Grounding: A Tool to Reduce Overwhelming Feelings

One of the most common tools I teach my clients is called “grounding”. This is a powerful strategy to use if you’re feeling overwhelmed by difficult emotion or anxiety, flashbacks, or unwanted memories. Grounding exercises can be done anytime, anywhere, by oneself, and often without others noticing. Grounding is NOT a relaxation exercise. It is an active strategy that helps your mind connect with more neutral aspects of your external world. By utilizing grounding strategies, it can help you reduce overwhelming feelings so you will be able to cope more successfully.

There are 3 types of grounding exercise: mental, physical, and soothing. It may be helpful to try them all to see which ones resonate most with you. Some guidelines for grounding: keep your eyes open, scan the room, and turn a light on to stay in touch with the present. Try if possible, to stay neutral and avoid judgments of good and bad when describing items. Focus on the present- not the past or the future. By focusing your mind in a calm and neutral way, you may find a decrease in stress, upset, or anxiety. Ideally after doing an exercise, one's mood and anxiety symptoms would improve.

Physical Grounding Exercises - focusing on the senses, most commonly touch. Some examples of physical grounding include:

  • Running cool or warm water over your hands and notice the sensations on your fingertips, your palms, etc.

  • Digging your heels into the floor to literally ground yourself. Notice your heels digging into the ground and how connected you feel to the ground.

  • Clench and release your fists. Notice the sensations of each movement.

Mental Grounding Exercises - focusing your mind, often using distraction techniques. Some examples include:

  • Describe what is around you using all five of your senses. Look around your environment and describe objects, sounds, textures, colors, smells, etc. For example- the couch is grey and firm, the rug is blue and plush. I smell coffee and hear the sounds of traffic from nearby.

  • Play a categories game with yourself. Pick one or two broad categories, something that might be fun to think about such as “breeds of dogs”, “baseball teams”, or “TV shows” and begin to identify all those items in the categories you can think of.

  • Use math. We’re not talking geometry or algebra here- find something simple like counting to 100 backwards or forwards slowly or utilize multiplication tables.

Soothing Grounding Exercises - talking to yourself in a kind and gentle way. Exercises such as this can promote good feelings.

  • Think of your favorite things. Identify some categories such as foods, animals, tv shows, books and identify your top two favorites in each category.

  • Visualize your favorite place. Ideally this is a place that feels safe and soothing to you. This could be as simple as a room in a home, a library, or a beach or a mountain. Focus on everything about the place you love such as sounds, colors, objects, etc.

  • Practice Self Compassion. Identify some kind statements you can say to yourself. If that is difficult for you- imagine you are talking to a close friend or small child- what would you say to them? Then practice saying something similar to yourself: “I’m doing the best I can and that is enough” or “May I be kind to myself” or “you are a good person going through a hard time”.

Grounding exercises can work, but like with most things, it may take some practice and time before you find the right technique. It can be helpful to practice before the emotion or flashback gets too intense. If you wait for the emotion to peak, it may be harder to practice the grounding techniques. Grounding helps to seek a balance of tolerating the emotions and also being conscious of the present reality. This can minimize getting swept up in the pain and intensity of the emotions. The above is intended for informational use and not a substitute for clinical treatment. If you're struggling with big emotions, anxiety, or trauma symptoms, consider reaching out to a therapist for additional support.

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