Grounding Techniques

from conversations with hundreds of Fort Refuge members – most of whom read a lot and have had good therapy for PTSD, Anxiety, Dissociative Disorders, SI, and/or Addictions

Emotions are a good thing to have: they let us know what feels good (so we know to keep it), and what feels bad (so we know to change it). Without emotions we would be clueless as to where do we want to go with life. That’s how it’s supposed to work anyway.

Unfortunately, trauma can shake us up pretty badly, and some things might not fall back into place right away. We end up having emotions that aren’t guiding us towards a better life, but that keep us stuck in pain and misery instead. Moreover, these emotions often flood us at the wrong time: when we are at work, driving, grocery shopping, babysitting, or trying to have a calm evening with a partner. Suddenly, completely out of the blue, anxiety hits us below the belt, or we start replaying old trauma in our head as if it were happening all over again, or we get furious at our perp, or deeply sad about our ruined childhood, or get an irresistible craving to get wasted/high, or an urge to self-injure. Aside from bad timing – these feelings can get quite overwhelming, and thus hard to manage.

While technically valid and understandable, they aren’t helping us in the here and now. There’s no reason for us to be relieving that traumatic experience while we are driving to work. If we need to do it – we’ll pick a better timing and surrounding for it, such as our therapist’s office for example. And meanwhile we can’t allow all those old feelings to overwhelm us at random, so we need to distract our mind from them all and bring its focus back into the here and now, so that we can function. That’s what grounding techniques are for.

No technique works 100% of the time or for all people, but the more you practice, the more helpful it becomes. So set the timer for 20min, pick a technique that sounds most appealing, and focus on it till the timer goes off, no cheating. Give it a fair chance; jumping from one technique to another within seconds won’t help you. Focus on one and try to make it work. Then check if you are feeling any better. If not – pick a different one and try again. As always – if you feel there’s a slightest chance you might hurt yourself or others – do call someone in 3D. Be safe.

Top Ten Grounding Techniques:

Using five senses to get out of a flashback:

  1. Smell - what do you smell in the room you are in? name it specifically if you can. Do you smell more than one thing? What is causing the smell(s)? Do you smell anything that was not present in your flashback? Do you have a smelly lotion that makes you feel safe that you can rub on and smell?
  2. Sight - What do you see? Pictures, stuffies, computer screen, outside your window, how many different colors can you name in your room or on one wall?
  3. Touch - do you feel your feet on the floor? What are you hands touching? Can you feel different textures around you? Does an ink pen feel different in your hand than your computer mouse? Do you feel your keys on the keyboard? Can you feel how soft your favorite stuffie is?
  4. Sound - What do you hear in your room? Or what can you hear outside? What song is on the radio or your iPod? Do you recognize it? What is the quietest sound in the room that you can make out?
  5. Taste - do you have something you can eat or drink? Focus on the flavor of your drink. Or how sweet, salty, sour, etc. the food that you're eating is. Do you have a favorite taste that reminds you of good times in the present?

One of my favorite things to use is a frozen orange. Yes, I keep oranges in my freezer to specifically use for grounding purposes. You can feel how cold the orange is in your hands, it's very bright to look at, if you scratch the surface a little you can smell the orange. It gets 3 of your 5 senses in one object. ~ Manysouls

Explore your fridge: it’s full of interesting things to see, touch, smell, taste, and rattle to listen to their sounds. See how your last month’s mustard is doing – is it still edible? Smells ok? Looks ok? Tastes ok too? What does it sound like when you squeeze it out?

Check in with your body: follow the advice that John McClane received in Die Hard: "Take off your shoes and your socks then walk around on the rug barefoot and make fists with your toes," - it worked for him, might work for you too. If you can't take your shoes off right now (for example, if you're at work) - stretch your arms. Roll your head around. Clench your fists really tight, hold for half a minute, relax. If you're standing - shift your weight from heels to toes and back. Wash your face with cold water. Hold an ice cube. Munch on a jalapeno pepper, licorice, or Listerine's. When you need grounding, your mind wanders away from the here and now, so getting it to focus on your body brings it back into the present.

Talk to yourself: take a deep breath, exhale, and state (slowly) who and where are you, out loud. E.g. “I’m Manya, I’m at home, sitting on my bed”. Let it sink in. Repeat and elaborate: what year is it, how old are you now, how many days till weekend, what time is it, etc. Another good thing to talk about out loud is describing what you're doing or what you're about to do - just skip the emotions, that can be counterproductive (because repeating to yourself that you're falling apart will only reinforce the feeling), so focus on actions instead. I.e. "Now I'm getting up and walking towards kitchen to get a glass of OJ. Here we are, so far so good, I'm holding the glass in my left hand, and opening fridge with my right." etc.

Change the scenery: wash the dishes, make your bed, put on different music, change your clothes, move from couch to desk, take a walk (or a run) around the block, take a shower, bubble bath, or just spray some perfume (or Clorox - anything smelly really) around – change something in your environment; your mind will see that the old environment (where unpleasant feelings popped up) is gone, and will reset.

List 5 differences between then and now. E.g. “Back then I was wearing a pink dress, and now I’m wearing blue jeans; back then my feet didn’t reach the floor when I sat on a chair – and now I can feel the soles of my feet pressing against the carpet; back then I was in my room back at home, and now I’m in college cafeteria in LA; back then I listened to mom's yelling, and now I’m listening to Mozart in my iPod; back then I smelled her drunken breath, and now I’m smelling my coffee." Help your mind see that the traumatic incident isn't really happening all over again, it’s a memory, not reality.

Keep your hands busy. Learn to knit. Do some gardening. Juggle with bouncy balls. Give somebody a foot massage. Finger-paint. Play piano. Give your mind a break, focus on your hands for a change. This is helpful because you can see that while your mind is upset, your hands can still perform fairly complicated tasks. Life goes on, and you're able to function despite this temporary emotional distress you were experiencing 20min ago.

Look around and count the things you like. There must be something good around here. Is your chair comfy? Is the room warm enough? Do you like the wall paint color? Is it painted evenly at least, even if the color is boring? Maybe someone nearby is wearing a real cool t-shirt? Count all the things around you that are good. If you do this frequently, it can be fun to compare - which place has the most things you like during a flashback/craving/urge/anxiety attack/etc.

Hug something: cat, dog, stuffie, pillow, fur coat, basket ball, or a tree in your backyard. Of course, people are best to hug because they reciprocate - but not all abuse survivors are comfortable with this. If you aren't - just hug a pillow and hold on tight for the whole 20 minutes. Hugs release dopamine in your brain, makes you feel better. Besides, just sitting still for more than half a minute is a good idea when you're nervous.

Play a trivia game with yourself: how many bearded US presidents can you name? Out of all your school teachers and college professors, how many blondes were there? How many people do you know whose name starts with “C”? If you really can’t focus on anything at all – count how many characters are in this sentence: is it over 100 yet? Mind can only focus on one thing at a time, if you get it busy enough with silly trivia quests - it won't have any resources left to continue bugging you with the unpleasant memories/urges/emotions.

Practice a tongue twister, polish it to perfection. It sounds silly, but give it a try - repeating same thing over and over out loud, focusing on your speech, reiterating something funny and irrelevant of your distress - these things are soothing. Try the one below, by Dr. Seuss, how fast can you say it without a single mistake?


Get a grounding stone and carry it around in your pocket, grabbing it whenever you feel like it. You can just pick up a stone you like in a neighborhood that you have good memories attached to. Optimal size is about 2-3in – bigger ones are bulky and heavy to carry around on a regular basis, and smaller ones are less noticeable when you hold them in your fist. Stones work best because they are easy to clean, hard to damage, don’t wear off, and are hard and heavy (so you feel you’re actually holding something in your hand). They also warm up, if you hold them long enough. However, any object will do: some people like mini stuffed animals, key charms, jewelry, etc. Just keep something in your pocket to grab and hold on to.

Safety baskets, grounding boxes, whatever you want to call these – work very well for when you’re at home and can make use of them. Safety basket is a container (best if it’s a good looking one) filled with various objects that remind you that you’re safe while stimulating all of your senses. I have a small wooden music box with a picture of my favorite teacher, a postcard from my grandma, tin of cloves, rosaries, tiny kaleidoscope, a few stones from all over the world, a bouncy ball, and a pack of Juicy Fruit; if I open the lid, it plays Fur Elise. When you need grounding - get your treasure box and go through the items in it, picking whichever one seems most appealing at the moment, playing with it, then picking the next one - till you're comfortable again. This really does help, definitely worth the effort of putting together the box.