How Grounding Techniques Return You to Simple Sanity
A grounding technique is any structured practice that refocuses the mind, so that some unpleasant feeling can be reduced or eliminated and one's sense of what's real can improve. Such practices, usually acquired rather than spontaneously emerging when needed, have great value for anyone challenged with unresolved trauma memories. Fortunately, grounding techniques have value for those without unresolved trauma memories, as well.
Grounding Techniques Shift Your Focus
To become grounded is to become better attached to something. It is simply a matter of focusing your attention. Thus, one might speak of becoming "more grounded in the moment the sun rose over the trees". In psychology, however, we speak of grounding as something we do to solve a certain kind of problem. It usually involves deliberate, methodical attention paid both to objects external to our mind and to our various ways of perceiving them - sight, sound, smell, touch, and sometimes taste.
Generally, the only requirement we make of these "external objects" is that we be able to sense them. Some teachers encourage the use of strong stimuli - like fragrant oils, or certain dried spices place in the mouth, as an aid to shifting focus away from an over-busy and distressed mind to something benign and simple.
In the beginning, such techniques may help one to grasp the exercise, but in the end, I think the quieter things we attend to the more we get out of it. An interesting and important variation on this whole idea, used in mindfulness meditation, is to use our sense of our body and movement to become grounded in the sensation of our own breathing. While this can be significantly more challenging for those with active trauma memory, it is a profound exercise and worth pursuing.
Where Grounding Techniques Take Your Mind
For people with unresolved trauma memory, grounding is about escape - both FROM and TO: escape FROM the noisy mind that we have when our memories are disordered, and escape TO...what? To the other reality - the one outside our mind and its ruminations.
We too easily forget that there really ARE two realities: ours, and that of everything else. We got lost in ours and think it's the whole story. It can be enormously helpful and calming to realize that the hurricane we're experiencing is just between our ears, and not in the room all around us, much less in the rest of the world. You can't know this, or experience this, unless you "come to ground" (another way of thinking about this skill), as bird does when it lands.
The Payoffs of Using Grounding Techniques
But there's much more to this. In the beginning, we, as the novelist Anaiis Nin puts it, "see the world as WE are", rather than as IT is. This distortion is not helpful. As someone recently put it to me, "When I am afraid it is so easy to see all the dangers and uncertainty in the world." This selective view of reality is NOT calming or comforting, and can easily lead us to reach false conclusions about our world and our situation.
So, what happens when we see the world, plain and simple, quiet and unmoving - or moving harmlessly, as in the case of ripples on water or leaves of a tree in a breeze? The process often reverses. Where before we had projected our fear out onto the tree, it now strokes us and engages us in its dance, and we can come to sense a very different rhythm slowly rising in our mind.
In this other reality, by the mere fact of its existence, we can discover something essential that we may well have lost: hope.
If one can have a moment of simplicity like this - simply seeing the soft shadow under the pencil on our desk, simply noticing the gentle whir of the fan in our computer, could we have another such moment, say in 5 minutes? Could we maybe have 2 or 3 of them, strung together? What exactly MIGHT we be able to have?
With this question, a door is opening, a possibility emerging from the haze of our mind: We might change what it's like to be in our own skins. Clearly seen, who in possession, of their thoughtful faculties, would turn away from this possibility, and return to the haze?
Grounding Techniques Give You a Safe Place
It appears that this plain, minimal practice - pausing to ground our awareness in something safe, steady and benign - the simpler the better, can do at least three important things:
- offer an escape from mental noise,
- bring to us the gentle quiet of our immediate world, and
- foster in us a small, bright flame of hope.
We may not get all of this in any given attempt, but that IS some of what's possible, for those who practice and use the skill.
But you need not believe me - you can investigate this for yourself.
Learn More About Grounding Techniques
Boon, S., Steele, K., & van der Hart, O. (2011). Coping with trauma-related dissociation: skills training for patients and their therapists. New York: W. W. Norton. - This is a masterful and essential book for people struggling with trauma and dissociation disorders. It begins with an extended section on learning grounding skills, but it offers much more of great value. Highly recommended.
Cloyd, T. (2013, August 14). How Grounding Techniques Return You to Simple Sanity, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2022, September 29 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/traumaptsdblog/2013/08/grounding-a-profound-return-to-simple-sanity
Author: Tom Cloyd, MS, MA
Thank you so much for this article, so helpful and clear and HOPEFUL.
I had some revelation today that caused me to come undone and it felt scary. I wrote not on my blog but just for myself and I seem to have found the unattended trauma feelings that have continued my disassociation. I wrote through all of it truthfully and poured tears that had been bottled much too long. For me it was not directly about the trauma but what allowed it to happen and be so devastating in my life. I would like to share with you is there an email I can use? This was a profound experience and confirms to me that the "work" is ongoing. But I do not want it to be and that is where the darkness snares me. I am weary and want to be done. I have calmed down now after my husband prayed for me by phone and I took a med to numb me back up but I am grateful to you and others who write what is so important to know about recovering. You have helped me so much.
“When I am afraid it is so easy to see all the dangers and uncertainty in the world.” "This selective view of reality is NOT calming or comforting, and can easily lead us to reach false conclusions about our world and our situation." Thank you
I liked the article very much. My counselor told me look up Grounding Meditation. I don't know how to make it work for me however. For years I thought I was nuts. I had no clue the feelings and thoughts in my head were normal for my condition. I was just properly diagnosed 1yr and half ago. I am 64 now. If I for example relax and stare at the clouds while driving and let my mind go into how pretty they are and totally let go a sudden feeling a doom comes over me and I jerk to alertness. I get scared. My counselor says its the need to be vigilant around me. But my worse problem is at night when I am falling asleep. I cannot fall asleep without meds. As I drift off, I jerk awake with that same feeling. That feeling that has always been with me since childhood and my abuse..that feeling has been death. Its hard to shake. I am going to keep on trying. I am new in my treatment for PTSD. I suppose I need patience. I want to cry sometimes because I no longer feel like I'm crazy and their is someone in my life I can talk too. Off to print your article ..Thanks.
Pam - given my life in recent days, I can certainly relate to your reference to feeling like you're crazy! For many days I've simply had too much to do, and that's why I missed your comment and am only now responding. Please accept my apology!
You refer to "...the need to be vigilant..." That sure sounds like the hypervigilance that we see in PTSD. It's quite possible to have it without having PTSD, as well. I did, but trauma focused therapy fixed that, and it changed my life. PTSD treatment takes a while, but not too long, for most people, and you'll never regret doing it.
Go the distance - get the payoff. You'll be so glad you did. You'll still want to practice grounding, after you're finished. I do! A great skill and I wouldn't be without it.
I wish you all the best.
This is a very helpful post. I had not heard of this explained so clearly. Thank you.
Thank you, Sandra. That means a lot to me. I try hard to make things clear, and, as you can imagine, that can be anything but easy.
Grounding is simple to describe, but actually quite profound. I hope you work on yours (as I do mine) and come to see the rewards. Best of luck!