Deep Grounding for Stress
This week's blog post has been written by Mindfulness Chaplain, Dr Kitty Wheater.
Deep Grounding for Stress
It’s exam season, and there’s a twitchiness in the air. Students are caffeinated and dishevelled, rigid with stress or laconic with resignation. Staff are glassy-eyed and hyper, jumping from one meeting to the next, one pile of scripts to another. It’s always a hectic time, but there’s something about this season that feels different – because underneath, we are exhausted. The big push of Covid, and all its attending disruptions and dead ends, gave way only to the imperative of hybridity: adapt, adapt, adapt. At the end of it all, a body just needs to rest.
Not that you would necessarily know it. As I talk to colleagues who are marking, and giddy with overwork, already there is talk of summer conferences, papers to be written, abstracts to despatch. ‘Are you kidding?’ I want to yelp. I, for one, have never felt less like scheduling weekends in a strange hotel room eating cold croissants for breakfast and balefully watching the sunshine fuzzing and splattering on uncleaned windows. Next summer, sure. But this one? I think we all need extra time at Seton Sands, and sticky fingers from barbecues on the Meadows with friends.
A mind-body goes into a certain place with chronic stress. In the head there is a background like a muffled radio next door, the bass resonance turned up so high that it offends the ears, yet you can’t quite make out the words. The body calcifies into a protective exoskeleton: an armouring of muscles and hardening of soft tissues around neck, shoulders, chest, belly. You can almost sense the shape of the breastplate, but it’s of stressed flesh, not steel. With that nervous energy trapped, things bounce off us with a ‘ping’ and from us with a ‘zing’. We are quick and reactive; irritable, anxious. We block out fatigue, and core feelings – fear, sadness – until they overwhelm us.
It’s a rough state of affairs, and yet this splendid nervous system of ours usually has more fuel in the tank. We can be chronically stressed, and still manage one last push – for a day, a week, or a month. What we can’t do is several last pushes. Mind and body are in debt, strung out on a long chain of credit, and there comes a time when one of the banks says no: you flip, run away, or collapse. So how to intervene? How to keep the chain as short as possible, and minimise the crash, when it comes?
The cruelty of chronic stress is that when we most need to rest, we can’t. Driven-doing mode, the motor in the mind, jumps in with compelling reasons to keep going: problems that need solving now, at 2am; things that will definitely ruin your life; people you have critically offended or wounded. Even those with sanguine temperaments will have periods of wakefulness in the night, and days in the library or at work where they feel fragile, thin-skinned, the armouring worn down by repeated use. The mind may be so churned up, and the neurophysiology of the body so activated, that it takes concerted time and energy to bring it to rest.
In this state, we need grounding, little and often, to allow the great ship of stress sailing blithely on to come to a halt. At a certain point, you will need more than little and often; you will need a few solid evenings, a full weekend, or your actual honest-to-God no-emails no-TikTok no-grant-applications summer holiday. Here are some practices that will help.
1. The Breathing Space
First up, we need a means of pause and checking-in, so that we can see clearly what we’re carrying. The three-step breathing space enables us to step out of automatic pilot, interrupt the spiralling mind, and see clearly in a snapshot what’s present, in mood, thoughts, emotions, and body sensations. You can do it in just three minutes, or make it longer or shorter as you wish.
2. FOFBOC: Feet on Floor, Bottom on Chair
This is my favourite and most effective entry-level grounding practice. ‘FOFBOC’, developed by the Mindfulness in Schools Project, gently brings the attention to the body’s places of grounding and contact: soles of feet, backs of upper legs and sit-bones, and, in some versions, the weight and contact of the hands. You can do a short FOFBOC from me, here. This is a great practice if you’re feeling exhausted, drained, or anxious, as the sensory input at the body’s places of contact helps anchor and settle the attention.
To take FOFBOC a step further, try lying down on the floor, on a yoga mat or comfortable rug. Sense into all the body’s places of contact through backs of legs, the back itself, back of the arms, and back of the head.
You can stay here for just a few minutes, or, on really tricky days, you might settle in. If the latter, take it outside if you can. Feel the ground underneath you, and big spacious sky above.
3. Deep Grounding
If there is a lot of agitation around – and in this season, that will be anything from fear and anxiety, to frustration and anger – we need to go a little deeper, like with this 30-min practice for Deep Grounding.
Sit on a chair or the floor, and sense into your feet and sit-bones, as for FOFBOC. Then, gently begin to press the soles of the feet into the ground, sensing into the contact, and release. Press, and release. Notice the changing sensory pattern of the footprint, through the balls and heels of the feet, and notice how it feels in the body at each stage of the contact. You might even imagine that, with each press, you are allowing the nervous energy fizzing in the body to release down to the ground through the balls of the feet.
At a certain point, you might experiment with beginning to tap the feet, slowly and rhythmically, so that the heels are anchored to the ground, and the feet alternate their tapping. Listen to how that feels in the body; you may notice a sense of release, maybe even an emerging yawn.
If there is still a lot of nervous energy surging – and we tend to find this in the upper body, which is why we develop that muscular exoskeleton – you might gently begin to wriggle the fingers, while you tap. Imagine that that energy might flow and release, through the fingers, into the air.
Listen to the body, as you explore these practices. You may find that you wish to speed up or slow down the tapping, or hold the balls of the feet pressed against the floor for a long while. These techniques are like holding a conversation with the nervous system, in its own language: listen to what comes back, and go with it. It may be that you feel an urge to go for a walk, or to lie down and press soles of feet, backs of hands, and the back against the ground. Explore, and see what helps.
Sometimes, when we really begin to ground and settle after a protracted period of stress, strong emotion may arise. This is very normal; be gentle with it, as it shows itself. It’s simply an unfurling and processing of what has been pushed down underneath, and it will move out and through with gentleness and care. Rest, take breaks, think of sunshine, and prepare to feel better.