In this section …
Grounding is about separating the present from the past, and choosing to stay in the present. When you are grounding, your are using your most sophisticated thinking skills to focus your attention on the present. Using the parts of your brain that coordinate high level thinking shuts off your fight-flight-or-freeze response, and helps you to stop dissociating and be consciously in the present.
If you are connected with the present moment, you are more likely to stay calm, and less likely to slip into a flashback or a dissociated state. Grounding is an active and deliberate form of mindfulness, in which you use your present experience to block out an intrusive memory or a dissociative episode.
Grounding is different from normal mindfulness, in which you allow whatever comes to mind to be registered by your attention, but you guide your attention towards something you chose to focus on, like your breathing. With grounding, you are deliberately re-orienting your attention away from memories of past experiences by giving your full attention to the present. If you are struggling with trauma symptoms and dissociation, then it is not always wise to let your mind focus on whatever comes up.
How Do You Do It?
To ground, you use your five senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, and especially body awareness or touch). To connect with the here and now, you want to do something that brings all your attention to your sensations in the present moment. You also want to use words and language, and evaluate and engage with the things your senses focus on, because this activates your frontal lobes, which get de-activated during the fight-flight-or-freeze response. If your frontal lobes are engaged, then your limbic system, which mediates the fight-flight-or-freeze response, is disengaged, and this helps you to feel calmer and safer in the present.
Back of the Head Scale
This is useful for tracking how dissociated you are.
Imagine a line from the back of your head to the place in front of your eyes where they can focus on comfortably on your finger. If your eyes are focussed comfortably on the spot, you are not dissociated at all. If you feel like you are stuck in the back of your head, you are lost in a memory or a dissociated state.
Where are you right now? If you are at all dissociated: Try to bring yourself all the way back into the room, using some Grounding Skills, described below.
Remind yourself that you are safe right now, and that a memory, no matter how disturbing, cannot hurt you. Connect with the present moment by studying, engaging with and naming, in the place you actually are in, right now, where it is safe:
- 3 things you can See
- 3 things you can Hear
- 3 things you can Feel
If you are struggling to engage with what you can feel in your body, two neutral things you may wish to check in on are the temperature where you are, and what gravity is making you feel right now.
Here are some strategies to enhance your ability to ground if it is difficult to connect with the present moment.
- Sound: Turn on loud music or make some noise
A loud noise is easier to focus on than something faint or soft.
- Touch: Grip a piece of ice or an interesting texture
A stronger or more engaging sensation will bring your attention to the present.
- Smell: Sniff some strong peppermint / perfume / curry
When you smell something strong, it is very hard to focus on anything else.
- Taste: Bite into a lemon / ginger / chili
The sourness of a lemon and the strong sensation it produces in your mouth when you bite into it can force you to stay in the present moment.
- Sight: Take an inventory of everything around you
Connect with the present moment by identify all the colors you see, and evaluating their appearance. Make your living place and yourself look different to when your trauma occurred.
- Movement: Play catch
If nothing else is working, you can do this with someone else, or by yourself. Toss something up and down and catch it. The coordination your brain needs to catch a ball is often enough to bring you back to the present.