Working through trauma can be scary, painful, and potentially overwhelming. It’s common for people who have experienced trauma to have coped at least in part through some degree of dissociation. While dissociation was necessary for your survival then, continued dissociation, especially forms that are not within your control, is not adaptive once the abuse or other trauma has stopped. Now you have the task of staying present long enough to learn other means of establishing safety in the present. But how does someone who has relied on the automatic survival skill of dissociation learn to do this? Grounding is a skill that can help. In trauma therapy, learning grounding skills so that you can be present enough to develop a whole range of self-care strategies is crucial.
Grounding is about learning to stay present (or get present in the first place) in your body in the here and now. It consists of a set of tools to help you manage dissociation and the overwhelming trauma-related emotions that lead to it. Processing done from a dissociated state is not useful in trauma therapy; neither is it helpful to be so overwhelmed by feelings that you feel re-traumatized.
Grounding techniques can also be useful for those who may not have necessarily experienced past trauma. I recommend using many of these techniques for those struggling with anxiety and with controlling their anger reactions.
Every person is different, and different grounding techniques will work for different people. Some basic internet research and years of experience have led me to compile the following list of grounding techniques. Exploring the pros and cons of various approaches with your therapist can be useful.
- Practice the following sensory exercise:
- Name 5 things you see. (I see a dresser, a bed, and a TV stand.)
- Name 4 things you feel. (I feel the sheets between my fingers, a blister on my toe, the heat blowing from the vent, and a cat lying by my side.)
- Name 3 things you hear. (I hear the rain falling, a baby crying, and cars driving down the road.)
- Name 2 things you smell. (I smell flowers and coffee.)
- Name 1 thing you taste. (I taste the coffee I drank earlier.)
- Bring up today’s newspaper on the web. Note the date and read something fun.
- Read something, saying each word to yourself. Or read each letter backward so that you focus on the letters and not on the meaning of the words.
- Smells are an incredibly powerful way of coming to our senses. If you’re deliberately paying attention to a smell, you’re truly in the present moment. Try to find a smell that has positive associations for you – maybe one that reminds you of happy times, or a smell which you enjoy. Carry it with you and use it to bring yourself back to the present moment if you get caught up in an unwanted memory. Helpful smells might include small bottles of essential oils, perfume soaked on a tissue, whole spices from the kitchen, etc.
- Breathe in a scent not related to your trauma.
- Practice diaphragmatic breathing (“belly breathing”). Trauma survivors and anxious individuals often hold their breath or breathe very shallowly. This in turn deprives you of oxygen which can make your symptoms more intense. Stopping and focusing on deepening and slowing your breathing can bring you back to the moment.
- Practice this relaxed breathing exercise:
- Breathe in slowly and steadily through your nose for a count of 4 – don’t rush this.
- Pause for a count of 1.
- Exhale slowly and steadily for a count of 4. Breathe out gradually; try not to breath out with a sigh.
- Repeat for a few minutes until you notice a change in how your body feels.
- If you get distracted, of if your mind wanders, just bring your attention back to how it feels to breathe in and out.
- Trace your hands around your body and notice its outline. Experience the wonder that is your presence in the world.
- Play a “categories” game with yourself. Try to think of “types of dogs,” “rock musicians,” etc.
- Call a friend and have a chat.
- If you’re feeling stuck, change your position. Wiggle your fingers, tap your feet – pay attention to the movement; you are in control of your body right here, right now.
- Find the rainbow. Look around you and find each color, in order of the rainbow (remember ROY G BIV). Repeat until you feel calm.
- Eat or drink something; notice it. Is it hot or cold? Sweet or sour?
- Run cool or warm water over your hands.
- Hold a small stone, shell, piece of small wood, or worry beads; touch and look at what you’re holding.
- Imagine. Use an image:
- Glide along on skates away from your pain.
- Change the TV channel to get a better show.
- Think of a wall as a buffer between you and your pain.
- Practice a relaxation technique, like progressive muscle relaxation or guided imagery.
- Use distractions like TV or music to settle down.
- Listen to calming music.
- Move to a safe and comforting body position, like leaning against a wall or curling up.
- Use your voice. Say your name out loud or read the first paragraph of a book out loud.
- Utilize a tactile grounding exercise. This can be done by holding an ice cube in your hand, taking a cold shower, or snapping a rubber band on your wrist. Many people find that the discomfort helps them reconnect with the present mement.
- Look at yourself in a mirror and smile, even if it’s the last thing you want to do. Notice how you feel. What can you see? Note any negative thoughts in a diary or journal for later examination.
- Write out what’s going on/what you’re anxious about. Keep writing until you notice a difference.
- Take a shower or bath and notice how the sensation of the water feels.
- Write an email/text to somebody you care about.
- Describe an everyday activity in great detail. For example, describe the meal you last cooked for dinner.
- Imagine yourself in a comfortable, familiar place: notice, feel, and enjoy its safety.
- Take a look outside. Count the number of trees, the number of street signs, etc.
- Exercise. Jump up and down on the spot; do yoga; go for a bike ride or walk.
- Hold on to something comforting – a blanket or a stuffed toy.
- Laugh, even if it’s hard. The act of laughing can break the cycle of despair.
- When less stressed, make a list of things that provoke your anxiety. Discuss with your therapist.
- Lie on the floor with your legs up and against the wall. This is a restorative pose that is beneficial to the health of your heart, giving it a rest so it doesn’t have to pump as hard; it also helps to slow down your heart rate, leaving you feeling more relaxed with a calmer sense of mind. Spend 5 minutes here noticing the natural rhythm of your breath.
- Stretch. Roll your head around; extend your fingers…
- Walk around using self-talk to remind yourself of your name, the date, and the words of a positive song or poem.
- Walk slowly. Notice each footstep, saying “left” or “right.”
- Think of favorites. Think of your favorite color, animal, season, food, time of day, etc.
- Grab tightly onto your chair as hard as you can.
- List 5 really positive things in your life. Put the list somewhere you will see it so as to remind you that there is more to your life than panic and anxiety.
- Write a “grounding statement” to remind yourself that you’re safe; these help to remind us that we are safe in the present when unwanted memories in PTSD make us mentally “time travel” back to the trauma. You can carry the statement around with you and read it if you become upset. Useful statements talk about safety, or remind you of what is different now compared to then. Examples might include:
- It is 2018, and I am safe. My trauma happened a long time ago and I survived.
- My trauma happened in the past, and I am only remembering it now. The memories upset me, but they are just memories; they cannot hurt me.
- Think about your last week. Was there a day you didn’t have as much anxiety? Why? What was different? What did you change or do differently?
- Touch various objects around you: a pen, keys, your clothing…
- Dig your heels into the floor-literally “grounding” them. Notice the tension centered in your heels as you do this. Remind yourself you are connected to the ground.
- Carry a grounding object in your pocket, which you can touch whenever you feel triggered.
- Remember a safe place. Describe the place that you find so soothing.
- Pet your dog or other pet.
- Chew gum. If it’s bubble gum, blow bubbles.
- Stomp your feet on the ground.
- Imagine yourself by the ocean and visualize the waves going in and out.
- Do some gardening, or simply lie on the ground or lean against a solid tree to feel the earth’s solidity.
- Eating foods that are heavy in carbohydrates, such as bread, rice, and pasta can help ground you.