How to Ground Ourselves in Times of Stress and Crisis: Simple “Top Down” Thinking Strategies to Center and Stay Afloat
“It is completely understandable that you’re feeling this way right now.”
Imagine—truly— if in our most stressful moments, someone said these simple words to us. Can you feel a sense of relief? The profound exhale?
Empathy, whether from ourselves or someone else, is the most powerful “top-down” reset when we are feeling stressed.
In turbulent times, whether the turbulence is coming from our own lives, events in the world, or a combination of both, it is completely understandable and to be expected that we would be feeling stressed and on edge. But with the constant hum of life, the ambient expectations are to act like everything is fine, and there’s a mismatch of inner and outer reality and our nervous system knows it. Feeling like we are wrong for how we are feeling whether we are saying that to ourselves or are responding to an imagined or stated judgment by others adds an additional layer of stress. Removing those expectations and trading them out for understanding is a powerful shift out of fight or flight to connection and recovery.
Connecting with ourselves in the midst of stress: Support your feelings.
I’m upset and that’s OK vs. Don’t be upset, it’s just…
Whether we are overwhelmed and frightened about the uncomfortable physical symptoms of stress, or responding to heart-breaking news on our phones, words of acceptance and support are like a “first aid” intervention for our nervous system. The first and most powerful “top down” strategy to ground ourselves is to edit with empathy—add in “and that’s OK” to whatever we are feeling. Which is very different from saying we’re fine! These words and ideas locate us when we don’t even know where we are.
We call this a “top down” strategy because the cognitive frame speaks to the brain (top) which then “notifies” the rest of the body that we are not in danger. If we can talk about what we’re feeling, narrate the situation, then we aren’t in reaction mode. Instead of spiraling further into a fight or flight rush of anxious, catastrophic, or self-blaming thoughts and the cascade of physical symptoms that can accompany them (heart racing, shallow breathing, mind blanking, adrenaline coursing through our veins), those reassuring words like a lighthouse, beams safety in a morass of fear and darkness, a signal that we are OK even when we aren’t feeling that way.
“Bottom up” strategies to calm the body are essential too, often a crucial first step before we can get to thinking strategy strategies; you can find many quick ideas in this blogpost here.
Here are some other top-down strategies to try when we’re feeling anxious and overwhelmed.
Fight or flight is automatic, it’s not our fault. We can choose where to go next
Feelings sometimes seem like emergencies that need to be stopped or fixed right away. We need to identify the top down “toggles” and strategies that are effective in shifting us out of emergency mode. The more we know and practice the toggles that work best for us, the faster they work. In fact, simply knowing where to go next helps us feel less lost and more prepared.
Have compassion not judgment for yourself: Don’t ask the “why” questions
It may sound obvious, but often when we are in a state of emotional and physical overwhelm, our initial response isn’t to be compassionate with ourselves, it’s judgement and fear: What is wrong with me? Why am I doing this? Why can’t I make it stop? The significance of this goes beyond simply the harm of not being nice to ourselves. Responding to a feeling of inner something is wrong with more feeling that something is wrong, more uncertainty keeps the fight or flight response engaged and keeps the anxiety spiral going. Instead, you can be compassionate, which sounds like this: “This is really hard for me right now. I am going to help myself however I can.” “It’s completely understandable that I’m feeling this way. It makes sense. I’m wired to respond this way. It’s automatic. My brain is trying to protect me, it’s understandable but not a helpful response right now. There are things I can do to help myself do a reset.”
Notice what you are feeling and name it: As disconcerting as it may feel to be in a state of panic—it’s more disconcerting to be so consumed by emotional overload that we don’t even know what’s we’re feeling. Naming what’s happening engages your prefrontal cortex—the thinking part of your brain, rather than your limbic system (your threat reaction). Saying for example, “This is grief, or this is panic, this is anxiety, and it’s OK to feel that,” locates you out of the spin of adrenaline and cortisol and puts you in your “right mind.” It helps reinforce that this isn’t an emergency, just a feeling—even if it’s a difficult one.
To say we need to tell ourselves what we are feeling when every fiber of our being is feeling it may seem oxymoronic or unnecessary, but feeling and saying what you’re feeling are not the same thing. That’s why neuroscientists and trauma experts have the tagline “name it to tame it.” It is in the act of naming—in saying the simple words—that we are describing the feeling, rather than just being the feeling. We then are outside of ourselves. We have an observer. This creates distance and helps the shift out of emergency mode: “I am so distracted. I am so upset. I am feeling devastated.” When we understand why we are feeling panicked—it grounds us. We are observing chaos rather than being the chaos.
Edit your self-talk: Even in times of distress and crisis, anxiety amplifies uncertainty and threat speaking in the language of absolutes: Everything is awful, nothing is safe, nothing is OK. Accept that this is 100 % how you are feeling but edit in phrases to make the statements more accurate: I’m feeling like everything is awful. I’m having the thought that nothing is safe. My mind is saying nothing is OK, but I know that’s a thought and not what’s happening.
Consult your inner advisors: Whether you are in panic or distressed, we can get acceptance and perspective, even if we are alone. With an exercise I call “The Possibility Panel,” we can use our imagination to summon the support and consultation of trusted advisors in difficult moments—without them even knowing. Start by choosing four people you admire, real or fictional: His Holiness the Dalai Lama, your wise grandmother, your first-grade teacher. In your mind, imagine their kind faces looking in your eyes. Ask them for help—what do you think? What should I do? Let their “borrowed” perspective guide you.
Use Visualization: Use your imagination to immerse yourself in a scene that is calming to you and you begin to shift your inner experience from stress to calm. Perhaps it is walking through a garden—what do you see, smell, feel along the way, or you’re at the beach hearing the sound of the waves, feeling the sun, and the sound of seagulls. Maybe you’re imagining the gentle rocking of a hammock, the majesty of a heron in flight, the slow unfolding of a lotus blossom, one petal at a time. It doesn’t matter what you picture—whatever is most calming to you. Let your shoulders drop and your breath be soft and slow as you go deeper into the calming scene you are summoning.
Distraction and compartmentalization are not only good for you, they’re essential: This is not a contradiction. Distraction is an excellent “Step two” after step one: noticing and calming ourselves, then we actively decide to not engage in what is disturbing to us. Creating psychological distance and taking breaks is especially important in an ongoing crisis or stressful situation. Rather than having 24-hour access to worry, you can set up regular appointments with yourself to check the news or fully listen to your fears. If thoughts come outside of “business hours” cultivate the practice to make those thoughts wait till their appointed time. This will help restore a sense of control.
We do best finding our way back to center, especially in times of turmoil, when we have a roadmap. Keep your strategies near at hand, put down your phone, look around at the people in your life, the trees out your window, your loyal doggie by your side, or the panel of people your mind’s eye can conjure whom you know have your back. We are not alone.
Here’s to peace in this world, and as always, here’s to less worry all around.
©2023 Tamar Chansky, Ph.D. Originally posted on Psychology Today