Grounding: An Effective, But Strange Coping Skill

Coping skills often get a bad rap. Often we hear therapists say “use your coping skills” to help with almost any problem. It can be depression, anger, or anxiety, and we are told to just “use your coping skills” to deal with it. As a result, we have begun to downplay coping skills as solutions, as they can appear overused. Does this mean coping skills are a waste of time? Not in the least. However, correctly using coping skills is not as simple as you would think. 

When therapists say “Coping Skills” the word “Skill” is often ignored. Learning to use coping skills effectively takes time and effort. Meditation, for example, is a very powerful coping skill that can take months or even years to master. All coping skills are the same; they take time and discipline to gain the maximum effect. Does this mean coping skills are useless, or too difficult to use? To answer that, we are going to discuss Grounding, one of the strangest, and most useful coping skills. 

What is Grounding?

Grounding as a coping skill has been around for some time. The purpose of grounding is to divert focus from something distressing to something more pleasant. By shifting focus to something in the environment, we can better control what we experience. To do so, we focus on using the information our five senses provide. For example, if I were anxious over something, and could not stop thinking about it, I would look around and focus on something I see, to begin distracting myself from my anxiety. After performing a grounding exercise, I will be better able to shift my focus away from my anxiety by becoming more aware of what is around me. 

Grounding is a series of exercises designed to use all your senses. For each sense, you note what your senses are telling you. To begin, we will focus on sight. 

5 Things You See

To begin, you will describe five objects you see around you. Pick one and begin to note its appearance. Describe its shape, colors, and function. Be through, and spend about 10 seconds thinking about the object. Below is an example:

Object: A Box Fan

“I see a fan. It is square in shape. The sides are slightly curved, all though she overall shape is square. The fan is white, with traditional fan blades. It is about two feet or so high, and about 2 feet in width. It is on right now and making a slight humming noise. It has a white handle on top, and a gray knob to adjust the speed”. 

In this example, the fan is described in detail. You can think this, or say it out loud if you are alone. The more information you use when describing, the more focus you will gain. An incomplete description would be “I see a white box fan” as it does not give enough detail. In this exercise, you describe five things you see, all in this similar detail. Do not describe four objects or six, use exactly five. 

4 Things You Feel

Next, you will describe four things you feel. Feelings include both physical sensations in your body, as well as emotional feelings. Examples include: hot, tired, hungry, worried, angry and pain. It can include the feel of your clothing or a headache you are experiencing. Below are two examples, a physical and emotional feeling:

Physical Feeling: Tired

“I feel tired right now, and have for most of the day. I did not sleep well last night; I could not fall asleep. I feel tired throughout my body, and my head somewhat hurts. It is hard to keep focus feeling this tired. Now that I am more aware of being tired, I will focus on keeping myself awake my working on something”.

In this example, I was feeling tired due to a lack of sleep. I also noted other feelings, such as the pain in my head. I ended the example with an action that I would focus on work to keep myself awake. Next, we will describe an emotional feeling:

Emotional Feeling: Anxious

“I am feeling anxious right now. At first, I did not know why, however, after thinking about it, I worry about a test I have later this week. I have been having problems in this class for most of the semester, and I worry I will fail the test. The anxiety is like a buzzing in the back of my head. Maybe if I study some, my anxious will decrease”.

In the example above, note the source of the anxiety. By knowing the source, you may be able to do something to reduce the anxiety. In the example, stress is being caused by worry over a test later in the week. By studying for the test, anxiety will decrease as direct action is being taken to solve the problem. For any negative or distressful feeling, ask yourself what you can do to affect it directly.

3 Things You Hear

Next, you will focus on three things you hear in the background. If able, close your eyes and listen to what you hear. Note the not so obvious sounds you hear, and begin to describe them to yourself.

Sound: Music in the background

“I hear light music in the background. It is faint as it is coming from down the hall. It sounds like some sort of jazz piece, all though I cannot make it out. It is not unpleasant, all though I cannot hear it very well. I did not notice it at first until I focused”.

As you practice, try to note sounds that are difficult to hear. You want to put effort into this, to get your mind focused on something else. Try to note the cause of the sound, and what you think about it. If you do not like the sound, or it is unpleasant, note this in your mind. The further down this list you go, the more concentration you will need, as these senses are not as strong as sight or feeling.

2 Things You Smell

Things become more difficult with smell and taste. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between different smells or to note smells in certain environments. You are going to need to practice, as our noses are not very good. Take a deep breath and note what you smell. Often it will be something you ate or drank recently. Other times it will be something in the environment. In this exercise, try to focus on not so obvious smells and focus more on ones you may have missed.

Smell: A distant pine smell

“I smell some sort of pine smell, something faint. I think it’s a cleaning solution, maybe pine sol? I did not notice it at first, but it is there. Maybe it was used weeks ago. It is a nice smell. It reminds me of the woods where I took my last vacation”.

As in previous examples, note the possible source of the smell, and what you think about it. If specific memories come up, follow them. The more time you spend thinking on what you smell, the better.

1 Thing You Taste

While taste may seem the easiest sense, often it is the hardest. Tastes often blend and are sometimes difficult to describe. In this case, think back to what you ate or drank lately, and see if you can detect it. If a specific taste is obvious, try to focus on another, something more in the background.

“I taste some sort of bitter flavor. It is hard to describe, as I cannot detect the source. I drank coffee hours ago, and this may be the bitter taste, all though it does not taste like coffee. Something else is there, pepper? I had some jerky an hour or so ago, that may be it”.

The more time you spend, the better you will be at distinguishing different tastes. If you cannot pin down the source of the taste, describe how you feel about the taste.

Final Focus

Now that you have finished with all your senses, you will end the exercise by determining what you want to do next. As we are trying to distract from something negative, we need a set task to complete, or our thoughts will drift back to the negative. Using the examples above, determine an action you can complete in the next few minutes that will benefit you.

Example: Studying to Reduce Anxiety

“I noted I was anxious earlier about my test at the end of the week. To reduce my anxiety, I will study for my test during the next half hour. Hopefully, I will feel better after I studied some. At least I won’t be worrying about it!”.

By completing an action, we have to take our minds off of what is distressing us. In truth, grounding is about noting distress, then making a plan to combat it in the moment. By taking action, worry has no power and no place in your mind. This can be the same for any negative emotion.

Repetition

Grounding does not automatically work the first time you try. You need to practice it to become good at it. At first, you may not notice much beyond the action, you take at the end. However, over time you will begin to know more of how you are feeling, within your body and your emotional state. You will begin to notice things more in the background, and your senses will improve. It is common for people practicing grounding to be more aware of sounds, smells, and tastes.

I suggest practicing grounding at least a couple times a day. This can be done anywhere, as you can think the steps in our head. It can be done driving to work, or in the classroom, or watching television. Once you have memorized the order and are more comfortable with grounding, begin to use it anytime you have a distressful feeling you want to ignore. If you need to practice grounding 50 times a day to feel better, do so.

In Conclusion

Grounding is a strange coping skill that takes time and effort to learn. While different, grounding can help with many conditions. I have seen people with schizophrenia practice grounding to combat hallucinations. I have seen people in panic attacks use grounding to gain control of their body. Grounding is one of the best coping skills if you put the training in it. Try it today; it could change your life.

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Nathan Driskell

Hello, my name is Nathan Driskell and I am a Licensed Professional Counselor – Supervisor in the Houston / Cypress area specializing in the treatment of Internet Addiction & Asperger’s / Autism. I work with children, adolescents, adults, couples & families.

You can reach me at my website or call me directly at 832-559-3520 if you have any questions. Thank You!
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