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Why Grounding Rituals May Be the Key to Navigating Post-COVID Anxiety

Even three minutes a day can help.
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My first introduction to Sadaf Siddiqi was through the Stories she created for @shopcupcakesandcashmere on grounding rituals. A California-based cognitive-behavioral therapist who emphasizes slowing down and finding balance, Sadaf's approach to mental health instantly resonated with our entire team. I asked if she'd write a post for us expanding on the grounding rituals she shared in Stories, and hope you find her words below as helpful as I did! She inspired me to think of my favorite rituals—walking Toast in the morning, making tea after dinner—as necessary, rather than indulgent, and to be more mindful with how I spend my free time. Sadaf is also actively working to decrease the stigma around seeking out mental healthcare in South Asian culture, which she was raised in. Read on below for how to apply grounding rituals to your own life. - Leslie

Last Spring, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I started to notice a trend: My group chats were constantly filled with conversations about how frazzled and fatigued everyone was feeling. At the time, I was also feeling a little off and disconnected from myself.

Between spending way too much time indoors and struggling to live by the “everything in moderation” mindset (especially when it came to diet and exercise), I was constantly overwhelmed without even realizing it. Sometimes, I would watch hours of TV while mindlessly snacking and categorize it as "down time." In reality, I was losing sight of what structured time looks like.

Thinking back, much of this was to be expected, given that the world became a risky and uncertain place almost overnight and without warning. The more that things spun out of my control, the more I noticed myself craving control. I found myself becoming uncomfortable with the unknown and wanting answers that didn't exist yet, like "When can I travel again?" and "How long until I can see my family?" While I’m grateful to have survived 2020, I certainly wasn’t thriving in it.

That is, until I found my footing through the use of grounding rituals.

"Grounding" is becoming a bit of a buzzword in the wellness world and you may have heard your favorite health or fitness instructor talk about it on social media. But what does it actually mean to ground yourself?

Simply put, grounding rituals are practices that you intentionally incorporate into daily life to help you be present and feel a sense of control. They can be almost anything: sitting quietly with a cup of coffee before you start your day, journaling, or even engaging in nature, like gardening or laying in the grass. When performed with regularity and intention, these little moments can bring balance and comfort that you start to look forward to.

You may be surprised to learn that science supports the use of grounding rituals. Studies show that practicing them consistently can help calm your nervous system, especially during times of stress when your emotions are heightened. In fact, people who engage in rituals report less anxiety and even show fewer physiological symptoms of arousal, like heart palpitations.

So, how does this magic happen?

Researchers at Harvard learned that the regular use of rituals serves as a coping mechanism to mitigate loss (of safety, freedom, rest, etc.) by allowing you to have an increased sense of control. The idea is that when you lose external control, you can still feel centered by creating internal control.

There are two important factors that contribute to this feeling of being in control: First, the rituals are chosen by you and provide structure that you personally create; second, the rituals become meaningful over time because they help you connect with yourself, which has a huge impact on your well-being.

You may be thinking that rituals sound a little similar to daily habits, but there’s actually a powerful difference: While both require repetition and structure, rituals are done with intention and purposefully without distraction. When it comes to habits, people tend to engage in them on auto-pilot (e.g., brushing your teeth, getting dressed, even driving to work!) so they don’t always require your full attention—and sometimes they’re an opportunity for you to zone out.

While grounding rituals can lead to moments of joy, it’s important to note that overly ritualistic behavior (which is sometimes linked to a strong need for control) can have a negative impact on your ability to function. This is sometimes observed as symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. In these instances, it’s best to talk to a mental health professional who can guide you to use rituals in healthy ways.

I recently reflected on how I used to doomscroll for hours before going to bed, which led to poor sleep and a lousy start to my morning. After I made this mind-body connection, I started a wind-down ritual where I listened to a meditation while doing my skin care routine before bed; I also began my morning with a warm cup of lemon water before sitting down to go through emails. Both of these practices remained consistent on my otherwise unpredictable days.

In my practice as a psychotherapist, I know where there’s uncertainty, there will also be fear. Many of my clients have shared how anxiety-provoking it is to think about doing things they haven’t done in a long time because of the year-long restrictions surrounding COVID-19. These feelings are completely valid and should be acknowledged.

But the simple truth is that there are always going to be a lot of unknowns in the future, pandemic or not. This is when it’s helpful to understand the effectiveness of rituals when it comes to managing emotions. While I can’t control everything that is (or isn’t) happening outside of me, I can have a powerful impact on the feelings inside of me.

Between early morning work calls, classes, or other responsibilities, I know many of us don’t have the luxury of excess time. I’ve even had friends share with me that downtime feels like a privilege. This is where grounding rituals fit in perfectly. You can create rituals that are three minutes or three hours and the purpose is the same: to help bring awareness to the here and now.

Sometimes, if you’re feeling distracted or overwhelmed, it’s because your mind and body aren’t in the same place. In moments of stress, you may naturally think of your past or worry about the future. Committing to a grounding ritual brings you into the present by requiring your full attention. If you’re inspired to start grounding yourself, here are some steps to get you started:

  1. Set an intention for yourself: Note that this isn’t the same as setting a goal, which is outcome-based and comes with expectations. Intentions are about identifying a principle to guide you to a greater purpose. They can sound like, “I will make my needs a priority today,” “I’m going to let go of what doesn't serve me,” “I want to create an attitude of gratitude,” or “I want to be mindful about what I put in my body.”
  2. Think about when you usually feel the least grounded. Is it when you wake up? In the middle of your work day? Or do you struggle with sleep? Set an alarm for 5 to 15 minutes (or longer, if you’re able to) during this time and reduce distractions around you: Turn off the TV, shut your laptop, put your phone on Do Not Disturb.
  3. Now it’s time to create your very own relaxing ritual! A key tactic here is to make sure it’s simple and something that you actually enjoy. You want it to be manageable and realistic so it’s easier for you to accomplish even on those tough days. It’s a good idea to make the ritual specific: identify what action steps you’ll take and when (e.g., afternoon stretch at 2:30 PM for 10 minutes).

If you’re not sure where to start, here are some ideas to help:

  • Morning walk (my personal favorite because it checks off movement and getting dressed)
  • Meditation (The Headspace or Calm apps are a great place to start)
  • Laying in the grass outside (or grab a blanket and sky-gaze)
  • Growing an herb garden in your kitchen (e.g., picking fresh mint for water/drinks)
  • Coloring or drawing at your desk (a great way to reset between meetings)
  • Journaling before bed (make sure to have a pen and paper ready on your side table)
  • Grooming practices (face-masks, hair care, mani/pedis)

After you’ve committed to a grounding ritual for a while, remember to reflect on what the purpose of it is to make sure it's continuing to align with your needs as you evolve.

Keep in mind that establishing grounding rituals takes time and is something that you have to set an intention for daily. Try to find helpful ways to follow-through with your rituals. Write them down. Tell a friend. Schedule them in your calendar. Adjust your environment to make it easier to do. Whatever you do, make sure it’s good for your being. 

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