Updated: 4 days ago
These sensory-based skills can help you calm anxiety, panic, and other PTSD symptoms.
Many people with PTSD experience high anxiety, moments of panic, hypervigilance, and dissociation. Fortunately, grounding techniques can help, and often bring immediate relief in the moment.
Grounding techniques for PTSD are used to activate the five senses, which help calm your brain and bring you back to the moment. They can help with immediate symptoms, as well as changing your brain’s reaction over time.
Examples include mindfully noticing what’s around you, listening for noise in the distance, or checking in with your physical sensations. These skills can help reverse the activity in the brain that’s causing acute symptoms.
Here’s a look at the categories you’ll find in this article, so you can scan ahead to whatever you need at this moment.
How Grounding Works
Increased cortisol, the stress hormone
Increased norepinephrine, which speeds heart rate and raises blood pressure
Increased amygdala activity (the feeling and reactive area)
Decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex (the logical, rational area)
So in general, the reactive, fearful part of the brain is on overdrive, while the rational areas that better think through and challenge such fears are less active.
This is helpful to understand, so we have a context for why grounding works. Grounding is believed to slow down the fear response, which is overreacting due to your PTSD. For example, many people report feeling hypervigilant in situations that do not relate to their trauma, such as when at home or the gas station. This is because this area of the brain is not rational -- it has no understanding of what’s safe and what’s not.
While grounding helps slow down the freaked out part of your brain, it may also help activate the more cognitive, logical areas.
While grounding helps slow down the freaked out part of your brain, it may also help activate the more cognitive, logical areas. Anecdotally, many people report that they feel better, calmer, and less stressed within a few minutes or less of practicing grounding.
More studies are needed in order to confirm why grounding is effective. It is a specific type of mindfulness practice, and studies over time have found that a regular practice helps the emotional and logical centers of the brain communicate better. This provides a healthy balance that allows the brain to correctly evaluate a safe versus unsafe situation.
While scientists and mental health experts are hoping to understand the science behind grounding better, the most important test is whether it works. In my practice, I find most people are able to find at least one grounding technique that works for them. You can try any of these, as long as there are no safety concerns, to see what helps you.
Visual Grounding Techniques
One of the most frequently used grounding techniques is to activate your visual sense in a logical way. Here are some ways to do that:
Pick a color, such as blue. Now look around your room or the area you’re in, and find as many blue things as you can. Count them. Once you find all of the blue items, move on to another color. You can do this as long as you like. Notice if you feel a change.
Look for shades of colors. Another variation of the color activity is to look for differences within a color, such as shades of green. Going for a walk outside is a great opportunity to practice this one.
Scan for shapes. See how many square, round, or oval items you can find. Count or categorize them.
Make up your own visual game. Pick any item, such as leaves, birds, clouds, or triangles, and see how many of these you see.
The basic idea is to activate your visual sense, while also being cognitively aware of it. This changes the activity in your brain, which can calm your fear response or simply distract you from any other thoughts.
Touch to Ground
A great variation of grounding is to do so with touch. These literally bring you into your body, in this moment, and let your brain know that you’re safe and sound in the now. Here are some examples to try.
Hold an object, such as a grounding stone, in your hand. Notice how this feels.
Scan every area of your body that’s touching another surface. For example, your legs may be touching a chair, your feet could be against the ground, your hair might be resting against your neck, or your shirt may be touching every part of your torso. See how many areas of your body you can notice touching something else.
Take a slow, deep breath, and notice the air filling up your lungs. Now breathe out slowly, as if through a straw, and noticing the sensations on your lips, or any change in temperature you feel.
Change your temperature as drastically (while still being safe), as you can. For example, take a cold shower, or splash icy water on your face. You can also hold an ice cube for a few seconds.
Listening for Grounding
The next sense we use frequently is hearing. Often, our brains screen out sounds we don’t need to be aware of. We can notice these, while also intentionally bringing sounds into our environment. Here are some examples.
Notice how many sounds there are around you. Is there a fan you've screened out? Is the refrigerator making noise? Is there traffic in the distance? See how many sounds you can bring back into your awareness.
Listen for patterns of sounds, and sounds that match (or don’t match) the environment. This won’t work for everyone, but for those very in tune with sounds in the environment, this can be helpful. If this one doesn’t make sense, just skip ahead.
Put on a piece of music and listen to it mindfully. Often we have music in the background, which has a definite effect on mood all on its own. But for this exercise, listen mindfully. What instruments do you hear? How high or low do the notes go? What other things can you recognize when listening closely?
Ring a bell, or play the sound of a bell online. Notice any sensations you feel as you are aware of it.
Go for a walk, and listen for natural sounds around you. Are there leaves rustling, or the wind blowing? Continue walking and be aware of any changes in the sound.
Smell as Grounding
The area of our brain that processes smell is also an area that deals with memory. This is why smells can bring back such positive (or negative) events. When you’re attempting to ground yourself, look for familiar smells. It may be that of your pet, or your favorite shampoo. Here are some other ways to ground through your senses.
Keep a favorite scented lotion handy. When you need to, smell the bottle or put a little on your hands. Make a point to be aware of the aroma.
Use your food or drink. Take a sniff of your coffee, or a piece of chocolate. Take in a few breaths to get the full effect.
Wear essential oil diffuser jewelry. These pieces allow you to bring a bit of essential oil with you wherever you go.
Smell your clothes, hair, or pet’s blanket. These are familiar smells that can help bring you back into your present awareness.
Tasting to Ground
The last of our five senses, taste, can also be an effective tool for grounding. If you happen to already be eating, you can simply notice the taste of your food or drink. Which taste buds are activated? What are your sensations while eating it? Here are other ways you can specifically activate your taste experience for grounding.
Bite on a sour jawbreaker. This will light up all kinds of taste buds in your mouth.
Chew a piece of spicy gum. Notice the sensations in your mouth, and any flavors you’re not usually aware of.
Eat ice cream, noticing the sweetness, coldness, and any other sensations that are activated.
Simply notice your empty mouth. Are there any taste buds currently activated? What does the saliva in your mouth feel like?
Balance: The Bonus Grounding Sense
Balance is sometimes called the sixth sense. When your body needs to balance, it activates many grounding-related areas of your body and brain. Specifically, it requires use of the cerebellum, one area of the brain connected to physical balancing.
Therapists who specialize in helping clients process PTSD memories have for years known that activating the balance function in the brain can deactivate a dissociative state. A portion of those with PTSD struggle with dissociative episodes, where they tend to space out heavily and have trouble staying in the moment.
This makes sense, as research is showing a difference in the cerebellum among those with PTSD, and especially those with PTSD who also have dissociative episodes. If you have PTSD and tend to dissociate, or think you might, you can try these hacks to bring you out of an episode. If you have trouble doing this yourself, ask someone close to you to prompt you to do it when they notice you disconnecting.
Stand one one foot, which will activate your balancing senses. This is generally the fastest way to snap out of a dissociative state.
Balance a light object, such as a peacock feather, on your finger. If you don’t have one handy, try a pencil. See how long you can keep it from falling.
Sit on a yoga ball or balancing chair that requires you to keep yourself upright.
Walk in a straight line, with one foot directly in front of the other.
While managing the symptoms of PTSD is important, it’s essential to get at the underlying causes. This disorder is a psychological injury, caused by a past trauma. The brain has difficulty working through the event and coming back to a place of safety. Specific treatments based on exposure and cognitive behavioral processing are shown to help the brain and body heal from PTSD.
Effective PTSD treatments include the following elements:
Grounding and calming techniques to manage immediate symptoms
Challenging of negative thoughts, self-blame, and shame relating to past trauma
Exposure of some type, such as discussing, thinking about, writing about, or telling the story of the trauma
The most common treatments that include these elements and are shown to be effective include cognitive processing therapy (a type of CBT treatment for PTSD), prolonged exposure therapy, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).
Grounding techniques are a great way to cope in the short term with PTSD symptoms such as panic attacks, frequent anxiety, and dissociative episodes. As you go forward, look for ways to address the underlying symptoms, which may take longer to go away.
Here are some next steps to consider in your healing journey:
Find professional resources. A good starting point is SAMHSA, which will help you connect to local therapists.
Take the PTSD Self-Assessment. This quiz will help you gather information you can take to your therapist. Start your self-assessment here.
Check out the Peace from PTSD Kit. I designed this kit based on scientific research and my own experiencing in helping clients heal from PTSD. Learn more here.
Jennie Lannette, LCSW, is a licensed, practicing therapist in Missouri, specializing in trauma, anxiety, and related mental health issues.
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