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Grounding techniques

Grounding is a practice that can help you pull away from flashbacks, unwanted memories, and negative or challenging emotions.

These techniques may help distract you from what you are experiencing and refocus on what’s happening in the present moment.

You can use grounding techniques to help create space from distressing feelings in nearly any situation, but they are especially helpful if you are dealing with:

  • anxiety
  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • dissociation
  • self-harm urges
  • traumatic memories
  • substance use disorder

Physical techniques

These techniques use your 5 senses or tangible objects that you can touch to help you move through distress.

Feel your body

You can do this sitting or standing. Focus on how your body feels from head to toe, noticing each part.

Can you feel the hair on your shoulders or forehead? Glasses on your ears or nose? The weight of the shirt on your shoulders? Do your arms feel loose or stiff at your sides? Can you feel your heart beat? Is it rapid or steady? Does your stomach feel full, or are you hungry? Are your legs crossed, or are your feet resting on the floor? Is your back straight?

Curl your fingers and wiggle your toes. Are you barefoot or in shoes? How does the floor feel against your feet.

Try the 5-4-3-2-1 method

Working backward from 5, use your senses to list things you notice around you. For example you might start with listing 5 things you hear, then 4 things you see, then 3 things you can touch where you are sitting, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste.

Make an effort to notice the little things you might not pay attention to, such as the colour of the flecks in the carpet or the hum of your laptop.

Mental techniques

These grounding exercises use mental distractions to help redirect your thoughts away from distressing feelings and back to the present.

Play a memory game

Look at a detailed photograph or picture (like a cityscape or other “busy” scene) for 5 to 10 seconds. Then, turn the photograph face-down and recreate the photograph in your mind, in as much detail as possible. Or, you can mentally list all the things you remember from the picture.

Think in categories

Choose 1 or 2 broad categories, such as “musical instruments,” “ice cream flavours”, “mammals” or “football teams.” Take a minute or 2 to mentally list as many things from each category as you can.

Use maths and numbers

Even if you are not a maths person, numbers can help centre you. Try:

  • Running through a times table in your head.
  • Counting backward from 100
  • Choosing a number and thinking of five ways you could make the number (6+11=17, 20-3=17, 8×2+1=17)

Recite Something

Think of a poem, song, or book passage you know by heart. Recite it quietly to yourself or in your head. If you say the word aloud, focus on the shape of each word on your lips and in your mouth. If you say the words in your head, visualise each word as you would see it on a page.

Make yourself laugh

Make up a silly joke like the kind you would find in a Christmas cracker or penguin chocolate bar.

You might also make yourself laugh by watching your favourite funny animal video, a clip from a comedian or a TV show you enjoy, or anything else you know will make you laugh.

Use an anchoring phrase

This might be something like, “I am (full name). I am (X) years old. I live in (city), (Country). Today is (Friday 3rd of June). It is 10pm in the evening. I am laid on my bed. There is no one else in the room”.

You can expand on the phrase by adding details until you feel calm such as, “it is dark outside, but I can still see the sun. It is bed time and I am tired, so I am going to lie down and go to sleep.’

Visualise a daily task you enjoy

If you like drinking a cup of tea, for example think about how you would drink it.

“The mug feels warm in your hands, the tea has smoke coming off of it and the tea moves around in the mug, you hold the cup steady and sit down to relax, feeling the surface of the seat on your bum. You lift the mug to your mouth and sip the tea, gradually seeing the tea going down in the mug,” and so on.

Describe a common task

Think if an activity you do often or can do very well, such as making a drink, playing a game or tuning a guitar. Go through the process step-by-step, as if your giving someone else instructions on how to do it.

Imagine yourself leaving the painful feelings behind

Picture yourself:

  • Gathering the emotions, scooping them up and putting them into a box.
  • Walking, swimming, biking or jogging away from painful feelings.
  • Imagining your thoughts as a song or tv show you dislike, changing the channel or turning down the volume. They are still there but you do not have to listen to them.

Described what is around you

Spend a few minutes taking in your surroundings and noting what you see. Use all 5 senses to provide as much detail as possible. “This bench is brown but the bench over there is green. It is warm under my jeans since I am sitting in the sun. It feels rough but there are not any splinters. The grass is yellow and dry. The air smells like smoke. I hear kids having fun and 2 dogs barking.”

Soothing techniques

You can use these techniques to comfort yourself in times of emotional distress. These exercises can help promote good feelings that may help the negative feelings fade or seem less overwhelming.

Picture the voice or face of someone you love

If you feel upset or distressed, visualise someone positive in your life. Imagine their face or think of what their voice sounds like. Imagine them telling you the moment is tough, but that you will get through it.

Practice self-kindness

Repeat kind, compassionate phrases to yourself:

  • “I am having a rough time, but I will make it through.”
  • “I am strong, and I can move through this pain.”
  • “I am trying hard, and am doing your best.”

Say it, either aloud or in your head as many times as you need.

Sit with your pet

If you are at home and have a pet, spend a few moments just sitting with them. If they are of the furry variety, pet them, focusing on how their fur feels. Focus on their markings or unique characteristics. If you have a smaller pet you can hold, concentrate on how they feel in your hand.

Not at home? Think of your favourite things about your pet and how they would comfort you if they were here.

List favourites

Think of your favourite place, whether this is the home of a loved one or a foreign country. Use all of your senses to create a mental image. Think of the colours your see, sounds you hear and sensations you feel on your skin.

Remember the last time you were there. Who were you with, if anyone? What did you do there? How did you feel?

Plan an activity

This might be something you do alone or with a friend or loved one. Think of what you will do and when. Maybe you will go to dinner, take a walk on the beach, see a movie you have been looking forward to, or visit a museum.

Focus on the details, such as what you want to wear, when you will go and how you will get there.

List positive things

Write or mentally list 4 or 5 things in your life that bring you joy, visualising each of them briefly.

Listen to music

Put on your favourite song, but pretend your listening to it for the first time. Focus on the melody and the lyrics (if there are any). Does the song give you chills or create any other physical sensations? Pay attention to the parts that stand out most to you.

Additional tips

Grounding yourself is not always easy. It may take some time before the techniques work well for you, but do not give up on them.

Here are some additional tips to help you get the most out of these techniques:

  • Practice. It can help to practice grounding even when you are not dissociating or experiencing distress. If you get used to an exercise before you need to use it, it may take less effort when you want to use it to cope in the moment.
  • Start early. Try doing a grounding exercise when you first start to feel bad. Do not wait for distress to reach a level that is harder to handle. If the technique does not work at first, try to stick with it for a bit before moving on to another.
  • Avoid assigning values. For example, if you are grounding yourself by describing your environment, concentrate on the basics of your surroundings, rather than how you feel about them.
  • Check in with yourself. Before and after a grounding exercise, rate your distress as a number between 1 and 10. What level is your distress when you begin? How much did it decrease after the exercise? This can help you get a better idea of whether a particular technique is working for you.
  • Keep your eyes open. Avoid closing your eyes, since it is often easier to remain connected to the present if you are looking at your current environment.

Grounding techniques can be powerful tools to help you cope with distressing thoughts in the moment. But the relief they provide is generally temporary.

Adapted from the Healthline article ’30 Grounding Techniques to Quiet Distressing Thoughts’

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Disclaimer

Please note this is a generic information sheet relating to care at Sheffield Children’s. The details in this resource may not necessarily reflect treatment at other hospitals. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professionals’ instructions. If this resource relates to medicines, please read it alongside the medicine manufacturer’s patient information leaflet. If you have specific questions about how this resource relates to your child, please ask your doctor.

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