been trapped rehashing details of the last moments of your loved one's life in infinite if-only scenarios.

Over the years, I have experimented with many different practices and in this article, I show you the top four which are very effective in anchoring your awareness in the present moment where you will always find a cocoon of safety

4 Grounding practices to bring peace

Usually, the shock of grief takes you out of your body, but once you learn to ground and reconnect to your body, it is easier to find the eye of the storm.

We engage with the world using our senses and you may not know this, but we each have 2-3 primary senses which we use to perceive the world through, and it is grounding practices that cater to these senses that will help you find stability.

Below are four grounding practices that you can try when you feel agitated and revved up to call forth the relaxing and calming aspects of the parasympathetic nervous system.  I have included the different senses which are utilized most in the different practices. Experiment and see what works best for you.

Practice 1: Resourcing using the 3-3-3 rule

Primary Senses: Sight, Touch, Hearing

The 3-3-3 rule uses your senses to help you refocus on what is happening in the present moment where you have the possibility of finding peace from the chaos.

It consists of looking around you whenever you feel agitation and overwhelm approaching and picking out things in your environment.

  • Sight: Scan your environment and name three things you see around you.
  • Touch: Name three things you can feel e.g., your feet on the ground, your clothes against your skin, your hair on your neck.
  • Hearing: Name three things you can hear in your environment e.g., the clock ticking, your breath, the heater humming.

Time: 1 – 5 minutes.

Practice 2: Repetitive Rhythmic Movement

Primary Senses: Touch, Vestibular (movement/balance), Proprioception (body awareness)

Anxiety is often a symptom of a freeze response in the fight-flight-freeze response which engenders a feeling of helplessness like a deer caught in the middle of the road.

Movement serves as an antidote to the freeze state and creates space for the flow of stuck energy. It gives your body a chance to hit the reset button.

Try the different rhythmic movement practices below which regulate the lower more primitive region of the brain (the brainstem), reset the nervous system, and bring your mind and body into homeostasis.

  • Yoga – try performing cat/cow poses, sun salutations, or sitting down crossed-legged, place your hands on your thighs and rotate your body and hips in the clockwise direction.
  • Do 10 jumping jacks, pushups, or burpees.
  • When you cross your arms, it gives you the sense of being cocooned and mimics the feeling of being nestled in the womb. Pair this with a rocking back and forth movement and slow deep breathing.
  • Place your awareness on the bottom of your feet as you press down through the soles of your feet and stomp from left to right. Your feet are your foundation and are the only area of the body that has direct contact with the ground as you stand and walk.

Time: 1 to 11 minutes.

Practice 3: Temperature Change

Primary Sense: Touch

Research shows that immersing your body or parts of your body in cold water also helps to ground and center you by reducing cortisol concentrations in the bloodstream. It also elevates your mood by triggering the release of dopamine.

Experiment with the different practices and pick one that works for you.

  • Run cold water down your arms (elbows to hands) for 30 seconds.
  • Place your feet in the bathtub or shower and run cold water over them.
  • Splash your face with cold water or place an ice pack over your eyes for 30 seconds.
  • 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. This one is particularly helpful with panic attacks.

Time: 30s to 1 minute.

Practice 4: Rhythmic breathing (3-3-3 Pattern)

Primary Senses: Touch, Interoception (internal bodily states)

Breathwork is a powerful way to ground and calm down the sympathetic nervous system and yogis have been doing this for years.

Here is a simple 3-3-3 breathwork pattern that is more accessible during periods of overwhelm than the popular 4-7-8 method which tends to make me more anxious when I try to hold my breath for 7 seconds.

  • Find a comfortable sitting position and place your right hand just above your pubic bone and your left hand on the base of your ribcage.
  • Close your eyes and slowly inhale through your nose for a count of three, hold your breath for a count of 3and then exhale for a count of three.
  • You can add in the different senses in the following way:

Visuals – with each inhale, imagine golden light circulating through your system (breathe of compassion).

Auditory: Instead of breathing in the 3-3-3 pattern, listen to this grounding playlist or create one that is grounding to you.

The key is to observe the breath instead of forcing it with your mind. Make sure you are breathing into your belly versus into your chest.

Stop, slow down and breathe each time you need to feel calm.

Time: 1 minute to 11 minutes.

Rehearse Your Grounding Ritual

Grounding practices are effective when you feel flooded and overwhelmed, but it can help to practice them when you are calm and composed. It is like doing a fire drill before the actual fire.

Remember that it might take some experimenting to figure out the grounding practice that works for you. Don’t be shy in substitution different senses in the different practices.

You can try performing your grounding practices daily to center yourself.

You are safe in your body

You are going through a very difficult moment in your life right now and I want you to know that no matter how agitated, anxious, or out of control you feel, it’s important to know that you can change your arousal system and calm yourself.

Practicing a grounding technique will help you honor the present moment: the helplessness, overwhelm, and agitation associated with the death of a loved one.

At the same time, it empowers you to weather these difficult and painful moments with equanimity.

In the next days or months, whenever the waves of agitation and overwhelm threaten to crash and pull you under, remember that you only need a moment to feel your feet on the ground, breathe deeply and remind yourself that you can find the center of the storm.

Where you will always find safety and respite.

Every storm eventually abates.