- Melanie Lopes, MFT
Staying Grounded: Taking a Break from Strong Emotions
Pause for a moment.
Take a deep breath.
Look around you and notice where you are right now.
Take in the details of your surroundings - the sights, sounds, smells, the temperature, the feeling of your clothing on your skin, noticing where your body is coming in contact with whatever you are resting on. Take it all in.
Welcome to the present moment.
This is just one of many different grounding techniques that can help you find relief from stress and other difficult emotions by pulling your attention away from your thoughts and feelings and into the present moment.
Taking the time to use techniques like this is valuable because when you are experiencing a lot of stress or strong emotions and you don't give yourself a break or a chance to slow down and unwind, your stress levels rise and your nervous system can get overwhelmed. When that happens, you may notice that you either feel more antsy, anxious, on edge, and tense OR you start to shut down, feel fatigued, checked out, depressed, or even numb. And sometimes you might find yourself fluctuating between those two states.
You may find that it’s difficult to think clearly or concentrate, you have a hard time relaxing, or you just don’t have the energy or drive to do much of anything because you feel maxed out and depleted. It can seem like no matter what you do, you just can’t seem to unwind.
Grounding can help you find relief, bring you a greater feeling of calm and stability, and it can help you regain a sense of control over your emotions, rather than letting your emotions control you.
So what exactly is grounding?
Grounding is a coping strategy to help you tolerate stress and difficult emotions when they arise. It is a way of shifting your focus away from your emotions, or putting a healthy distance between you and the difficult feelings. You can think of it as “healthy distraction” or a way to give your nervous system a chance to rest and reset, rather than continuing to focus in on the feeling and getting overwhelmed.
Grounding can be done any time, any place, anywhere and oftentimes you can do grounding techniques without anyone else knowing you’re doing them because the techniques are simple and don’t require a lot of effort. In fact, you may already be doing some grounding techniques when you feel overwhelmed, but perhaps you just hadn’t thought of them as grounding techniques before.
Below are examples of three different types of grounding techniques – mental, physical, and soothing. There may be some techniques that will work better for you and some techniques or types of grounding that you're more drawn to. Try as many different techniques as you can to see what works best for you or create your own methods for grounding. Any method you come up with may be worth much more than those you read about here because it is yours.
MENTAL GROUNDING – Focusing Your Mind
Describe your environment in detail using all of your senses. Describe objects, sounds, textures, colors, smells, shapes, numbers, and temperature. For example: “I’m in a car. There are six windows. This is the chair. The steering wheel is black. The air is cool on my face. I hear the song on the radio…”
Play a “categories” game with yourself. Try to think of “types of dogs”, “states that begin with ‘A’”, “types of cars”, “TV shows”, “writers”, “sports”, “song titles”, “California cities”.
Do a word or numbers game or puzzle.
Describe an everyday activity in great detail. For example, describe a meal that you cook: “First I peel the potatoes and cut them into quarters, then I put them in a bowl with some olive oil…”
Imagine a creative way to move away from your emotions. Change the TV channel to get to a better show; turn the volume down on the emotion; think of a wall between you and your pain.
Read something and say each word to yourself. Or read each letter of a word backwards so that you focus on the letters and not on the meaning of words.
Use humor. Think of something funny to jolt yourself out of your emotional state.
Count to 10 or say the alphabet, very sloooowly. Or backwards.
PHYSICAL GROUNDING – Using Your Senses
5-4-3-2-1 grounding. Name five things you can see, four things you can feel/touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell (or two of your favorite smells), one thing you can taste (or a positive statement about yourself).
Run cool or warm water over your hands or face.
Grab tightly onto your chair as hard as you can.
Touch various objects around you and notice the textures, colors, materials, weight, temperature.
Dig your heels into the floor – literally “grounding” them! Notice the tension centered in your heels as you do this. Remind yourself that you are connected to the ground.
Carry a grounding object in your pocket – an object that you can touch whenever you feel triggered or overwhelmed.
Jump up and down or run in place.
Notice your body – the weight of your body in the chair, the feeling of wiggling your toes in your shoes, the feel of your back against the chair.
Stretch. Extend your fingers, arms, or legs as far as you can; roll your head around.
Walk slowly, noticing each footstep. Feeling your foot hit the ground and the other foot pushing off the ground.
Smell essential oils, flowers, or scents that are pleasant.
Eat something, describing the flavors in detail to yourself.
Focus on your breathing, noticing each inhale and exhale. Repeat a pleasant word to yourself on each inhale (for example, a favorite color or a soothing word such as “safe” or “calm”)
SOOTHING GROUNDING – Offering Yourself Comfort & Calm
Think of favorites or things that make you smile. Think of your favorite color, animal, season, food, time of day, TV show, etc.
Picture people you care about or look at a picture of them.
Remember the words to an inspiring song, quotation, prayer, or poem that makes you feel better.
Think about a calming place. Describe a place that you find very soothing or calm (the beach, the mountains, a favorite room) focus on everything about the place – the colors, sounds, shapes, objects, textures.
Say an affirmation or kind statement to yourself: It’s going to be ok. I can get through this. This feeling will pass. I’m doing my best. One step at a time. I am safe right now.
Treat yourself to something you enjoy, such as a piece of chocolate, a nice dinner, a warm bath, time with supportive people, etc.
Think of things you are looking forward to in the next week.
What if it doesn’t work?
Don’t give up! Keep trying different techniques, and know that grounding doesn’t always provide immediate relief. There may be times when you need to do grounding techniques for a longer period of time (20-30 minutes) before you find the relief you are looking for.
Grounding is a technique that is most effective when you practice early and often.
Start using a grounding technique when you are just starting to notice a change in how you are feeling, rather than waiting until things escalate. Practice grounding often, even when you don’t “need” it, so that you’ll be prepared to use it when you do.
When you are able to manage your emotions more effectively and allow your nervous system a chance to rest and reset, you are able to think more clearly, get perspective, and make sound decisions about how you want to proceed.
You can start to be more present in your life and your relationships and feel more confident in your ability to navigate challenges when they come your way.