An FA caregiver answers the query, ‘How can I ground myself?’

This counting technique can be helpful in moments of anxiety

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by Elizabeth Hamilton |

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As I raised the phone to my ear, I immediately heard crying. My friend and former co-worker was on the way to a family emergency and was looking for help. As a social worker, I balance the need to be present in feelings while also knowing that sometimes there is an important task at hand or a role that needs to be filled.

We’ve all experienced moments of processing loss while also needing to make decisions. After allowing some space for my friend’s pain and shock, my response was measured: “Count with me and start with five.”

I’m not an advocate of suppressing emotions, which I think is damaging to mental and physical health. But I do recognize the need to connect with oneself, regulate, and allow emotions to be present without running the show.

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As the mother of an 11-year-old child with Friedreich’s ataxia (FA), remaining present in the here and now while keeping my feelings in check can be an everyday struggle. But because Amelia is watching me, I want to ensure that I am modeling healthy ways of dealing with FA and that we are growing together.

We are hardwired to protect our children. It isn’t something that only our heart demands, it is coded into our DNA. From the moment our children arrive, we are bonded.

Finding out that your child has FA, a progressive and degenerative illness, can’t be summed up in words. It is a “you had to be there” type of feeling that I wish on no parent. Sometimes I don’t need a trigger to feel overwhelmed and anxious. It can just happen on its own in everyday life.

Simple questions

In the exchange with my friend, we walked through an exercise we have both coached others to use when working with clients who are struggling with self-regulation. It can be helpful when working with children, and it’s one of the tools I have taken home to teach my two daughters. I’ve used it so much that I can’t even remember where I learned it.

Google “5-4-3-2-1.” This grounding technique will pop up on several websites.

In moments when anxiousness sets in or on the days when I struggle to self-regulate, I know I need to ground myself. Being connected to my body, the space I occupy, and my senses allows me to be present for myself and others.

It begins, as most things do, with a question (followed by more questions). Here’s how it works:

What are five things you can see? Calmly take a moment and look around you. What do you see? Name them out loud or, if in a public space, in your mind, then describe them. For example, “I see red shoes on my feet, a white wall across the room, a tan chair under me,” and so on.

Next, what are four things you can hear? If needed, close your eyes. The snap of flip-flops crossing a hospital waiting room, the crinkle of paper, and the laughter of a nearby child are examples.

What are three things you can feel? I might note the computer keys under my fingers, the fabric of my skirt, or the socks bunched up in my shoes.

What are two things you can smell? This one can be tricky. Sometimes I breathe in deeply and smell absolutely nothing. But the point is I am zoning into that sense and connecting with it.

What is one thing you can taste? Some people carry mints or gum to help with this question, but it isn’t necessary if it doesn’t meet your needs.

If one of your senses is impaired or doesn’t ground you, just skip it. In fact, sometimes I just name what I can hear or see and that is enough to help me be centered.

A graphic with white type font over a black background. The text reads: "The Five Questions: Breathe deeply and then ask yourself, 1) What five things can you see? 2) What four things can you hear? 3) What three things can you feel? 4) What two things can you smell? 5) What one thing can you taste?"

(Graphic by Elizabeth Hamilton)

This exercise seems simple because it is. I like things straightforward and effective. My days of trying to be one of the smartest people in the room have been replaced by a desire to be effective in how I engage myself and those I love. Life is lived in FA-impacted moments, and I want to live them well.

The next time you feel like you are drowning, the wave of emotions is too much, and the moment too hard, I hope this column comes to mind. By reaching out through my keyboard, I will remind you to take a deep breath and count with me. Start with five.

I dedicate this column to all the caregivers out there who are dealing with hard things. I see you.

Note: Friedreich’s Ataxia News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Friedreich’s Ataxia News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Friedreich’s ataxia.


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