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Ways to Center Yourself (that don't involve guided breathing)

Anxiety, Coping Skills
7 min read

Guided breathing is a good way for some folks to ground and center themselves in times of distress. For others, it can induce feelings of anxiety, cause frustration, and negatively impact the way people view centering/meditation altogether. It’s important to know that there are tons of ways you can regulate yourself that don’t require guided breathing at all.  

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) uses the acronym TIPP as a way to remember helpful grounding skills when you feel overwhelmed. 

- Temperature Change

- Intense Exercise

- Preferred Sensory Aid

- Paired Muscle Relaxation

Check out these skills and see what works best for you so that you can feel prepared next time things go awry:

Temperature 

Drastically changing your internal body temperature allows your nervous system to reset. Have you ever dove into a pool and noticed an instant calm arise? You probably activated your mammalian diving reflex. All mammals can activate this by submerging the cheeks and eyes in very cold water, paying special attention to the area right under the eyes (You can hold your breath to get an added effect, but this isn’t necessary). The sensation of the cold sends a calming signal to your parasympathetic nervous system and allows your body to relax. 

Some ways to quickly change body temperature are -

  • Sticking the face in a cold bowl of water, paying special attention to right under the eyes
  • Running the hands under very cold or very warm water (as tolerable)
  • Taking a very cold or very warm shower (as tolerable)
  • Holding an ice cube in your hand 
  • Chewing on ice 
  • Placing an ice pack over the eyes, covering the under eye, if possible
  • Holding a warm drink

Intense Exercise

Are you feeling low energy, embarrassed, or depressed? It could be helpful to engage in intense exercise for a few minutes to raise heart rate and increase the flow of dopamine, a neurochemical that can improve mood. If you’re feeling very anxious or overwhelmed with anger, engaging in intense movement allows your body to expend or “use up” some of that energy that feels all-consuming. Here are a few movements you may want to try.  

  • Running in place for 30 seconds
  • Engaging in jumping jacks for 30 seconds
  • Moving through stretches for different parts of the body
  • Taking a brisk walk (bonus points for getting outside - this can naturally aid in reduction of blood pressure and improved mental clarity)
  • Make sure to notice how your body feels and stop before you push past your limit. Remember to make sure you are breathing - you don’t have to breathe in any certain way but ensuring oxygen flow during movement is important. 

Preferred Sensory Aid/Paced Breathing

Traditionally in DBT, the first “P” stands for paced breathing - inhaling and exhaling deeply to induce relaxation. For the purposes of this piece, we’re going to shift this to Preferred Sensory Aid. All people have sensory preferences, or certain likes and dislikes around sensory stimuli - sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Getting to know your sensory profile better could aid in supporting you with calming down next time you feel overwhelmed.

Questions to consider are:

  • What relaxes me visually? What feels visually distressing? 
  • Which sounds are calming to me? Which feel like “too much”?
  • Which scents relax me? Which scents are overwhelming?
  • What tastes do I really enjoy? Which do I not prefer?
  • What feels good to the touch? Which textures feel “weird” or uncomfortable? 

After answering these questions, you can bring along one or multiple “preferred sensory aids” to support you the next time you are feeling stressed. For example, if you love the smell of vanilla, the sight of your cat, and crunchy food textures, you might consider packing a kit with vanilla essential oil, crunchy chips, and a picture of your cat to bring with you next time you are out and about. 

Paired Muscle Relaxation/Pressure

Paired muscle relaxation is the practice of associating relaxation with contracting and relaxing the muscles. You can move through each of the muscle groups in the body by starting at the feet and moving to the head or going in reverse, moving from head to feet. Either way, it’s important to slow down and notice how the contraction and expansion of each muscle feels.

  • Starting at the feet, begin by squeezing your toes, holding for a second or two, and internally or externally saying to yourself, “Relax.” Then, allow all of the muscles in the toes to fully release. 
  • Moving up to the entirety of the foot, squeezing tightly, noting to yourself, “Relax,” and releasing completely. 
  • Now focusing on the ankles and repeating the sequence. 
  • Moving up to the different parts of the legs and abdomen.
  • Continuing to contract each part, noting to the muscles to “Relax”, and fully releasing the chest, arms, and shoulders.
  • All of the way up the neck and muscles in the face, tightening everything and completing relaxing. 
  • Tightening the tongue to the roof of the mouth, saying “Relax,” then releasing the tongue back to its resting place. 
  • Lastly, practice contracting ALL muscles in the body, saying a final “Relax” to the Self, and letting everything go. 

If it feels good, you can practice inhaling and exhaling with each contraction and release. But remember not to stress the breathing, just find a comfortable pace that works for you. 

Notice how you feel after the entire exercise. Has anything changed?

If paired muscle relaxation feels like too much to do in the moment, intense pressure may also provide a calming effect when overwhelmed. You can achieve the feeling of intense pressure through: 

  • Lifting something heavy
  • Sitting under a weighted blanket
  • Having someone close to you give you a tight hug
  • Holding weights in the hands
  • Standing on your toes, holding for 3 seconds, then dropping your heels to the ground, noticing your body weight moving into the Earth


Remember, it’s important to practice these skills often while not in crisis in order to better lean on them when in distress. Try it now - pick two exercises to try. Notice how you feel before beginning the skill and pay special attention to how you feel after. What changes can you observe in the body? Have your thoughts shifted in any way?

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About the author: Chelsea Cummings is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor Associate (LCMHCA) and Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC) from Asheville, NC. She specializes in working with folks who identify as neurodivergent and supports people in cultivating healthy, creative, and resilient minds. Learn more about her specialities, read more of her content, or get in touch by viewing her Frame profile here.