Grounded in Gratitude

I am not a well-traveled person. But, as a youngster, we moved around a good bit, and from wherever we landed we traveled each summer to New York to visit my maternal grandparents. I remember the sights and sounds of those trips, particularly the hushed voices of my parents in the dark as my father drove all night while my four siblings and I slept in the back of the station wagon. Driving across bridges and through tunnels was always my favorite part of the trip; though I sometimes found myself holding my breath or gripping the door handle until we had crossed whenever I thought too much about what we were actually doing -- our car magically suspended over a great expanse of water, or burrowing deep underground. Bridges, though sometimes a little scary, were exciting as they often meant welcomed progress; a new city or state notched in our belt as we longed to be “there.”

From an early age my youngest child has been completely terrified of bridges. In Alabama, we lived near a river that had to be crossed several times a week, and as we approached the bridge, her fearful cry would begin until I remembered to stretch my hand into her car seat behind me and hold her hand. She no longer cries, nor wants her hand held, but a genuine fear remains.

The two of us took a road trip a year ago to the funeral of a dear friend in Alabama. As we neared Memphis, the old bridge on Highway 55 rose out of the water eager to carry us across the mighty Mississippi and welcome us into Tennessee. I looked over to reassure her and immediately experienced the onset of a panic attack myself. I have not had a panic attack in over 30 years and to my knowledge, never because of crossing a bridge. But there it was. I don’t know what I thought was going to happen, but I was certain we wouldn’t make it across.

Once we were safely in Memphis, the immediate realization we would have to return in a few days caused more panic. The feeling of panic was overwhelming. If you have experienced a panic attack, you know what I mean. On the return trip, I once again panicked and was convinced I would have to limit my future solo traveling to points west of the Mississippi, or at least steer clear of the Memphis bridge.

Then my grandson and his parents moved to Memphis. The whole family traveled together this summer to see them over the Fourth of July. I didn’t drive while crossing the bridge. We ended up on a different, newer bridge, and the panic didn’t even make a peep. I began to think it might be possible to make the trip alone in September for Ezra’s second birthday.

In August, though, my daughter and I set off together for south Alabama and my parents’ home for a mini vacation. Exhausted, we began winding down our first day’s travels, looking to spend the night in Vicksburg, Mississippi. We were rechecking our Hotels.com reservation on our smartphone when we were ambushed by the Mississippi River. I could feel the unwelcomed panic welling up in me. So it wasn’t just a one-time thing (panic attacks rarely are) and it wasn’t only the scary Memphis bridge.

I immediately remembered having just recently seen a post on Facebook about how to avoid or subdue panic attacks. I had not clicked on the link, so had not actually read the post, but had seen enough to get the gist of it, and knew it was at the moment my only ammunition. It involved naming things you could see and hear and touch and smell and taste. I hurriedly explained the process to my daughter and began randomly naming all sorts of those things, in no apparent order. And it worked. At the time I didn’t know how or why, but it worked. And a week later it would carry us panic free back over the bridge as we headed home.

I found the Facebook post when I got home and also googled the concept. It is part of a method known as grounding, and is called the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise. It is simply this: As you begin to panic, name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste. It is particularly effective in those who experience the symptom “derealization,” a feeling of being disoriented. By connecting with reality, what is actually happening in the here and now, a person can regain his mental focus.

Sometimes, I lose my mental focus in my everyday life. I need grounding. In my attempts as a community coordinator, or even just as a child of God trying to love my neighbor well, I can experience anxiety. We all can. This thing called hospitality, opening our doors and eventually our hearts and making room for others – especially others not like us -- can be scary, and tiring and even painful. In their book, Radical Hospitality, Father Daniel Homan and Lonni Collins Pratt remind us that gratitude is at the center of a hospitable heart and that anxiety, as it is worked through, can prepare you for gratitude. They go on to say that gratitude happens most often during “suffering, loss and really hard stuff. It is the leading edge of joy.’

When we experience doubt and begin to panic, wondering if we are going to make it, whether we are doing this thing right, or whether our efforts even matter, we need grounding; a grounding in gratitude. We need the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise.

Look around and see the faces of five people you want to know better.

Think of four people who have shared their stories that have touched and humbled you. Listen and remember the words of three people who have encouraged and blessed you. Name two smells that remind you of time spent with a neighbor -- and they can’t both be cups of coffee.

Recall the taste of the most recent meal you shared with a friend or neighbor.

This is not just an imaginative exercise. You truly are grounded in the lives of the people around you. Remind yourself of that when the stress and panic come too close, and you’ll be ready to drive over the bridge and on down’s life’s highway.