For people recovering from traumas, the first challenge can be to turn off the intense feelings, thoughts, and images that get in the way of beginning to work on the problem. Think of it as turning down the volume on a music device. Until you are no longer distracted by the blaring volume—of intrusive thoughts and images—it’s hard to focus on what you need to do next.
Turning down the volume is what grounding for survivors of emotional trauma is all about. It may seem counter-intuitive to begin trauma work this way, since you’ve probably always heard it’s good to get into and express feelings. But for trauma survivors, that’s not usually the best first step. What I, along with many other trauma psychotherapists, teach people to do instead is distract themselves by using grounding techniques as a way to begin the recovery process. These simple tools can re-focus your attention away from the intrusive feelings and pictures that are so troublesome and prevent you from getting started on recovery.
Lisa Najavits in Seeking Safety (2002) put together a wonderful list of grounding tools. I give this list to clients almost every day. The goal is to help the person feel more aware of his/her surroundings, to be more in the room and in the present moment, less distracted by old memories or feelings. Najavits’ easiest grounding tool is to think of your favorite color and find everything of that color in the room. Say each item out loud as you find it. After a minute of this, you will almost certainly feel more alert and re-oriented. It’s best to make sure room lights are on high, notice where you are, perhaps look someone in the eye if possible. You can also describe each thing in a room out loud until you feel more in touch with the present.
Another tool is to eat something slowly and describe the flavor to yourself. Try a raisin or a slice of ginger. Strong smells can also help to come back to the present. You could purchase a pleasant, strong scent from one of the bath/body shops around and use it as a grounding tool. For more mental grounding tools, think of all your favorite movies, or clothing stores, or baseball players. You can also run your hands under warm and then cool water, alternating so that your attention goes to the sensations present in your hands and away from the intensity of emotion or memories.
All these exercises refocus and distract your mind and give you evidence that you have some control over intrusive experiences resulting from past traumas. If feelings seem to overwhelm you, take a moment and use one of the tools. Start to practice them regularly. Other similar tricks might occur to you that also do the job. Pretty soon you may begin to experience relief that you can turn down the volume of disturbance temporarily, long enough to give yourself some relief and get started on a longer term recovery plan. Of course, grounding techniques are just the first step in recovering from trauma, but succeeding at this first step can give you great hope and confidence that recovery is possible.