What are grounding techniques?

Grounding techniques are ways that we can 'ground' ourselves in the present and remind ourselves that we are safe. They can reconnect us with our body when we are feeling out of control and help us to calm down and relax. Grounding techniques can be both mental and physical practices that bring our focus back to the present. The aim is to turn your focus of attention away from the past or current distress, and into the here and now of reality and safety.

When do I use grounding techniques?

Grounding techniques can help us when we are experiencing overwhelming or distressing thoughts, particularly if the distress makes us feel unreal or detached, or it feels like we are in a different situation to where we really are. They can also help if we are feeling anxious or out of control.

When we experience flashbacks, grounding techniques can help us cope by getting our heads out of the past (trauma) and into the present (safety). A flashback is part of the brain's way of working to process trauma so that the experience can be filed away as a past memory rather than a current threat. We can help this process by allowing flashbacks to happen, rather than fighting or avoiding them, and grounding ourselves in the present.

Grounding techniques need to be practiced in order for them to work best. Try out a few different techniques - some may work for you and others will not. Grounding techniques are a very personal thing and only you will be able to find out which ones are for you. 

Some techniques to try:

Tell yourself you are having a flashback or intrusive thoughts and that this is okay and normal.

The worst is over - it happened in the past, but it is not happening now.

Tell yourself:  That was then, and this is now.  However terrible you feel right now, you survived the awfulness then, which means you can survive and get through what you are remembering now.

Look around the room, notice the colours, the people, the shapes of things. Make it more real.

Listen to and really notice the sounds around you: the traffic, voices, washing machine, music etc.

Notice your body, the boundary of your skin, how your clothes feel on your skin, movement in your hair as you move your head, really feel the chair or floor supporting you - how that feels in your feet, your legs, your body.

Clap your hands together - that feeling is in the now, the things you are re-experiencing happened in the past.  That was then, and this is now.

Stand up and put your feet firmly on the ground

Move about: stretch, stamp your feet, jump up and down, dance, run on the spot, rub your arms and legs, clap your hands, walk, remind yourself where you are right now.

Use 5,4,3,2,1:  Think about 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch (and touch them), 2 things  you can smell or like the smell of, and 1 slow, deep breath.

Notice what is right now - and notice how different it is to the distressing memory.

Breathe mindfully. Breathe deeply down to your belly; put your hand there (just above your navel) and breathe so that your hand gets pushed up and down. Imagine you have a balloon in your tummy, inflating it as you breathe in, and deflating as you breathe out. When we get scared, we breathe too quickly and shallowly and our body begins to panic because we're not getting enough oxygen. This causes dizziness, shakiness and more panic. Breathing slower and deeper will stop the panic.

Rub your arms and legs. If you have lost a sense of your body, rub your arms and legs so you can feel where your body starts and ends, the boundary of you. Wrap yourself in a blanket and feel it around you.

Walk, and really think about walking. Notice the way your body moves, how your feet move and feel as you walk, notice your leg muscles, and the way your arms feel as they swing. Notice the movement in your hair, and the sensation of moving air on your skin. Notice the sensations of breathing as you walk.

Describe (and say out loud if appropriate) what you are doing right now, in great detail. Describe doing a routine activity.

Try to think about different things, almost like playing mental games, for example: count backwards in 7s from 100, think of 10 different animals, 10 blue things, one animal or country for each letter of the alphabet, say the alphabet slowly, say the alphabet backwards etc.

Recite something. Recite lyrics to a song, your favourite poem, or a nursery rhyme or story you know really well.

Carry a grounding object with you. Some people carry a stone or other small object, perhaps which has personal meaning, to comfort and touch when you need to.

Ask yourself questions in order to bring yourself into the present. Write down your own questions, for example: 

  • Where am I, right now?
  • What day is it?
  • What year is it?
  • How old am I?
  • Where do I live?

Use Positive Coping Statements. You might prepare a coping statement, for example: "I am (name), I am safe right now, this is just a memory - that was then and this is now. I am in (place) and the date is (date). This feeling will pass". Even just saying your name to yourself may be helpful.

Other things to consider

If you feel comfortable and would like to, let people close to you know about your flashbacks, intrusive thoughts and/or anxiety and how these affect you, so they can support you. That might mean holding you, talking to you, helping you to reconnect with the present, to remember you are safe and cared for now. 

Remember that experiencing a flashback, anxiety or intrusive thoughts can really drain your energy. Take time to look after yourself afterwards. You could have a warm, relaxing bath or a sleep, a warm drink, play some soothing music, or just take some quiet time for yourself. Be kind to yourself.