PTSD TOOLBOX: GROUNDING
#1 in a 20-part series on tools for veterans battling PTSD
by Joe Spencer
The DAWG Foundation
After a big lunch, you’re walking down the hallway in your office building, mentally preparing for the rest of the day. You wave and smile at Linda, one of your coworkers, as you walk by her office. It is a Tuesday, an ‘easy’ day. With a light work load, you figure you could be out of the office by 5pm. Battle traffic for a bit on the Loop, and be home in time to actually eat dinner with the family…maybe catch up on some Sons of Anarchy on Netflix–
–you’re out of breath, your heart is racing. Tunnel vision starts to set in, and your knees turn to water. You lurch your way to your office, sit down hard in your computer chair, and press your palms into your eye sockets. This is nothing new, but it still sucks every time it happens….the sudden, overbearing feeling of anxiety, fear…..whatever the hell it is. It grips you and refuses to let go. You start slipping back into that dark place again. You hate it there. All you need is a lifeline, something to grab onto…something that reminds you that you’re not ‘over there’ anymore…you are safe and secure in your office…
Ever have this feeling? Are there times that you simply lock up, shut down, or feel the need to detach from reality in order to protect yourself? Why does this always happen at the most inopportune times…at work, birthday parties, while driving…sometimes the most common tasks will trigger an occurrence, forcing you to shut down completely to avoid escalation.
This ‘spacing out’ is a common ingredient of PTSD, and can usually be managed with the development of some simple, easy techniques. We are going to discuss one of those, below.
If you have been attending your group therapy sessions and/or seeing your therapist (ahem….hint, hint), Grounding should be a familiar tool in your daily PTSD toolbox. This is a simple technique that can be utilized virtually anywhere. It just requires some basic explanation, and the discipline to make it a part of your repertoire.
WHAT IS GROUNDING?
Simply put, Grounding is the act of focusing your mind on a single object, action, or activity in order to ‘block out’ any other invasive thoughts (such as those causing, whether consciously or unconsciously, the anxiety trigger you may currently be experiencing). Grounding is used in many therapeutic techniques, and does not require an expert to learn and master. Anyone willing to put forth a little bit of time and energy–and patience–can make this an essential tool in their self help toolbox.
While Grounding can be done just by utilizing one or two of the senses (such as making a phone call), the technique tends to be more effective the more senses you can utilize. If something can be seen, touched, smelled, heard, and even tasted, it can have a greater impact on your Grounding than the above-mentioned phone call (but not always! More on that, later).
LETS DO SOME GROUNDING WORK
Grounding is extremely simple. If you just watched the video (above), you pretty much have the meat and potatoes of Grounding: finding something…ANYTHING…that you can do to capture your attention and allow you to focus on despite anything else that may be assaulting your emotions. 2-5 minutes of Grounding at the time of an occurrence can do more good than hours of counseling afterwards. Lets go through some examples:
1. The Phone Call to a Friend
–Sometimes, a simple phone call to your battle buddy may be all it takes to refocus. Ask them to talk about something–ANYTHING–other than you or ‘the problem’…talk about what they are doing today, something they saw on the television, sports, etc. Get in the habit of asking them questions about what they are describing; have them get into detail about whatever it is.
Avoid talking about you, or whatever is triggering your occurrence. This is not a ‘fix me’ session; you are not looking for advice or counseling. You are simply seeking sensory and informational input that is completely detached from anything you may currently be experiencing. If the topic brought up hits too close to home, ask them to change the topic.
As you converse with your buddy, focus solely on the words and their meaning. Try to ‘get into’ whatever it is they are describing. Put yourself in your buddy’s position; close your eyes (if it is safe to do so), BREATHE, and really focus on the conversation.
2. The Object
One of the most common techniques used in Grounding is focusing on an object. Just about any mundane ‘thing’ can be used, from a pen or paper clip, to a knob on the car radio, or even some food items (sugar packets, ketchup, whatever).
Hold the item in your hand, and really focus on it. As you look at it (sight), feel its texture (touch), and examine it. Ask yourself questions about it. What color is it? What is it made of? What are five different ways that I could use this item? How much does this item usually cost? Do I have any other items similar to this? Who manufactures this item? You could go on and on.
Food and drink also work really well for Grounding. Focus on flavor, smell, texture, packaging….anything you can. Pretend like you are a food critic; really focus on the stimuli that the food/drink invokes.
The key part of the exercise is really focusing on the item. If other thoughts intrude on the exercise, PUSH THEM OUT. Remind yourself that you MUST know more about this item. You have to figure out every detail of its existence. The only thing you need to focus on at this time is the object.
It may sound silly at first, but I encourage you to give it a try. Pick an object, and start asking yourself questions about it. Time yourself. See how long you can focus on the item before your inquisitive nature runs its course on the object. I bet you will be surprised on how long you can examine even the most mundane item.
3. Anything Else!
Grounding can be done in an unlimited amount of ways; as long as you are focusing on the task/object/conversation at hand, and blocking out all other stimuli, then it can work. Some ideas:
Reading (newspaper/magazine/book/ingredients on a box)
Petting a dog/Playing with a dog
Music (sing the song…focus on the beat/lyrics)
Breathing (Qi-Gong style)
There are a few topics/items I would recommend avoiding, simply because they trend towards creating/enhancing stress rather than lowering it. This may be different for some people, but on the average, the following topics/items should be avoided:
Movies (American Sniper is a recent ‘trigger’ for many veterans)
Firearms/weapons (definitely a ‘no no’ for ‘object’ exercises)
SETTING YOURSELF UP FOR SUCCESS
Like anything else worthwhile, success takes work. Here are some things to keep in mind as you begin adding Grounding to your toolbox:
For those of us with a military background, we understand why we ran so many drills; practice makes perfect. Work out the kinks now, so when the stress of reality hits, we are prepared for any wrenches that get thrown into the mix. This isn’t something that requires a ton of time; as you sit down to have lunch, practice with one of the objects on your lunch tray/table. While you are driving home, focus on the song on the radio. Whatever and whenever you can, practice the technique. Make it second nature. You may just find yourself calming down during the day as you do….and avoiding any occurrences that could have popped up.
2. Build yourself a Grounding Kit
Grab some items from your desk/workshop (small hardware, stationary, etc), and put them in a zip-top plastic bag. Keep that in the center console/glove compartment of your vehicle, in your backpack, wherever. While it may be unnecessary, it can come in handy if you find yourself without many options for Grounding focus. Furthermore, you can make a list of items, people to call, or other focus points to use. The kit and list themselves can even be used for your Grounding!
3. Share your technique with your support team
Let your ‘people’ know that you you are using this tool. At times, we may begin to struggle with an occurrence and not even realize it; having others who interact with you on a daily basis and understand (or are learning about) your battle with anxiety and can call your attention to when you may be exhibiting signs of an oncoming occurrence may be an asset to you; sometimes, we are so wrapped up in WHAT is happening that we do not even realize it has STARTED.
Try different techniques, objects, whatever…never rely on just one tool. Having a diversified selection of aids at your disposal truly sets you up for success!
The Grounding technique is an easy, tried-and-true technique for assisting us during an anxiety occurrence. Practice, patience, and diversity of technique are key to success.
This is just the first tool that the DAWG Foundation will be discussing for our PTSD Toolbox. Stay tuned for future additions!
Have a suggestion for a tool, or do you have a question? Contact Joe at firstname.lastname@example.org
Anxiety BC: Self-Help Strategies (pdf)
Healthyplace.com Grounding Techniques
PsychCentral: 9 Ways To Reduce Anxiety