If you are as old as me, you might just remember the song “Space Oddity” by David Bowie. Major Tom is an astronaut whose spaceship goes wrong, and instead of panicking when he can’t do anything, he just looks down at planet Earth and admires the blue colour that he can see.
The song starts, “Ground Control to Major Tom”, and it this ground control that I want to talk about today.
Grounding is a useful technique to learn if you suffer from panic attacks. During a panic attack, the primitive part of your brain takes over and puts you into a full blown fight-or-flight mode – even though there is nothing dangerous around. When you are in full fight-or-flight mode, the primitive part of the brain starts to close down anything that is not associated with fighting or running – including the thinking part of your brain. You literally start to find it difficult to think. This loss of control can be very frightening.
There are various techniques you can learn to do that help you regain control and make the experience less frightening. These are known as “grounding”. They don’t immediately remove the panic attack, but they do shorten its intensity and duration.
The idea is that you look, feel, listen etc around you and name things out loud (if possible, or just in your head if not)
Name 5 things you can see e.g. “Tree, car, man, road, sky”
Name 4 things you can feel e.g. “Wall, hand, nose, shirt”
Name 3 things you can hear e.g. “Car engine, people talking, someone laughing”
Name 2 things you can smell e.g. “Car exhaust, perfume”
Name 1 thing you can taste e.g. “Saliva”
You can repeat this as often as you need to.
Explain the panic attack to yourself
Just talk to yourself (again, out loud if possible, but if not, then just in your own head). Tell yourself what is going on, for example:
“I am having a panic attack. A lot of people have panic attacks. It is just the fight-or-flight part of my brain getting things wrong, because it is not an intelligent part of the brain – it is very primitive. The panic attack will last a short while and then everything will return to normal. When I return to normal very soon now, I will be able to get on with my everyday life.”
Play the Alphabet Game
The alphabet game is all about naming countries, animals, towns, foodstuffs, or any other category, starting with A, then B and so on. For example if you chose the category of countries, you might say:
“Albania, Belgium, Canada, D – I can’t think of anything beginning with D, Egypt, Finland …”
And you can see that if you can’t think of anything for one letter – just move on.
The point about grounding is that you do something to regain control of the thinking part of your brain. If you do suffer from panic attacks, it is worth choosing one of these methods and practising at a time when you do Not have a panic attack. When you get used to the technique, it will be so much easier to put into practice when your detect a panic attack creeping up on you.
In the song “Space Oddity”, Major Tom’s spaceship goes wrong and he cannot do anything. His response is a classic grounding technique – he looked at the Earth and noticed the colours he could see there.
If you cannot manage your anxiety on your own, you may like to consider getting help. In my clinic in Fleet, I help people with anxiety. I use solution-focused hypnotherapy to help them get back in control of their lives and get rid of the unwanted symptoms.