Dr. Sophia Aguirre, Ph.D., CGP, FAGPA
Grounding Exercises for Anxiety & Trauma
Grounding exercises are powerful strategies you can draw upon to re-orient you to the present, particularly for those times when you are becoming overwhelmed with panic, distressing memories, difficult thoughts and feelings. These techniques may help distract you from what you’re experiencing and refocus on what’s happening in the present moment. Specifically, grounding exercises help you anchor yourself in the here-and-now by using your senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch) and/or your cognitions (thoughts) to build and mind and body connection in the present moment.
Grounding exercises can be particularly helpful to manage the following:
Panic or Anxiety Attacks
Trauma-related symptoms such as flashbacks or intrusive memories
Struggles with dissociation or numbing
Urges to self-harm
Urges to use substances during recovery
Grounding exercises while helpful aren't always an immediate fix, but they can become more and more effective with time. For this reason, it is important to practice the exercises again and again until the skill becomes automatic and can be called on even during moments of distress. Grounding exercises can be most effective when used at the onset of the difficult feelings/urges...don’t wait for distress to reach a level that’s harder to handle. If the technique doesn’t work at first, try to stick with it for a bit before moving on to another.
Below you will find a detailed list of grounding strategies, and it may be helpful to practice different ones to find out which will be the best for your and your unique situation. We have also created this infographic that you can save on your phone for easy access to 5 techniques to ground yourself.
Sensory Grounding Exercises
The “54321 technique” is a common sensory awareness grounding exercise that many find a helpful tool to relax or get through difficult moments.
Describe 5 things you see in the room.
Name 4 things you can feel (“my feet on the floor” or “the air in my nose”)
Name 3 things you hear right now (“traffic outside”)
Name 2 things you can smell right now (or 2 smells you like)
Name 1 good things about yourself
3-3-3 Grounding Exercise.
Name one thing you hear.
Name one thing you see.
Name one thing you feel/touch.
Repeat this 2 more times.
Cognitive Ground Exercises
Cognitive Reorientation. Re-orient yourself in place and time by asking yourself some or all of these questions:
Where am I?
What is today?
What is the date?
What is the month?
What is the year?
How old am I?
What season is it?
If you awake during the night from a disturbing dream or nightmare, , remind yourself who you are, and where you are. Tell yourself who you are and where you are. What age are you now? Look around the room and notice familiar objects and name them. Feel the bed your are lying on, the warmth or coldness of the air, and notice any sounds you hear.
Creating a safe place. (10-12 minutes.) Make yourself comfortable, with your feet on the ground. Feel and relax your body, your head, your face, your arms, spine, stomach, buttocks, thighs, legs. Choose whether you want to close your eyes or keep them open during this exercise.
Think of a place in which in the past you were calm and confident and safe. It may be outdoors, at home, or somewhere else. It can be a place to which you have been once or many times, which you saw in a film or heard about, or imagine. You can be there by yourself or with someone you know. It can be private, unknown to others, somewhere that no one can find without your permission. Or you can decide to share it with others.
This place must suit you and meet your needs. You can constantly recreate or adapt it. It is comfortable and richly equipped for all your wants. Everything you need to be comfortable is present. It is somewhere that fits you. It shuts out every stimulus that might be overwhelming.
Imagine this place. Imagine you are there. Take time to absorb it in detail: its colors, shapes, smells and sound. Imagine sunshine, feel the wind and the temperature. Notice how it feels to stand, sit or lie there, how your skin and your body feel in contact with it.
How does your body feel when everyone is safe, and everything is fine? In your safe place you can see, hear, smell and feel exactly what you need to feel safe. Perhaps you take off your shoes and feel what it is like to walk barefoot in the grass or in the sand.
You can go to this place whenever you want and as often as you want. Just thinking about it will cause you to feel calmer and more confident.
Remain there for five more seconds. Then prepare to return to this room, open your eyes, stretch yourself, do what you need to return to the present.
Breath Counting. (4 minutes.)
Sit in a comfortable position with the spine straight and the head inclined slightly forward. Gently close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
To begin the exercise, count “one” to yourself as you exhale.
The next time you exhale, count “two,” and so on up to “five”
Then begin a new cycle, counting “one” on the next exhalation.
Repeat 5 times.
Never count higher than five, and count only when you exhale. You will know your attention has wandered when you find yourself counting up to eight, twelve, etc.
Physical Grounding Exercises
Tracing Hand Exercise.
Begin by tracing your hand on a piece of paper and label each finger as one of the five senses. Then take each finger and identify something special and safe representing each of those five senses. For example: Thumb represents sight and a label for sight might be butterflies or my middle finger represents the smell sense and it could be represented by lilacs.
After writing and drawing all this on paper, post it on your refrigerator or other safe places in the home where it could be easily seen and memorize it.
Whenever you get triggered, breathe deeply and slowly, and put your hand in front of your face where you can really see it – stare at your hand and then look at each finger and try to do the five senses exercise from memory.
Grounding the Body. (10-15 minutes.)
Sit on your chair. Feel your feet touching the ground. Stamp your left foot into the ground, then your right. Do it slowly: left, right, left. Do this several times. Feel your thighs and buttocks in contact with the seat of your chair (5 seconds). Notice if your legs and buttocks now feel more present or less present than when you started focusing on your legs.
Now move your focus to your spine. Feel your spine as your midline. Slowly lengthen your spine and notice if it affects your breath (10 seconds). Move your focus toward your hands and arms. Put your hands together. Do it in a way that feels comfortable for you. Push your hands together and feel your strength and temperature. Release and pause, then push your hands together again. Release and rest your arms.
Now move your focus to your eyes. Look around the room. Find something that tells you th
at you are here. Remind yourself that you are here, now, and that you are safe. Notice how this exercise affects your breathing, your presence, your mood, and your strength.
The Hug. (5-8 minutes.)
This exercise deepens and anchors positive feelings and messages. It is taken from EMDR (Eye movement desensitization reprocessing), a trauma processing method. The method employs bilateral physical stimulation (in this case tapping), which, combined with positive spoken messages, can deepen and anchor positive feelings. The sentence can also be spoken silently.
Put your right hand palm down on your left shoulder. Put your left hand palm down on your right shoulder.
Choose a sentence that will strengthen you. For example: “I’m a good enough helper”.
Say the sentence out loud first and pat your right hand on your left shoulder, then your left hand on your right shoulder.
Feeling the weight of your body. (5 minutes.)
The exercise activates muscles in the torso and legs, which gives a feeling of physical structure. When we are overwhelmed, our muscles often change from extreme tension to collapse; they shift from a state of active defense (fight and flight) to submission and become more than ordinarily relaxed (hypotonic). When we are in touch with our strength and structure, it is easier to bear feelings. We can contain our experience and manage feelings of fragmentation (of being overwhelmed) better.
Feel your feet on the ground. Pause for five seconds.
Feel the weight of your legs. Hold for five seconds.
Try stamping your feet carefully and slowly from left to right, left, right, left, right. Feel your buttocks and thighs touching the seat of the chair. Hold that for five seconds.
Feel your back against the back of the chair.
Stay like that and notice if you feel any difference?
Additional simple physical strategies:
Take a deep breath and smell an essential oil/scent.
Splash water on our face.
Stamp your feet notice the sensation and sound as you connect with the ground.
Hold a cold can or bottle of soft drink in your hands. Feel the coldness, and the wetness on the outside. Note the bubbles and taste as you drink
Clap and rub your hands together, hear the noise and feel the sensation in your hands and arms.
Stretch your body
Take a shower or bath
While grounding techniques help you in the moment, they won’t address the root of your anxiety or trauma; instead they offer a distraction to prevent you from dissociating or becoming overwhelmed by anxiety or panic. If you’re experiencing regular anxiety attacks or dissociation, it may be helpful to consider seeing a counselor or therapist. The Aguirre Center for Inclusive Psychotherapy provides individual therapy, group therapy, and relationship therapy which can help you heal and recover from your struggles with trauma, anxiety or substance abuse. If you are ready to start your healing your journey you can get started through any of the steps below:
Visit our Getting Started Page to request an appointment with one of our talented therapists.
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