GROUNDING: How to resist intrusive or unwelcome thoughts or emotions

What is “grounding” and why is it important in your mental health journey?

Emotional pain takes many forms including hurt, sadness, anger, betrayal, shame, guilt, self-harm impulses and even substance misuse cravings. It is important to acknowledge and connect with emotional pain in order to feel better, but sometimes it can engulf us and make us feel worse or do things outside of our values. 

Feeling overwhelmed by emotional pain can feel out of control and lead to small or deadly consequences. Because of this, we will discuss a useful tool called “grounding”. 

In its simplest form, grounding can be described as a set of techniques to detach from emotional pain. Other ways to describe Grounding include ‘anchoring’, ‘looking outward’, ‘centering’, ‘a safe place’, or ‘healthy detachment’. Grounding puts distance between us and our uncomfortable feelings that can make us act in ways that harm us in the long run.

HOW DOES GROUNDING HELP?

When we feel overwhelmed by emotional pain, it is difficult to be in the present moment. Most of us are either feeling too much (painful memories about the past or crippling fear about the future) or feeling too little (numbness and detachment). Grounding helps us turn our attention outwards, towards a safe and neutral environment, which we can use to anchor ourselves into the present and to reality. 

Tips:

  • Grounding can be used at any time and place, it’s internal
  • People respond differently to different grounding exercises. What works for one person may not work for another. We invite people to trust themselves in the process of figuring out the best strategy.
  • Keep your eyes open (instead of closing them as one would for a relaxation practice) to help anchor you to the present moment and reality.
  • On a scale of 0 to 10 (10 being incredible and overwhelming emotional pain), use grounding techniques any time the pain goes above 6 (when you are faced with a trigger, feel like self-harming, having a flashback, dissociating, trying to resist a substance use craving). Do not wait for the emotional distress to hit an 8 or 9!
  • If you can, rate how intense the emotional pain is before and after the grounding practice to see if it’s working for you
  • Don’t lean into the emotional pain by describing it or journaling.
  • Focus on the present moment
  • Use simple descriptions which do not involve you making a judgement on what you like or dislike. For instance, “I can see a circular vase. I do not like the flowers in it” is not recommended. Stick to “I see a circular vase. I see a circular mirror. I see a circular clock.”

DIFFERENT TYPES OF GROUNDING

Grounding can be approached through different ways – Mental, Physical and Soothing.

Mental Grounding

  • Describe your environment using an adjective/descriptor for every object around you. For example, ‘the purple canvas’, ‘the soft cushion’,’the loud traffic’, etc. 
  • Enlist items of a similar shape or colour in your environment. For example, say out five square things or five blue things you can see around you.
  • Select a colour and identify five things in your environment in that colour. 
  • Go through the steps of an everyday activity in great detail. This can be done for how you make your morning coffee, for example (‘I make my way to the kitchen and switch on the light. I turn on the Keurig. I fill it with water’. And so on..).
  • Play the ‘categories’ game. Try to enlist as many types of cities, dogs, cars, actors, sports.
  • If you feel pulled by memories from the past, make your way to your current age slowly (for example, ‘I am now 16’, ‘I am now 17’, ‘I am now 18’,…).
  • Go through the Alphabet, enlisting an example of a type of object for each of the letters. For example, list out food items or household items corresponding to every letter of the alphabet.
  • Take a book. Think of a number. Open the book to that page number and read out the first sentence. Repeat a few times over.
  • Orient yourself to your time, place and person. E.g. ‘My name is ________. I am safe right now. I am located in _______. The date is ____________.’

Physical Grounding

  • Deepen your breathing, trying to breath through your belly. You can try pairing it with a safe word (such as “calm” or “easy”).
  • Bring into contact the different objects and surfaces around you, describing how you feel them. For example, ‘I feel the hard table’, ‘I feel the cool glass of water’, ‘I feel my soft sweatshirt’, etc. You can even try comparing which object is harder, softer, cooler, and so on.
  • Put your hands under water. 
  • Jump on the spot.
  • Dig your heels into the floor. Remove your shoes to come into contact with the floor. You are literally ‘grounding’ yourself!
  • Rub your hands together to generate heat and put them on your face. 
  • Feel your ‘safety object’ which you may even carry with yourself wherever you go. It can be rock, a piece of cloth, some clay. 
  • Come into contact with different parts of your body by wiggling/moving different parts. You can also describe five different sensations you feel on different parts of your body. For instance, ‘I feel my hair on my neck’, ‘I feel the weight of my body on the chair’, ‘I feel the soft fabric of my jeans’, ‘I feel the cool metal of my ring’, ‘I feel the warm blanket on my legs’, etc.
  • Mindfully eat a food item using all your senses. 

Soothing Grounding

  • Enlist your current favourites. This could be your favourite food, movie, season, friend, time of day, TV show, etc.
  • Breathe in a pleasant smell. For instance, breathing into the pleasant smell of a moisturiser as you apply it on your hands captures both your olfactory and tactile awareness!
  • Say out kind and encouraging words to yourself, like you would to a small child. For example, ‘You’re doing so well to take care of yourself through this difficult moment’.
  • Picture a favourite person or pet or someone you care about.

BUILDING CAPACITY FOR GROUNDING

It is normal for us to respond differently to different grounding practices depending on the situation we are faced with or our preference for different methods. Remember to practise as often as possible. Practising these techniques in moments of regulation can help build our capacity to remember and practise them when we feel overwhelmed or dysregulated. It is helpful to start early into a negative cycle, such as when a self-harm thought or substance use craving arises.  And lastly, be creative with building your own practices for grounding! 

There is no one way to ground. Explore what works best for you.

Thank you so much Geetika for writing this blog post! If you enjoyed reading and learning about how to be more present in your day to day life through grounding, consider booking a session with her!

 

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