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Anxiety can cause our worst days to exceed expectations, and it can turn our best days into nothing more than a cloud of muscle tension and negative thoughts. To say anxiety disorders like social anxiety can suck the joy out of our lives is an understatement, and if you’ve ever tried to control your anxiety, you know exactly how impossible that task can be without the proper tools.
Tools and techniques can become hyped as everyone tries the latest “cure” for anxiety — and if you’re on trend, you may be asking “what is the 333 rule for anxiety” and how is it different from all the others?
If you have chronic anxiety, you know that there’s no silver bullet or magic password to make it go away. You can’t rub your temples to cure anxiety anymore than you can send it packing by eating superfoods — it’s never that easy. So you’re right to be skeptical that some triple-threat system, or “rule” in this case, could ever make anxiety go away.
But we’re not here to get your hopes up — we’re here to deliver facts. And the fact is that the 333 rule, with practice, has the potential to help some people deal with common anxiety symptoms and panic attacks.
Are you one of those people? Let’s find out. We’ll walk you through what you need to know about the so-called “333 rule for anxiety,” and you can decide for yourself whether it’s worth trying the next time you feel the tension rising.
The 333 rule is one of the many entries in a collection of anxiety-busting strategies called “grounding techniques.”
Grounding techniques, according to the National Library of Medicine, are a skill-based system for responding to both chronic and occasional anxiety. With these systems, you “ground” your feelings back in the present moment, rather than letting them continue to spiral into the panicked “what if” direction.
Grounding techniques are useful in a variety of conditions. For instance, they’re a great strategy for helping people who experience dissociation or trauma focus away from the overwhelming memories or emotions that can cause episodes, and back to the here and now.
You’ve possibly seen this play out in TV and film, where the person in distress is asked to describe where they are, explain how they feel and calm themselves with deep breathing techniques or other body position techniques like literally putting their feet on the ground.
But unlike the “do you know what day it is” questions that are used to assess whether a person has a concussion, the answer isn’t for the first responder’s benefit — it’s for the patient’s.
The 333 rule for anxiety has three components designed to ground you in the moment and space where your body is currently. It uses a sort of “I spy” technique to take your focus off of the anxious feelings or intrusive thoughts that are currently at the helm in your head, and return you to the space where you’re sitting, standing or lying down.
Here’s how to do it:
Scan your space for three objects and study them.
Scan your space for three sounds and listen to them.
Select three body parts and move them.
The ultimate purpose of these three actions is to reconnect you with your environment and your body. Looking at three objects in your field of view helps you interact with your environment visually, listening to three sounds connects you auditorily and finally, you retake control of your own body as you exit your anxiety attack.
That’s just one benefit that grounding techniques like the 333 rule can provide — in fact, they can do several things for a person in mental or emotional distress.
Here’s the good news: it doesn’t matter what you select for any of these steps. You might select three things outside a window, three objects on your desk, three lamps in a crowded space or three cocktails at a bar. The point is to examine them as if you’ve never seen them before. Study their texture, estimate their weight — interact mentally with them in a fresh way.
Likewise, you can listen for whatever sounds feel comfortable and easy for you. You might listen to rustling leaves through a window and the gentle hum of a fan or heating unit. You might listen to the rustle of papers coming out of a printer. You can even make noises with the things in your pocket or your clothes if you wish.
And the body parts that you select to move? They can be small or large and the movements can be small or large. You might wiggle three fingers or kick with both legs and throw your arms in the air. It’s all up to you — whatever feels comfortable.
Your sense of touch, sense of sight and sense of sound can all lead to a new sense of calm. Some people might even want to engage their nose in this sensory activity and smell things in the environment around them, though that would make this a 3333 rule, or a 444 rule.
The 333 rule is like any other grounding technique, as its purpose is to get you back to the present and out of your own head.
How you get there may be a little different than with other grounding techniques — you may go slower, or you may find that your movements need to be bigger or smaller. Regardless, the benefits of doing it to calm yourself will be the same as any other grounding technique.
Grounding techniques ultimately do several things for our minds:
Return us to the present moment
Stop us from spiraling or looping around unwanted thoughts in our heads
Reduce the immediate symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder and panic
Prevent responses to distress, like dissociation, and help snap you out of it
To boil them down to their core benefit, though, grounding techniques are really so beneficial because they do one thing: create distance between you and your anxiety or distress. By the time you’re done with a grounding technique (regardless of how many steps it takes), your anxiety symptoms should be on the wane, and your calm and control should be slowly returning.
We’ll be the first to admit this: the science on grounding techniques is seriously lacking, mostly because researchers hadn’t given serious time or thought to the connection between the brain and body for conditions like anxiety.
As recently as 2013, experts were pointing out that further research was needed to begin understanding the cognitive benefits of grounding techniques. Nearly a decade later, we still don’t have a substantial body of evidence.
Systems like the 333 rule haven’t undergone controlled studies, so we can’t recommend one grounding technique over another with much confidence — there are just too many questions.
But grounding techniques are being shown to benefit everyone from people with panic disorders to Alzheimer's patients with insomnia (although this study was very small).
Of course, grounding techniques provide short-term benefits, not long-term solutions.
Treating anxiety with grounding techniques is a little like replacing a flat tire with the spare from your trunk — these days, those spare tires aren’t really designed for much more than limping your vehicle to a service station. It’s kind of the same with grounding techniques.
They’ll get you through an incident, but they don’t really manage your anxiety in ways that will improve your life measurably. And failing to manage anxiety long-term can make things worse for people with anxiety, regardless of their form of anxiety disorder.
Experts generally agree that the right moves when seeking meaningful treatment include lifestyle changes, therapy and sometimes medication. That may look different from person to person, and so your exact modes of treatment will be based on your unique needs.
You can learn more about these options from our guides to anxiety treatment, therapy and medications for anxiety in our mental health resources.
But take one more piece of advice from us, while you’re grounded: talk to a mental health professional. A professional (like the ones you can contact through our online therapy platform) will be able to better assess your unique needs, offer medication and therapy tailored to your unique needs, and help you practice and perfect the grounding techniques that can help you and your unique brain better work together, not against each other.
We’re available 24/7 to help, so reach out today and lift your mental health off the ground.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.
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