Maybe it's a cup of coffee first thing in the morning or scrolling through social media before bed. Your go-to daily ritual may even be an hour of reality TV each day (guilty). But how often do you set aside time to intentionally de-stress?
Just five minutes of "me time" each day can help you ground your thoughts and emotions. Even mental health professionals need some daily stress-relief rituals. Next time you're feeling overwhelmed, ground yourself with one of these six therapist-approved practices.
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1. Pretend You're in a New Mind
A big part of staying grounded involves approaching your emotions and mindset from a neutral perspective, explains Milica Popovic, LCSW, a trauma therapist at Compass Health Center in Chicago. Taking some time to perform mindfulness activities can help you do so.
One mindfulness practice she recommends is to imagine you're inhabiting a completely new mind. "Pretend you are an alien that has come to this earth for the first time," she says. "Or, imagine you are being asked to describe to someone something they have never seen before like a pen, your cell phone or what you see outside."
Calling such close attention to the details of the settings and objects around you can help draw your mind away from the stress you're feeling. Ultimately, this can help you feel more grounded in the current moment, she says.
2. Schedule Mental Free Time
Although it may sound like an oxymoron, being regimented with your free time can help you de-stress, suggests Aimee Daramus, PsyD.
Whether it's in the morning or at night, actively scheduling even just five minutes of mental free time is a great habit to add to your daily ritual. Just as you would organize a meeting in your calendar or phone, include this little bubble of free time to think about anything that relaxes you.
"I make a little time for just pacing and thinking about whatever I want," Daramus says. "It's fun, and it reminds me that 'non-productive' time is still valuable creative time."
3. Complete the 5-4-3-2-1 Activity
When she's feeling overwhelmed in a moment, Popovic steps away and grounds herself with this 5-4-3-2-1 mental technique.
First, step away from your laptop, phone or whatever may be causing you stress. Take a deep breath and (mentally or aloud) name five things you see around you. Then, put a hand on four things you can touch. Pause and name three things you can hear. List two things you can smell. Finally, note one thing you can taste (even if it's just your own coffee breath).
As you perform this routine, go as in-depth as you'd like. You can simply list the items or describe them fully, she says. While it may seem simple (or even feel a little odd at first), it can help you focus on the present moment.
4. Do a Mini-Workout
Both Popovic and Daramus recommend a burst of activity to force you to focus on the task at hand. While Daramus loves a high-energy cardio session after a long day of work to blow off some steam, even just 5 minutes of exercise can help you re-focus, Popovic says.
If you're feeling frustrated after, say, a long meeting, consider holding a wall sit or plank in minute-long increments. Lift a heavy object for a few reps or do a quick anxiety-reducing yoga flow.
"We don't want to increase the physiological symptoms of anxiety like increased heart rate or tightness in the chest," Popovic says. Rather, doing any of the exercises above (or others you like) for just a moment can help you recalibrate.
5. Try Breathing Exercises
Alongside mindfulness practices, Popovic loves to use paced breathing to bring herself back to the present moment.
"The intention is to tap into our breath as a way to help slow down our breathing and heart rate in an effort to signal to our brain that, despite the symptoms of fear, stress or anxiety, we are in fact OK and safe," she explains.
If you like a more regimented breathing exercise, try box breathing: Breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts, exhale for four counts and hold for four counts. Repeat this sequence for several minutes and focus on slowing your heart rate and clearing your mind.
When she's feeling a little more creative, Popovic also enjoys color breathing. Here's how it works: Think about inhaling calming colors and exhaling distressing colors. Imagine the colors that bring you joy and peace as vividly as you can. As you exhale, expel the shades and tones that you find unappealing.
6. Spend Time With Your Fur Baby
Every morning, Daramus devotes a few minutes for quality pet time, giving her cat some extra TLC and belly rubs.
While you should give your pet attention throughout the day, scheduling five minutes of intentional play time will help you focus your attention on something other than your emotions.
Petting an animal may even have some physiological benefits, too. After 10 minutes of play time with furry friends, students in a June 2019 study in AERA Open experienced momentary stress relief and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than students who merely watched a slideshow of cute animal photos.
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