Sensory Grounding for Anxiety Management
Anxiety’s a bitch.
You know it. I know it. Millions of Americans know it. It can interfere with the most basic life functions and make you question your very existence as a worthwhile, beautiful human being.
Anxiety is one of the most common symptoms of trauma. It can come and go seemingly at random, sometimes frighteningly loud and energetic—and sometimes subtly insidious and subconscious.
It affects different people in different ways, but there are some aspects that are universal. Which brings us to the most common question in mental health therapy:
How do I overcome anxiety?
I want you to try something. Right now, after you read this passage. I want you to engage your five senses. Wherever you are, observe the space around you. Notice:
5 things you can see
4 things you can feel/touch
3 things you can hear
2 things you can smell
1 thing you can taste
Don’t think about it too much. Just observe. Activate your sensory awareness. Your senses are always gathering information. Practicing this sensory grounding technique lets you harness that power for redirecting your thoughts away from anxiety pathways.
Here, I’ll demonstrate with what’s around me:
5 things I can see
Art on the wall
Light from the window
A scratch on my desk
4 things I can feel/touch
Condensation on my waterglass
My glasses perched on my nose
The edge of my desk under my forearms
Breeze from the open window
3 things I can hear
The tap-tap of my keyboard
The clock over my desk
A neighbor’s lawnmower
2 things I can smell
Lavender hand lotion
Fresh cut grass from the window
1 thing I can taste
Your turn—I’ll wait...
See how easy that was? Well sensory grounding is a powerful mental-health technique that trauma therapists and counselors teach for managing anxiety and practicing mindfulness.
Anxiety essentially creates ruts in your brain’s electrical pathways, and when your thoughts start going down those ruts, they only burn deeper. But as we all know, when you’re caught up in the emotions of anxiety, rational reality has a hard time breaking through.
Observing your surroundings and focusing on your five senses can help redirect ruminating thoughts or interrupt cascading emotions. It can also help you tune in better to early signs of an anxiety attack or other PTSD episode, which can help with understanding your triggers.
Becoming aware of your emotions and observing your feelings without judgement is a vital coping mechanism for making progress in trauma therapy—and that’s what we mean when we talk about mindfulness.
How does mindfulness help with PTSD symptoms?
Mindfulness (noun) – a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapy technique.
People who have experienced trauma tend to engage in emotional avoidance, often without realizing it. That’s because the emotions and physical manifestations of PTSD can be painful—and who wouldn’t want to avoid pain?
But one of the most important steps of coping with trauma is learning to be okay with what you’re feeling. Because trauma emotions can be triggered at any time—and trauma recovery is not linear. So unless you want that unpredictable schedule to control you, the key is to face your feelings as they come up, and work through them in an intentional way.
Which you can only do if you’re aware of what you’re feeling.
Which is mindfulness.
Setting up a “grounding chair” is a simple way to practice mindfulness. Plus it’s a perfect excuse to just sit and relax for a bit—for the sake of your mental health!
“Grounding Chair” technique for complex PTSD
For clients managing complex PTSD symptoms, practicing mindfulness is crucial—and I recommend a number of different techniques.
The Grounding Chair exercise unites sensory grounding with physical anchoring, meaning you’ll learn to associate the space with the mindfulness practice, which helps amplify its effectiveness.
Here’s how it works:
Pick a safe space to be your grounding area. It can be a chair, bed, couch, mat outside, or anywhere you can get to easily. (You can also have more than one.)
First, sit and ground yourself in the physical sensations of your seat. Focus on the textures. Notice how each part of your body feels in the space. If your feet are touching the floor, focus on feeling the ground beneath you. Move your toes, feeling the sensations. Shift your hips, flex your legs, settle into those sensations. Breathe deep and notice what that feels like.
Now keep going. Expand your awareness using the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding exercise from above. Take it slow, paying attention to the space around you and your place in it.
Pro tip: You can keep hard candy or mints nearby, for the taste element. You can also keep small objects at hand, like a rock or stuffed animal to feel different textures.
While you’re paying attention to your senses, also observe your emotions. Observe your thoughts. Don’t try to change the way you feel or think—just notice it. Engage your mindfulness and take a step back to objectively witness anxiety wash over you and through you until it passes.
Want to try this trauma therapy technique but still not sure? Contact me with any questions.