Updated: 6 days ago
Learn how to calm anxiety, panic, and other PTSD symptoms, within minutes.
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
There are visible changes to the brain when PTSD symptoms are activated. Researchers have found the following differences in the brains of those with PTSD, including:
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.