Grounding Techniques for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Using the Five Senses to Cope

Cropped Hand Of Person Holding Ice
Artem Varnitsin / EyeEm / Getty Images

Grounding is a particular type of coping strategy that is designed to "ground" you in, or immediately connect you with, the present moment. Grounding is often used as a way of coping with flashbacks or dissociation when you have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Because of its focus on being present in the moment, grounding can be considered a variant of mindfulness. It can also be a method of distraction to get you out of your head and away from upsetting thoughts, memories, or feelings.

How It Works

Grounding techniques often use the five senses—sound, touch, smell, taste, and sight—to immediately connect you with the here and now. For example, singing a song, rubbing lotion on your hands, or sucking on some sour candy are all grounding techniques that produce sensations that are difficult to ignore or distract you from what's going on in your mind. This helps you directly and instantaneously connect with the present moment. At the same time, grounding reduces the likelihood that you will slip into a flashback or dissociation.

Grounding is highly personal. What may work for one person may trigger anxiety or flashbacks in another. You may need to do some trial and error before you figure out what grounding techniques work best for you. Pay attention to the coping mechanisms you've already developed to help you get through flashbacks and anxiety and see if you can build on them and/or use them as grounding techniques.

Grounding Techniques

To connect with the here and now, do something (or several things) that will bring all your attention to the present moment. Be sure to keep your eyes open while you're grounding yourself so you're aware of everything that's going on around you. If you notice that you're slipping into a flashback or a dissociative state, try some of these grounding techniques.

Sound

  • Turn up the radio or blast your favorite song.
  • Talk out loud about what you see, hear, or what you're thinking or doing.
  • Call a loved one.
  • Put on some nature sounds such as birds chirping or waves crashing.
  • Read out loud, whether it's a favorite children's book, a blog article, or the latest novel.

Touch

  • Hold an ice cube and let it melt in your hand.
  • Put your hands under running water.
  • Take a hot or cool shower.
  • Grab an article of clothing, a blanket, or a towel and knead it in your hands or hold it to your cheek. Concentrate on what it feels like.
  • Rub your hand lightly over the carpet or a piece of furniture, noting the texture.
  • Pop some bubble wrap.
  • Massage your temples.
  • If you have a dog or cat, cuddle and pet him or her.
  • Drink a hot or cold beverage.

Smell

  • Sniff strong peppermint, which also has the benefit of having a soothing effect.
  • Light a scented candle or melt scented wax.
  • Get some essential oils that remind you of good times (freshly cut grass, rain, clean laundry, or sugar cookies, for example) and smell one.

Taste

  • Bite into a lemon or lime.
  • Suck on a mint or chew peppermint or cinnamon gum.
  • Take a bite of a pepper or some hot salsa.
  • Let a piece of chocolate melt in your mouth, noticing how it tastes and feels as you roll it around with your tongue.

Sight

  • Take a mental inventory of everything around you, such as all the colors and patterns you see, the sounds you hear, and the scents you smell. Saying this out loud is helpful too.
  • Count all the pieces of furniture around you.
  • Put on your favorite movie or TV show.
  • Play a distracting game on your tablet, computer, or smartphone.
  • Complete a crossword puzzle, sudoku, word search, or other puzzle.
  • Read a book or magazine.

Other

  • Write in a journal about how you're feeling or keep a list of prompts handy that you can use to decide what to write about.
  • Write a letter or card to someone you care about.
  • Dance.
  • Stretch your arms, neck, and legs.
  • Go for a walk or run.
  • Take 10 slow, deep breaths.
  • Go to another room or area for a change of scenery.

Grounding Can Be Done Anywhere

The nice thing about using grounding as a coping technique is that many of these techniques can be done in any environment. You might be home alone or out in public, but once you feel that flashback or dissociation coming on, you can use grounding to move your focus back to the present.

Working on grounding takes dedication and it becomes easier over time. If these particular grounding techniques don't work for you, try something else. For example, some people find that a rubber band on their wrist is useful to snap them back to the moment. The ultimate goal is to live in the now and focus on the present when the past starts coming up.

Treatment for PTSD

If you aren't getting treatment for your PTSD but would like to, you can find PTSD treatment providers in your area through the Anxiety Disorder Association of America website. The International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD) also provides a wealth of information on the connection between trauma and dissociation, how to cope with dissociation, and links to therapists who treat trauma and dissociation.

View Article Sources
  • Lynch J, Mack L. PTSD Recovery Program: Treatment Manual. Richmond, VA: Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center. https://www.mirecc.va.gov/docs/visn6/ptsd_recovery_group_client_manual.pdf
  • 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