In one of our previous articles,  The First Stage of Trauma Recovery: Establishing Safety, we touched on grounding as a method for helping survivors to feel more safe and regulated in their bodies and in their environment. These techniques are useful during therapy when trauma processing or other therapeutic modalities may cause individuals to feel emotionally or physically out of control. But the purpose of practicing the skill of grounding within the therapeutic context is so that ultimately when survivors do not have the direct support of a mental health provider, for instance when they are in their homes or out in the world, they will know what resources to reach for when they need to regulate their nervous systems.

At Sanctuary all of our therapists are trained to provide education and support around grounding, but in our group therapy sessions clients can also look to support team members known as Recovery Coaches when needing to ground. Recovery Coaches sit in on every group and when a client is feeling outside their “window of tolerance,” a coach will talk them through grounding techniques, help them identify nearby resources, and ultimately support them in rejoining the rest of the group once they are feeling more present and in control. 

What is “the window of tolerance”?

The “window of tolerance” was conceptualized by psychiatrist Dan Siegel who calls this window the “optimal zone of arousal.” The idea being that throughout the day we tend to exist within a certain emotional capacity. There may be ups and downs in our emotional regulation as the day goes on but when we are in our “window” we are generally able to adapt to these ups and downs fairly easily.  However, there are times when we may become overwhelmed or anxious and we move outside of this window, specifically above it, into a state of hyper-arousal where we might feel panicked or unsafe or in a “fight or flight” space. There are also times when we fall below the window and into a state of hypo-arousal where we might feel numb, shut down, or frozen. 

It is inevitable that everyone sometimes finds themselves outside of their “window of tolerance” but an awareness of our emotional states and the ability to notice cues in our bodies that signal we have moved outside our window can help us achieve better emotional regulation. Trauma survivors often struggle with this emotional regulation — this is a symptom of their trauma and emotional regulation is a skill that has to be re-learned as part of their recovery. One part of learning and practicing this skill is through grounding. 

How does grounding work? 

Put very simply, grounding helps individuals to feel more “grounded” or rooted to their surroundings, and more present and aware of their emotional state. Mindfulness, including meditation and breathing techniques, live under the general umbrella term of grounding. There are a lot of other resources under that umbrella — chances are you have used a grounding technique, you may use one every day, and you do not even realize it. Maybe when you are feeling stressed you take a hot shower — taking time to feel the warm water on your skin and taking deep breaths to inhale the steam — you’re grounding. Maybe when you’re stuck in traffic and feeling particularly vengeful you turn on Joni Mitchell and notice the tightness in your body relax just a little — you’re grounding too. 

Though the term grounding is inclusive of many different resources, it is often connected to the five senses. For instance, in one of our group therapy sessions if a client is above their window and feeling extremely anxious or panicked, we might suggest that they light a scented candle or incense, drink a warm cup of tea, play with putty or playdough, listen to music, or name aloud the colors, shapes, and textures they notice in their space. If a client is below their window and feeling frozen, perhaps unable to speak, we might simply ask them to start noticing the ground under their feet, or the chair supporting their back — reminders that they have a body and that they are safe. Other resources for self-soothing connected to the five senses might include:

  • Smell: candles, incense, scented lotions, essential oils, nearby flowers or plants 
  • Taste: a hot beverage, a cold beverage, slowly eating and focusing on flavors and textures
  • Touch: stress balls, fuzzy blankets, a smooth stone, play dough or putty
  • Sound: music, podcasts, nature sounds
  • Sight: observing and speaking aloud what you see in your space, noticing details of shape, color, and texture

Breathing and body scans can be other useful tools for grounding though these techniques may not work for everyone. Some people feel calmer through deep breathing and mindfulness while others who are still learning to feel safe in their bodies may find deep breathing and body scans too overwhelming. Shifts in temperature can also be helpful — for instance some people may notice they feel warm when they are anxious, so holding an ice pack might be a useful grounding method. 

Because grounding encompasses a broad range of resources, it takes time to figure what works best in helping you return to your “window of tolerance”. That means being patient and even brave about trying techniques that you might find at first make you feel less regulated. When that happens, you know to cross that method off your list and try something new. Eventually, with trial and error, survivors learn what resources work for them. Being able to identify what you need in terms of grounding is empowering. When a survivor can name: “I am outside of my window and in order to get back into it I know I need x, y, and z”, they are taking back a sense of control that was stolen from them as a result of their trauma. 

A simple grounding exercise: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

Name 5 things in your space that you can see; notice details of shape and color.
Name 4 things you can reach out and touch; notice details of texture.
Name 3 things you can hear; notice volume and tone.
Name 2 things you can smell.
Name 1 thing you can taste. 

Imagine breathing in relaxation through your nose and breathing out tension through your mouth.  

Deep breath in. Deep breath out. 

 

Written by: Mackenzie McBride, Recovery Coach
Sanctuary Healing NYC

Sources

The First Stage of Trauma Recovery: Establishing Safety
Mindfulness and the Window of Tolerance

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