Grounding Exercises to Cope With Borderline Personality Disorder

Learn how to focus your attention on the present

woman doing breathing exercise
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If you have borderline personality disorder (BPD), you may benefit from grounding exercises. These techniques are helpful during dissociation, panic, anxiety, strong impulsive urges, flashbacks, and intense emotional distress. Learning and practicing grounding exercises can help you soothe your emotions and manage your BPD symptoms. 

How Grounding Works

Grounding exercises are designed to help you focus your attention on the present moment. They're helpful whenever you're having an experience that's causing you a lot of anxiety or that feels overwhelming or all-consuming because they force you to concentrate on the right now instead of the past, your upsetting feelings, and/or the "what if."

There are a variety of exercises that have been developed for grounding and different ones can be used to target different situations. For example, some of the exercises can be done in public whereas others are more suitable for a private setting, for example, when you're having very intense dissociative experiences. It's usually best to practice a variety of these exercises so that you have several to draw on when you need them and to figure out which ones suit you the best.

Visual and Auditory Grounding Exercises

Visual and auditory grounding exercises rely on using your senses of sight and hearing to ground you into the present moment. To conduct a visual grounding exercise, take a deep breath, and then start to mentally catalog the things you see around you. Look for even the mundane details like the color of electrical outlets or a frame that's crooked.

To do an auditory grounding exercise, listen to the sounds you hear around you. Don't just notice the obvious sounds, but notice the layers of sound, such as a dog's whine before it howls. Notice how sounds rise and fall, their pitch, intensity, and timbre.

The good news is that these exercises are suitable for any environment. In other words, you don't need to be able to see or hear anything special to be able to practice them. In fact, these exercises can be particularly useful for times when you're in public, as no one will even know what you are doing. You can then stop the exercise whenever you're feeling reconnected to the current moment.

Other visual and auditory grounding exercises you can try include:

  • Sing or hum your favorite song.
  • Read your favorite poem, children's book, or song lyrics out loud.
  • Call someone.
  • Whisper or say out loud, "I am safe," or "I am calm," or whatever emotion you are trying to capture. Repeat it until you feel grounded.
  • Put on a funny YouTube video or watch an episode of your favorite sitcom. Or watch a scary movie.
  • Find an app that plays nature sounds ahead of time. Pick your favorite one and play it when you need grounding.

Tactile Grounding Exercises

Tactile grounding exercises use your sense of touch to ground you. One commonly used tactile grounding exercise is to grab an ice cube out of the freezer and hold it in your hand until it starts to cause some mild discomfort. Don't hold onto it for too long or it can cause pain. Many people find that the discomfort helps them reconnect with the current time.

Here are some other examples of tactile grounding exercises to try:

  • Take a cool shower or run your hands under cool water. Or do the opposite and take a hot bubble bath.
  • Gently snap a rubber band on your wrist.
  • Rub some scented lotion on your hands, focusing on the way it feels and smells as you work it into your skin.
  • Use a water mister to spray your face and/or chest.
  • Pick a hand and tap each finger with your thumb, starting with your index finger and continuing down. Go back and forth until you feel grounded.
  • Keep a bead, pebble, stress ball, a small piece of cloth, or another object of your choice in your pocket and roll it around in your hand(s) when you need to get grounded. You can also use a bracelet or necklace.
  • Run your hand slowly and gently over the carpet or the fabric of a piece of furniture or clothing and notice how it feels when you rub it in one direction versus the other.
  • Put a piece of chocolate in your mouth. Experience the texture, flavor, and feel as it slowly melts.
  • Stretch your arms up over your head as high as you can, then out to your sides, finally pulling your elbows back as far as you can behind your back. Repeat. Think about your muscles flexing and feel their strength.
  • Hug your favorite stuffed animal, a comfy blanket, or a pillow.
  • Take off your shoes and push your toes into the floor or ground.

Other Grounding Exercises

If none of the above work for you, be creative and make up your own grounding exercises. Coming up with your own may be especially helpful since only you know what will work best for your situation. What senses are most powerful for you? Smell? Taste? Touch? Might a combination of exercises work best, like putting on your favorite song while you stretch your muscles?

Here are more techniques to try or that you can use as a springboard to come up with your own twist:

  • Take a whiff of peppermint from a bottle of essential oil or very strong mints.
  • Bite into a lemon or take a sip of lemon juice.
  • Find something in the room that starts with A, then B, then C, and so on.
  • Count backward from 100.
  • Put on your favorite song and really concentrate on the words, the music, and the way it all makes you feel.
  • Write how you're feeling in a journal that's designated for grounding and use your favorite pen. Notice how the pen feels in your hand and the smoothness of how it writes on the paper.
  • Play a game on your phone or computer.
  • Breathe in through your nose slowly and deeply until your lungs are full. Slowly exhale through your mouth until your lungs are empty. Repeat, concentrating on the feeling of your lungs expanding and contracting.
  • Pull a mental picture into your mind of your favorite place and imagine you're there. Think about what you'd be doing if you were really there.
  • Go outside and smell the air or the flowers, trees, or leaves.
  • Jump up and down.

Practice

Try different grounding techniques until you find a few or a combination that works for you. Practice them over and over, preferably before you need to use them. The more you practice, the easier it'll be to remember how to ground yourself when the time comes. It's also good to practice using your grounding exercises right away when you start to feel anxious, distressed, impulsive, or panicky, before your emotions get the best of you.

You may also want to discuss grounding exercises with your therapist or doctor, as he or she may be able to provide additional guidance on which exercises would be most effective for you. A loved one may have helpful input too.

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Article Sources
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  • Winona State University. Grounding. Adapted from Seeking Safety by Lisa M. Najavits. Updated November 21, 2016. https://www.winona.edu/resilience/Media/Grounding-Worksheet.pdf

  • James Madison University. Grounding Techniques. Counseling Center. https://www.jmu.edu/counselingctr/files/Grounding%20Techniques.pdf