by Beth Granet, PsyD
It has been quite the year thus far. We have been flooded with change and forced to adapt quickly and effectively to new rules in a rapidly shifting environment. With the presidential election looming next month, it has been especially challenging to find spaces that are calm and conflict-free. You may find yourself wishing you could remove yourself from your surroundings or even your negative internal experiences now more than ever before. However, many of us have learned that trying to escape our problems is inherently bad and not an effective coping skill. Is that always true? Grounding techniques teach us that sometimes, separating from our unpleasant emotions can be helpful.
What exactly is grounding? Grounding is a term used in the mental health field to describe a specific set of coping tools. Grounding is an umbrella concept for a variety of strategies to use when we need to detach ourselves from our emotional distress for a temporary period. These skills were originally thought to be the most useful for individuals who have experienced a traumatic event. Those who have been through something so jarring sometimes have unexpected panic attacks, flashbacks, or dissociation from their minds and bodies. Although grounding is useful for trauma and the problems associated with it, grounding skills are also helpful for distracting from substance cravings, self-harm urges, sadness, and intense anger. Basically, whenever we are overwhelmed with our feelings or immediate situation, grounding tactics can help distract us in a positive way by anchoring us into the present moment. Connecting with the present gives us time to gain control over our emotions, regain calm, and feel safe and secure.
How do you use grounding skills? Here are some general principles to bear in mind to get the most out of trying to ground yourself:
- Use grounding when you feel infuriated, triggered, need to regain control, have a desire to self-harm or turn to substances, dissociate from yourself, or whenever you are experiencing more intense emotional pain or discomfort.
- You can use grounding tactics regardless of where you are or whether you are alone. They can be practiced without anyone else being aware.
- Try and be as attentive as possible to your present surroundings. Unless you are practicing a skill that warrants otherwise, it is best to keep your eyes open, turn lights on, and scan the area around you.
- Even though you will be immersing yourself with the present, remember that the goal is to still distract yourself from unpleasant emotions. Grounding is not the time to journal, talk things out, or otherwise attempt to get in touch with your feelings. This process can happen after you gained a sense of stability and connection.
- Be mindful of your own judgments. Do your best to stay neutral while grounding instead of judging yourself for feeling a certain way or worrying that you may not be practicing the tactics correctly.
Using grounding is different than meditating or trying relaxation. It is a very active and engaging process. So, now that you know so much about it, how do you do it? There are almost innumerable methods of grounding yourself and knowing which ones to pick can require some trial and error. Grounding strategies can be mental, physical, or geared towards soothing and distracting yourself. Below are a few examples of each:
- Pick an object with interesting features to touch or hold. Some find it helpful to grab an item from the freezer, keep frozen fruit on hand, or use smooth stones. Notice the texture, color, temperature, weight, and as many other characteristics as you can find. Fully immerse your attention into this object or compare it to others around you.
- Find ways to pay attention to your body. Isolate different areas in your mind. You could stretch each body part as slowly or deliberately as you can. Or be mindful of the feeling of your feet inside your socks or shoes. Try clenching and releasing your fists.
- Use your five senses to draw your focus to the present. Pick five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.
- Make it fun while remaining engaged. You can play a category game with yourself. Find five blue things in the room, try to find ten things that are round, think of as many dog breeds as you can.
- Think of the words to an inspiring song, quote, poem, or even remember kind words someone has said to you. Picture people you care about or look at photos of them trying to anchor yourself in positive feelings or past experiences.
- Listen to music that has a calming effect. Plan out the details of a time when you can treat yourself to something you would look forward to such as a nice meal, a bath, an outing with others, or even just time to yourself.
Please know that these techniques only represent a small window into all the ways we can ground ourselves. You can start by trying some of these and seeing which ones help you feel more positive, connected, peaceful, and present in your own body and mind. Just like anything else, grounding works best when practiced often. Do your own research to see other possible grounding strategies or talk to your therapist about their ideas for what might be the most effective ones for you. As we move through our stressful world, remember that it is ok to need a break from it. Grounding allows us to escape our negative emotions in a temporary and healthy way so that we can re-engage with ourselves, our environment, and those we care about most. So at least in this context, being grounded is a great thing!
Of course, grounding is only one way that we can cope with our surroundings and improve our mental health. Given how stressful, confusing, and even scary our realities have been in recent times, it is also important to know when to ask for outside help. If you find yourself struggling with negative emotions and distress, please reach out to us or a local psychology office to talk about scheduling an appointment.
Consider visiting www.psychologytoday.com to find a therapist near you. Or, if you are dealing with more intense or potentially life-threatening feelings, there are also several organizations dedicated to preventing crises listed below:
Talking to an outside source can be a wonderfully effective way to learn other strategies or process recent events. There is nothing wrong with needing extra support, especially during an unprecedented situation. Whether you are feeling overwhelmed by feelings of sorrow and anxiety, or simply just a little extra stressed, employ your coping skills, lean on your community, and take advantage of the resources around you.