Step 1 – understand the science
All of us need activities which keep us grounded and present in our bodies and environment, but for trauma survivors grounding helps to combat the post-traumatic cycle of intrusive memories and emotions which can alternate with avoidance and numbing.
Trauma is what happens in our body when our nervous system has been overwhelmed by an event. The window of tolerance1 is a helpful way of understanding our nervous system.
When we are in the top zone we are in hyper-arousal (fight/flight), experiencing too much arousal and intense emotions such as anxiety, fear, adaptation, anger, irritation.
When we are in the bottom zone we are in hypo-arousal, (freeze/immobility) experiencing too little arousal and feeling frozen, spaced out, numb or disconnected.
In the optimal zone of the window of tolerance we are tolerating our emotions, feeling calm, present and alert. We can rest, digest and connect with others easily.
Grounding is one way of helping you regulating your nervous system, connecting with a sense of safety in your body, so you can stay within your window of tolerance.
Step 2 – Gather objects for your kit
You need a small basket, container or bag. Something big enough to hold a collection of items. Although grounding literally relies on having a connection to the ground in practice it is helpful to cover as many senses as possible.
Tactile and visual – things you can touch and examine
Soft cloth or material
Something with edges
Auditory – something that makes a sound
Olfactory – things you can smell
Citrus scented candle
Scent to spray
Kinesthetic – reminders written on a card
‘Press your feet into the ground’
‘Move your body’
‘Breathe in through your nose and slowly out through your mouth’
Grounding statements written on a card
‘I am safe now’
‘That was then and this is now’
Step 3 – begin to connect to your own nervous system
Once you have collected some items the next crucial step is noticing when you are moving out of your window of tolerance. Pausing, connecting with your body and noticing whether you are feeling hyper-aroused (anxious, irritable) or hypo-aroused (disconnected/shutting down), or within your window of tolerance (calm and present). Initially you might want to set a reminder to do this throughout the day, or anchor this check-in to something you already do regularly, like making a hot drink or using the toilet. When you notice yourself outside your window then use your grounding kit.
Step 4 – practice practice practice
Find out what works for you. Is it scent? Touch?
A good idea is also to practice grounding using an item you usually have on you (jewellery, keys, phone). However if you get caught out and don’t have a grounding object when you need one you can use anything around you. It is less about having the ‘right’ things and more about using what you have in the best way.
With objects to look at or touch the key is to really notice. For example looking at or touching the stone as if it is the first time. Noticing every little blemish, rough patch, the way it catches the light, whether it feels warm or cool.
Step 5 – prepare for challenges
There may be events on the horizon which you know will pull you out of the optimal zone. This might be when you are beginning to do trauma focussed therapy and I encourage people to have a grounding kit with them during our online therapy sessions for this reason.
Other times you want to consciously remember to have your kit to hand could be when you are going into a situation which you associate with distress or trauma. In my perinatal work this is typically the first trip to hospital after birth trauma, scans after pregnancy loss or during fertility treatment, hearing a baby cry.
Not all professionals are trauma-aware so I recommend you print this article and share with people in your care team so they understand and support you with grounding.
A case example
Mary* was anxious about her upcoming c-section, experiencing intrusive memories of her previous traumatic birth triggered by the smell of hospital disinfectant. She had permission from her obstetrician to bring in a small piece of towelling washed in scented fabric softener that she stroked and smelt throughout the procedure. Her birth partner recited her grounding statement ‘you are safe’. Mary stayed grounded and had a positive birth experience.
If you realise you are struggling with trauma symptoms and moving outside your window of tolerance in a way which is upsetting you might benefit from therapy. Contact me and I will help you every step of the way.
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Miriam ~ Helping you have Better Beginnings
* a pseudoname
1 Siegel, Daniel J. (1999) The Developing Mind: Toward a Neurobiology of Interpersonal Experience. New York: Guilford Press.
I am a highly experienced Clinical Perinatal Psychologist specialising in helping people in the perinatal period. Supporting women who are hoping to be mothers, preparing to be mothers or are mothers already.
I started Better Beginnings after experiencing challenges on my own journey to motherhood. It made me reflect on how hard this period can be. Fortunately, I had a group of friends who were there to support me. But if I felt like this, with my psychologist training, how were other parents coping?
I became passionate about using my expertise as a Perinatal Clinical Psychologist to make a positive difference to other mother’s early parenthood experiences.