Grounding Techniques

Per the new posting schedule, every Thursday is a Resource and Recovery themed post. In this series, you’ll find coping skills, tips, and tricks for coping with a mental health struggle, whether crisis or day-to-day management. The Thursday posts won’t necessarily relate to the more personal Tell-All Tuesday posts every week, but when I can tie them in, I will! My Tuesday post this week was on what it’s like to be triggered and some thoughts on the “Trigger Warning” debate. For this Recovery Thursday post, I’d like to share some grounding techniques I find helpful when I am triggered.

I explained my personal favorite grounding technique in my post Top 5 Ways to Get Through a Bad Situation (Without Making It Worse) earlier this year. Click that link to read all about the 5-5-5 grounding tool. But in mental health recovery, what works well for one person may not be as effective for another. And, honestly, sometimes success in grounding is situational. So, I wanted to make this post about multiple ways to ground yourself when triggered, so that hopefully you can find one that works best for you or one to guide a loved one through a flashback or a panic attack.

What is grounding? Grounding is getting your mind to stay in the here and now even if you are panicking or having a flashback. Often times, this is best accomplished by using something physical and tangible to “bring yourself back.”

I find physical grounding to be the most effective for me. In addition to the 5-5-5 technique, there are several other approaches you can take to physically anchor yourself to the present. Most of us do things to get “back in our bodies” already, but some of those coping skills are maladaptive and unhealthy. I’m thinking specifically of self injury: cutting, burning, punching walls, etc. Yes, these actions can keep you “here,” but “here” isn’t so great when you’re hurting yourself.

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If your go-to coping skill is self harm, I’d like to give you some alternatives that may work as well and be better for your wellness in the long run.

ICE CUBES: I like to use ice cubes over everything else. I hold the ice cube in my palm and squeeze it. When that hand is numb, I switch it to the other hand and do the same thing. Sometimes, I put the ice cube on my arm or on my neck. The cold is usually a very helpful grounding technique. You may have heard of the ice cube trick before, but just because it’s floating around out there doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve tried it. You may have heard of the next one as well.

RUBBER BANDS: Keep a rubber band around your wrist and snap it against your skin when you need to ground. It will sting a little bit, but will not have the lasting impact of more drastic forms of self harm. The rubber band trick is only suggested to those actively struggling with self harm impulses. If you don’t currently engage in self harm, it’s not recommended as it could actually build the habit of hurting yourself when you’re overwhelmed, and that’s not a habit you want to start if you don’t have it already.

FROZEN ORANGES: This one is going to sound a little weird, probably. It definitely did when I first heard it. But, I keep a frozen orange in my freezer at all times. If I really need to ground, I take it out and put it against the back of my neck. Then, I start to peel it. Fun fact, it’s really hard to peel a frozen orange. And, if you’re focusing on that task, the combination of attention and fine motor skills needed to peel it and the strong citrus smell keeps you really grounded and often the panic or dissociation will pass before you are finished with the task. And being able to “dig” into the skin of the orange can help negate the need to hurt your own skin.

Now, let’s look at grounding techniques that are not necessarily substitutes for self harm. What can you do when you are starting to have a flashback?

Again, the answer is mostly physical. If you can prove to your body that you are here and not in the past, the flashback will pass much quicker.

GET ON YOUR FEET. Taking the term “grounding” quite literally, try to stand up, Feel your feet against the floor or the ground. Walk a little. Feel your legs moving. Stomp a few times. Ask yourself “where are my feet?” and answer “On the ground.” This may seem silly, but this is something I have used both in my personal and professional life to help keep myself or my clients grounded. And it tends to work very well.

FEEL YOUR ARMS. For me, when a flashback is happening or is about to happen, my arms are usually numb. Lifting them above my head (or having a friend raise them for me), wrapping myself in a heavy blanket and feeling where my body ends, or rubbing my arms to warm them helps immensely in grounding.

MINDFULNESS. Pick something up and really focus on what it feels like, walk around and focus on your feet and the floor, if you’re sitting, focus on where the floor or chair connects with your body.

OPEN YOUR EYES. If you’re eyes are closed, it’s usually game, set, match for the flashback. It’s got you. It’s really hard to stay present if you can’t see the present. Keep your eyes open and try to look around you mindfully. Focus on every small detail you can find. (the pattern of the floor, wood grain on cabinets, decorations on walls, leaves of grass, etc.) This really helps me stay “here” or, at the very least, get back faster than I otherwise would.

OK, so those are the “external things” you can do. What about internal? What can you say to yourself to help stay grounded?

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ASK YOURSELF QUESTIONS. “Where am I? What year is it? What was I just doing? What time is it? How old am I? Where am I right now?” By thinking about and answering these questions, you will bring yourself back to the present.

HAVE A SCRIPT. “I’m having a panic attack right now. I am safe. I am not in any danger.” “I’m having a flashback right now. The worst is over. This happened in the past and is not happening now. I will come out the other side of this.”

THINK ABOUT DIFFERENT THINGS. Set your mind to a weird task. Count in 7’s, name ten different countries, think of your 5 favorite books and try to name the authors, name all of the characters in your favorite TV show, try to name 5 animals that start with the letter “M”, etc. If you can get your brain away from focusing on the trigger, you can show yourself that you are safe.

Remember that you are not powerless and at the mercy of your diagnosis. These are tangible coping skills you can implement immediately. Practice them, see which ones work best for you, and keep them fresh in your mind so that you can access them easily when you’re struggling.

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There you have it! I hope you find at least one of these coping skills helpful! As always, I’d love to hear what you think of the post! Drop a comment, Tweet me, and check out my FacebookTumblr, and Instagram! Also, be sure to check out the perks available to YOU on Patreon for becoming a Patron of this blog! (You’ll love ’em, I promise!)

And finally, ParallelDichotomy now has a Sarahah account! Drop in to leave comments, suggestions, questions, constructive criticism, etc!

Be sure to check in tomorrow for ParallelDichotomy’s first ever guest post! It’s part one of a first hand account of medication induced psychosis in someone who does not live with a mental health diagnosis. I feel it’s important to honor all mental health struggles, and through the guest post series, I hope to host the voices of people living a different experience than I am. If you’d like to be a contributor to this series, please get in touch via social media or email me at Paralleldichotomyblog@gmail.com.

Top 5 Ways to Get Through a Bad Situation (Without Making It Worse)

There’s a lot of information out there about preventative measures for relapse into a mental health crisis. There are also great resources on what to do in a crisis situation. But what do you do when you’re just having a really hard time? What if you’re feeling completely overwhelmed, but you’re not posing any threat of serious harm to yourself or others?

I’ve learned a lot in the past few months about distress tolerance skills. These tips and tricks have been immensely helpful for me in my recovery. Tonight, I’d like to share with you my Top Five skills for dealing with negative, overwhelming emotions.

NUMBER ONE

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If you’ve been following my story, you know that I live with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Included in the PTSD gift basket are things like dissociation, panic attacks, and flash backs. Each of these events are about as fun as getting your tooth drilled without Novocain (this happened to me once at the hands of a very incompetent dentist, so I feel justified in making the comparison). You may have heard of different variations on this particular grounding technique, but my favorite method is this: look around the room you’re in and pick a color. Now, find five different shades of that color, or, if you can’t find different shades, just find five different objects of that color. Once you’ve done this, find five things you can touch. If you can, physically reach out to objects around you. Are they hard or soft? Are they smooth or rough? Are they warmer or colder than your hand? Etc. If you cannot manage to reach out, consider things you can feel without moving. What does the fabric of your shirt feel like against your shoulders? If you’re sitting – what does the chair or couch or bench feel like against your thighs and back? If you’re standing, what does the floor feel like against the soles of your shoes? How does your hair feel against your ear or neck? And so on until you’ve hit five. Finally, what are five things you can hear? This one really helps bring me back to the present, because you have to really focus to find five unique sounds. It can be challenging, and it may take a few minutes of intense listening, but I have yet to be in a place that I could not, with concentration, find five different noises. If you are still not grounded after going through these steps, repeat. In my experience, this is nearly 100% effective when I need to get back to the present and back to my center ASAP.

NUMBER TWO

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Sometimes, you’re so overwhelmed by your emotions tolerating them feels impossible. Everything starts to close in and your anxiety or depression seems to be consuming your entire being. When I’m really overwhelmed with depression, it feels like there’s a gaping hole in the middle of my chest and everything “good” about me is seeping out. It physically hurts. When I’m overwhelmed with anxiety, it seems as though the entire world is folding in on me and it’s suffocating. How can you sit with such intense emotions? Often, the mere thought of being “in your body” anymore seems impossible. You almost wish you could just crack your rib cage open and shrug off your skin and muscles for a few minutes to get some relief. These intense feelings tempt many of us to revert to old, unhealthy, maladaptive coping techniques, such as: self injury, binge eating, or substance abuse. In these moments, sometimes the best thing you can do is remember that the discomfort is temporary and find some way to distract yourself until the intensity of the feelings decreases a bit. It’s important to note that there is a difference between distraction and avoidance. Avoidance is complete neglect of your feelings, unwillingness to get curious about the causes of your distress, and, in the long run, it is not conducive to mental wellness. Distraction, on the other hand, can provide a healthy, temporary reprieve from those feelings until the intensity has diminished enough for you to sit with them and consider what may have triggered you. I’ve found it very helpful to keep a list of easy-access distraction techniques on me at all times. I keep mine in my smartphone, but I have friends who carry theirs on actual pieces of paper in their wallets. Some people I know also have a list posted somewhere in their house. Whatever method you feel will work best for you is the one you should use. When you’re not in distress, compile a list of short distraction activities you can utilize. My list includes playing a few rounds of Galaga or Tetris on my phone (10-15 minutes maximum), doing dishes, playing the “Wikipedia game” (pick two completely unrelated topics, start at one, and click links in each article to see how few clicks you need to get from the first topic to the second), and going outside for 5 minutes of fresh air and a change of scenery. Your distraction list will be unique to you, but it’s important to choose activities that will take a short time to complete to decrease the intensity of what you’re feeling until you can face it and deal with it. Choose things that you enjoy; choose things that will help clear your head.

NUMBER THREE

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I’ve mentioned this one before, but I want to expand a little on it here, because it really is a wonderful tool! Whether you’re living with a mental health diagnosis or not, every single one of us gets overwhelmed from time to time. For some of us, it’s completing that big work project or research paper for school; for some of us, it’s getting out of bed or doing the laundry. Whatever the task at hand, if you’re feeling stuck, the 10 minute rule can help. It’s pretty self explanatory – you set a timer for ten minutes and work on whatever it is you need to work on until the timer goes off. If you’re seriously depressed and feel like you can’t get out of bed, set a timer for 10 minutes and walk around your apartment for that time. When the timer goes off, you can go back to bed if you feel so inclined. If you’re writing a paper for school, set the timer for ten minutes and write until it goes off. If you feel the need to, stop once the timer goes off. I say “if you feel the need to” because often times, I’ve found, action precedes motivation. Once you actually start moving around or start writing, you might find that you’ve gained some momentum to keep going. Or, you may be completely exhausted after the ten minutes. But either is fine! You’ve done something. In those ten minutes you are tolerating a task that you thought you absolutely could not do. And you can be proud of that!

NUMBER FOUR

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Mindfulness is invaluable. Truly. I don’t care what your diagnosis is, or if you even have one – in this rushed, consumer driven, plugged in, instant gratification culture of ours, mindfulness can save your life. Mindfulness takes many forms. You can mindfully eat an apple by focusing on the texture of the fruit on your teeth and lips and tongue, the flavor, the juice, the smell, and the crisp snap of each bite. You can mindfully take a walk by considering your feet against the ground, the feel of the air on your face and hands, the sounds of traffic or nature around you, and the way the sunlight reflects off your surroundings. Mindfulness is simply being present. Not considering the future or the past. Traditional mindfulness practice involves things like deep breathing and guided meditations, but practice is definitely not limited to these things. Some people prefer traditional mindfulness practice, and that’s fantastic! If you’re moving through a busy work day and need a few minutes of guided meditation on your lunch break, I’d recommend checking out the Headspace App, if you haven’t already. As a trauma survivor living with PTSD, though, I struggle with traditional mindfulness. Focusing on my body and breath tends to trigger a panic attack, and if I’m doing it with my eyes closed, I’m in for a full-blown flashback. So, I’ve needed to get creative in my mindfulness practice. Doing the 5-5-5 technique mentioned above when I am not triggered is great mindfulness practice, and, it keeps the method fresh in my mind for easy access when I really do need it! Choosing to walk away from my phone to engage with my daughter, focusing solely on whatever game she wants to play, the details, the characters, and the inevitable laughter, is mindfulness practice. Completely devoting my attention to learning to play a new song on my guitar is mindfulness practice. Photography is mindfulness practice, as you need to really take in your surroundings, consider the person or object you’re shooting, evaluate the lighting, and position yourself in relation to that person or object to best capture the message you wish to convey with the photo. Opportunities for moments of mindfulness are everywhere. And practicing mindfulness every day can really help you access those skills when you are feeling distressed.

NUMBER FIVE

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Self soothing is intrinsic in the fabric of our beings. Self soothing skills are some of the very first things we learn as tiny, brand new humans on this planet. When things are really bad, though, we have to remind ourselves to get back to the absolute basics. We need to feel warm, safe, secure, and comforted. My favorite self-soothing techniques are wrapping up in a heavy blanket or wearing a baggy hoodie that I can burrow into and away from whatever it is in my environment that is overwhelming me. I also like to light candles or burn incense with comforting scents. Sometimes, I will put on some music, either calming or songs that bring up good memories of time spent with friends and loved ones (I have a special playlist for these moments). Occasionally, I’ll take a very warm bath. I also like to snuggle my cats. Tactile. Real. Sense-based. Basic. These are the essence of self-soothing. These techniques are for the really bad moments. I use them most when I’ve just had a flashback and I’m grounded and present but need that extra level of feeling secure and comforted. I use them when I’ve just woken up from a terrible nightmare and I’m not ready to even attempt to go back to bed yet. I use them when that gaping hole of depression in my chest feels like it’s going to swallow me up entirely. I use them when anxiety is making the world collapse on me and I feel like I’m being crushed. Self-soothing is very literally about just holding on and riding the wave of intense emotion until it passes. No goal in mind afterward. Just getting through the moment as comfortably as you can.

 

There you have it! My personal Top Five distress tolerance skills. What do you do to get through a bad situation without making it worse? Do you have any favorite grounding techniques, healthy distraction methods, motivational tricks (like the ten minute rule), mindfulness techniques, or self-soothing activities or items you like to use? If so, I’d love to hear your tips and tricks in the comment section below, on Twitter (@paradichotomy), or on Facebook!