According to mental health charity Mind, one in four people experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England. Many mental health conditions, including anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), can cause people to feel overwhelmed, experience negative emotions, and sometimes have unpleasant flashbacks.
Grounding is a technique that can be used during moments of distress, to help distract people from their thoughts and bring them back to the present moment.
Here, we’ll explore exactly what grounding is, who it might be helpful for, and how to use it.
What is grounding?
Grounding is defined as a set of strategies that are designed to help people manage traumatic memories, anxious feelings, or emotional pain.
The basic purpose of grounding is to bring a person’s focus back to the present moment, help them detach from the past, and reduce the intensity of negative emotions and flashbacks.
Grounding differs from practises like mindfulness and other relaxation techniques because it focuses on connecting with the external world only, rather than focusing inwardly on yourself, or a combination of both.
Techniques often involve visualisation and connection to the senses to help distract people from unwanted thoughts and feelings. Examples include focusing on the sensation of placing your hands in water or on a strong scent like lavender.
Grounding isn’t intended as a formal treatment for mental health conditions, but more as a useful tool to help people manage their symptoms.
When can grounding be useful?
Grounding is primarily used as a technique to help people cope with and detach themselves from unwanted memories, flashbacks, and negative emotions.
During these times, it’s easy for our emotions to take over and influence our thoughts and physical responses. Using grounding techniques can be a way to interrupt the body’s natural response to distress and help return the brain to a place of safety.
Grounding can be used in nearly every situation, but can be particularly helpful for dealing with…
- Traumatic flashbacks, such as those that are common of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Difficult emotions like anger
- Stress and anxiety
- Feelings of distress and fear
In turn, this can also help people avoid turning to unhelpful coping mechanisms such as binge eating, excessive alcohol consumption, or self-harm.
What types of grounding techniques are there?
There are various different grounding techniques. Generally speaking, these can broadly be separated into three different categories: physical, mental, and other.
Different techniques will work for different people, so it’s important to take the time to find what’s right for you. This might take a bit of trial and error, and that’s perfectly okay.
Below we’ll cover some common grounding techniques…
Physical grounding techniques
Physical grounding techniques involve engaging your five senses or using objects that you can touch and feel to help you cope with feelings of distress.
For example, you could sip on a hot or cold drink and focus on how the cup or mug feels in your hands, or what you can taste; hold onto a soft blanket or a soft toy and notice their texture; or take a short walk and focus on the smells, sounds, and sights around you.
If you’re not sure where to start, the 5-4-3-2-1 method can be a useful guide.
The 5-4-3-2-1 method involves working through each of your five senses, listing things you notice around you one by one. For example…
- Five things you can see
- Four things you can touch from where you’re sitting or standing
- Three things you can hear
- Two things can smell
- One thing you can taste
Mental grounding techniques
Mental grounding techniques involve cognitive and behavioural exercises that are designed to shift and reframe negative emotions into more realistic or positive ones.
- Describing your situation objectively to try and separate facts from emotions and gain perspective
- Reciting something in order (for example, saying the alphabet backwards or counting in fours)
- Naming items in a category (thinking of as many different romance novels as you can, for example) to distract yourself
- Using affirmations like “This will pass” or “I am okay, I am safe”.
Other grounding techniques
Other grounding techniques are those that don’t necessarily fit into either category.
Remember, if it works for you, a grounding technique can really be anything.
For more ideas, you might like to have a read of this list of 30 grounding techniques and how they help from Choosing Therapy.
How can I start using grounding techniques?
A huge benefit of grounding techniques is that they can be used anywhere, at any time, and no one has to know. You might find you have some grounding techniques that you use at home and some when you’re out.
When you first start with grounding, it’s best to keep your eyes open, so that you’re aware of everything that’s going on around you.
It’s also important to avoid waiting for your levels of distress to get too overwhelming. If you can, try doing a grounding exercise when you first notice your emotions.
When possible, it can also be helpful to rate your mood or level of distress before and after your grounding exercise on a scale of 0-10, so that you can see what impact it’s had. Even if a technique doesn’t work at first, it’s worth sticking at it for a little while and practising to see if things change overtime.
Grounding yourself isn’t always easy and it’s completely normal to need time to find the right techniques for you. Like any skill, grounding takes practise, so remember to be patient with yourself.
Some people also find it useful to practise grounding when they’re feeling okay, as this can take less effort when you need it the most. You might also like to make a list of any triggers that tend to provoke your symptoms, as this can help you feel more prepared and anticipate situations where you may need to use grounding.
We know from research that more people than ever before are struggling with their mental health. While it’s not a treatment, grounding can be a useful technique for helping people cope with and manage distressing emotions and unwanted memories.
Remember, grounding can take practise, but it usually becomes easier with time. Plus, everyone’s different and the most important thing is finding a technique that works for you.
For further reading, head over to the healthy mind section of our website. Here you’ll find everything from tips for building confidence and self-esteem to information on counselling, therapy, focus, and motivation.