Many people have experienced traumatic events during childhood or later. Some may not even have considered them to be traumatic. These traumas might include being the victim of or exposure to violence; physical, sexual or emotional abuse; severe neglect; bullying; a serious accident or illness; domestic violence; death of a parent or other close relative; or being in active combat. Of course, not everyone who experiences one of these situations will be traumatized by it. Whether or not a person becomes traumatized as well as the extent of the trauma, depends on considerations like an individual’s resiliency and what kinds of protective factors, such as a strong support system, exist. If you were traumatized by a distressing event during your life, you may continue to experience symptoms caused by this event.
Past trauma can cause lifelong mental and physical difficulties. These trauma symptoms could include anxiety, panic attacks, difficulty sleeping or concentrating, hyperarousal, recurrent nightmares, flashbacks, recurrent distressing and intrusive thoughts, avoiding people, places or things associated with the trauma or being hypervigilant. Talking about or thinking about the traumatic event can actually re-traumatize you and cause more distress.
So what’s a healthy, effective way to deal with trauma symptoms? Grounding techniques can help. Victims of trauma often continue to re-experience the feelings of the panic and fear they felt during the traumatic event. But in reality, although you are experiencing this panic and fear, at the present moment you are safe and not in any immediate danger. Grounding techniques help remind you of this. They do this by bringing you back to the present moment, the here and now where you are safe and well. They pull you away from the frightening memories of the past and help you remember that right now everything is okay. They engage the senses such as sight, touch, smell or sound and focus our attention on what is going on at the moment. The concept is similar to mindfulness in its focus on the present.
There are lots of grounding techniques to choose from. It can be helpful to sample a few and see which ones are a good fit and most effective for you. When you first read about grounding techniques, you might think they sound kind of flakey or silly. But they have been proven effective for people who have experience trauma or diagnosed with PTSD. It helps to practice some when you are not experiencing trauma symptoms so you get comfortable with them and can use them when needed. The more you use them, the easier and more effective they get. These are not a cure all for trauma but can be a useful tool in your toolbox of coping skills. They can be used any place and anytime, at home, at work, on public transportation, walking down the street. Here are some examples:
- Look around the room and find all the items of a particular color or identify all the colors you see (There’s a blue book, a black chair, a grey telephone, a stack of white papers, etc.)
- Press your heels into the floor, literally grounding yourself or if you are sitting in a chair with arm rests, press your elbows into the arm rest
- Press your fingers on one hand into your fingers on your other hand
- Rub the fabric of your clothes between your fingers and think about or describe how it feels
- Describe what you are wearing (I am wearing a red flannel shirt, blue jeans, white cotton socks, grey running shoes)
- Let an ice cube melt in your hand or run water over your hand
- Say the alphabet backwards
- Name 5 things you can hear or smell (I hear birds chirping, cars honking, people talking, etc.)
- Jump up and down
- Hold something soft like a pillow or stuffed animal
If you google “grounding techniques” you can find lists of many, many more options. Try keeping a log where you list which grounding techniques you have tried and what you thought of them. Keep a list of the most effective ones in your wallet or purse to pull out and utilize in an emergency.
With grounding techniques, you come back to the present. You are reminded that in the present the scary situation from the past is just a memory and is not causing any immediate danger. You are safe and well right now. Using them repeatedly, helps teach our brain a healthier way to react to trauma symptoms with less distress. This occurs because doing these over and over again can build new neural pathways in your brain which lead to healthier thoughts and behavior. These techniques are simple to learn and use and have worked for many people.
If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.
Author Bio: Debbie Shepard JD, LCSW, RDDP is the Program Director for Catholic Charities’ substance abuse treatment program in Chicago (312 655 7725, for intakes). Her previous experience includes managing the outpatient clinic at the Salvation Army’s Chicago substance abuse treatment program and working in psychiatric hospitals and an emergency department. Prior to getting her MSW degree from Loyola School of Social Work, she worked as an attorney in legal aid and at the juvenile court.
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