Grounding: Taking a Break from Strong Emotions
This is adapted from Seeking Safety: A Treatment Manual for PTSD and Substance Abuse by Lisa Najavits, PhD.
What is grounding?
Grounding is a strategy to help you manage and find relief from difficult or painful emotions. It is a way of shifting your focus away from your internal emotions and focusing on the external world. You can also think of it as “healthy distraction” or “healthy detachment”.
Many people with PTSD or who have experienced trauma struggle with either feeling too much (overwhelming emotions and memories) or too little (numbing and dissociation). By learning to use grounding techniques you can attain a balance between the two – aware of your present reality and able to tolerate it.
Why do grounding?
When you are overwhelmed with emotion, you may need a way to detach so that you can gain control over your feelings and stay safe. Grounding keeps you rooted in the present and in reality. Keep reading to learn some simple grounding strategies that you can start using today.
GUIDELINES TO GET YOU STARTED
Grounding can be done any time, any place, anywhere and no one has to know.
Use grounding when you are: faced with a trigger, having a flashback, dissociating, having a substance craving, or when your emotional pain goes above a 6 on a 0-10 scale. Grounding puts healthy distance between you and these difficult feelings.
Keep your eyes open, scan the room, and turn on the light to stay in touch with the present.
Rate your level of emotional pain before and after to test whether it worked. Rate before grounding and then afterwards on a scale of 0-10, where 10 means “extreme pain”. Has it gone down?
No talking or writing about negative feelings. You want to distract away from negative feelings, not get in touch with them.
Stay neutral – no judgments of “good” or “bad”. For example, “I’m bad at this” or “This is a worthless exercise”. Simply acknowledge the difficulty and move on.
Focus on the present, not the past or the future.
Note that grounding is not the same as relaxation. Grounding is much more active, focuses on distraction strategies, and is intended to help extreme negative feelings.
Types of grounding
There are three different types of grounding techniques – mental, physical, and soothing. Examples of each type are listed below. There are some techniques that will work better for you than others and you may find that you prefer a certain type of grounding over another. Try as many as you can to see what works best for you and PRACTICE AS OFTEN AS POSSIBLE, even when you don’t “need” it, so that you’ll be prepared to use it when you do.
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”.
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: Glide along on skates away from your pain; change the TV channel to get to a better show; think of a wall between you and your pain.
Say a safety statement. “I am safe right now. I am in the present, not the past. I am located in _____. The date is ______.”
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.
Run cool or warm water over your hands.
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.
Jump up and down.
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.
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 “easy”)
Say kind statements as if you were talking to a small child: “You’re a good person going through a tough time. You’ll get through this…”
Think of favorites. Think of your favorite color, animal, season, food, time of day, TV show, etc.
Picture people you care about or look at a photograph of them.
Remember the words to an inspiring song, quotation, prayer, or poem that makes you feel better.
Remember a calm 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 a coping statement: “I can handle this.” “This feeling will pass.”
Plan out a safe treat for yourself, such as a piece of chocolate, a nice dinner, a warm bath, etc.
Think of things you are looking forward to in the next week.
What if grounding does not work?
Keep practicing, as often as you can, so that it becomes more familiar and routine.
Practice faster. Speeding up the pace gets you focused on the outside world quickly.
Try grounding for a LONG time (20-30 minutes). And repeat, repeat, repeat.
Create your own methods for grounding. Any method you make up may be worth much more than those you read here because it is yours.
Start grounding early in a negative mood cycle. Start when you are just starting to notice a change in how you are feeling, rather than waiting until things escalate.
Ask for help. If you find that you are having a hard time practicing grounding on your own or it's just not working for you and your overwhelming feelings are interfering with your day-to-day activities or relationships, it's a good idea to seek professional support.
If you are ready to find relief and regain control over your emotions, feel free to contact me and we can set up an appointment. I'm happy to help.