Grounding exercises

Grounding exercises are things you can do to bring yourself into contact with the present moment – the here and now. They can be quick strategies (like taking three deep “belly breaths”) or longer, more formal exercises (like meditation). Different strategies work for different people, and there is no “wrong” way to ground yourself. The main aim is to keep your mind and body connected and working together.

People who have experienced childhood sexual abuse or adult sexual assault can sometimes be confronted by flashbacks or intense memories of what was done, to the point that they are feel as if they are back there, re-living the abuse all over again. A flashback is an example of being in the “there and then” rather than the “here and now,” so grounding exercises can help to bring you back.

Grounding exercises are a way for you to firmly anchor yourself in the present

Grounding exercisesGrounding exercises are helpful for many situations where you find yourself becoming overwhelmed or distracted by distressing memories, thoughts or feelings. If you find yourself getting caught up in strong emotions like anxiety or anger, or if you catch yourself engaging in stressful circling thoughts, or if you experience a strong painful memory or a flashback, or if you wake up from a nightmare with a pounding heart, grounding exercises can help bring you back down to earth.

It can be helpful to have a selection of grounding exercises that you can draw upon at different times. Just like no one technique works for all people, we often find that not all techniques work at all times. One thing you can do is look over some lists of grounding exercises and write down all the ones you think might work for you. Carry your personal list with you. Then, when you find yourself needing relief, you can run your eyes down your list and pick out the strategy that will be most helpful in that situation.

Speaking of lists, we have one of our own below.

The following grounding exercises are about using our senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch – to reconnect our mind and body in the present. It is our basic human senses that remind us we are here now, and we are safe.

In working through the grounding exercises suggested here, you might find one or two that work for you. Keep in mind to only to use the exercises that you feel comfortable with.

List of grounding exercises

  • Remind yourself of who you are now. Say your name. Say your age now. Say where you are now. Say what you have done today. Say what you will do next.
    • “My name is ________, and I am 54 years old. I am in my living room, in my home, in Woolloongabba, in Brisbane, in Queensland. I woke up early today. I had a shower and fed my dog. I just finished my coffee and toast. Soon I am going to walk to the train station and go in to work. I am going to walk down ______ street and then turn left at the bike shop. Then I am going to….”
  • Take ten slow breaths. Focus your attention fully on each breath, on the way in and on the way out. Say number of the breath to yourself as you exhale.
  • Splash some water on your face. Notice how it feels. Notice how the towel feels as you dry.
  • Sip a cool drink of water.
  • Hold a cold can or bottle of soft drink in your hands. Feel the coldness, and the wetness on the outside. Note the bubbles and taste as you drink.
  • If you wake during the night, remind yourself who you are, and where you are. Tell yourself who you are and where you are. What year is it, what age are you now? Look around the room and notice familiar objects and name them. Feel the bed you are lying on, the warmth or coolness of the air, and notice any sounds you hear.
  • Feel the clothes on your body, whether your arms and legs are covered or not, and the sensation of your clothes as you move in them. Notice how your feet feel to be encased in shoes or socks.
  • If you are with other people, and you feel comfortable with them, concentrate closely on what they are saying and doing, and remind yourself why you are with them.
  • If you are sitting, feel the chair under you and the weight of your body and legs pressing down onto it. Notice the pressure of the chair, or floor, or table against your body and limbs.
  • If you are lying down, feel the contact between your head, your body and your legs, as they touch the surface you are lying on. Starting from your head, notice how each part of your body feels, all the way down to your feet, on the soft or hard surface.
  • Stop and listen. Notice and name what sounds you can hear nearby. Gradually move your awareness of sounds outward, so you are focusing on what you can hear in the distance.
  • Hold a mug of tea in both hands and feel its warmth. Don’t rush drinking it; take small sips, and take your time tasting each mouthful.
  • Look around you, notice what is front of you and to each side. Name and notice the qualities of large objects and then smaller ones.
  • Get up and walk around. Take your time to notice each step as you take one, then another.
  • Stamp your feet, and notice the sensation and sound as you connect with the ground.
  • Clap and rub your hands together. Hear the noise and feel the sensation in your hands and arms.
  • Wear an elastic band on your wrist (not tight) and flick it gently, so that you feel it spring back on your wrist.
  • If you can, step outside, notice the temperature of the air and how much it is different or similar to where you have just come from.
  • Stretch.
  • Notice five things you can see, five things you can hear, five things you can feel, taste, or smell.
  • If you have a pet, spend some time with them. Notice what is special and different about them.
  • Run your hands over something with an interesting texture.
  • Get a sultana, a nut, or some seeds, etc. Focus on how it looks, feels and smells. Put it in your mouth and notice how that feels, before chewing mindfully and noticing how it feels to swallow.
  • Put on a piece of instrumental music. Give it all of your attention.
  • If you have a garden or some plants, tend to them for a bit. Plants, and actual soil, can be an excellent “grounder!”
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How are you feeling?

When you are asked ‘how are you feeling?, it can sometimes be difficult to know how to answer. This not because men don’t have feelings; obviously we do.

When thinking about sexual abuse, sadness, shame and confusion are common emotions. These are normal feelings to have when treated in such an unfair, criminal way. Yet it is also quite understandable to want to avoid these intense emotions.

Distraction, ‘numbing’ or avoiding emotions are strategies for dealing with intense emotional pain that are sometimes useful in stopping us from feeling overwhelmed.

One emotion that men are often quite familiar with is anger. Anger can be useful in encouraging action against injustice, however, it can also lead to aggression and become a ‘cover’ for some uncomfortable yet important emotions.

What we hear from a lot of men, however, is that eventually these difficult emotions find ways to grab your attention, often at a time of crisis. We also hear that when shutting down has become a habit, it can make it more difficult to experience pleasant feelings or any sense of joy in life.

Tips for making sense of emotions

The idea of making space, room, or time for all of life’s emotions can be helpful. It is not about some emotions being good or bad, but being able to tolerate and experience a range of emotions as part of living life to the full.

You might be ready to start taking some risks with allowing yourself to really notice what you are feeling.

This can be extremely challenging, because it can initially feel like things are getting worse. Feelings that have been buried or ignored for a long time are starting to be noticed and experienced.

As we said before, this is why it can be important to have a reasonably ‘solid base’ that builds your well-being when doing this work. By building a solid that enhances your well-being on a number of fronts it becomes possible to experience distressing feelings without getting thrown off course.

As you get used to recognising and naming feelings, you slowly begin to realise that you can actually cope with them. Over time they will become less daunting, and you might even find that you experience other, more positive feelings, in a different way too.

Exercises to get to know your emotions

  • Try to pay attention to your physiological responses to different situations. This includes your heart rate, breathing, sweating, shaking/trembling, tension in some muscles, ‘the hairs on the back of your neck standing up’…all these are clues to what’s going on emotionally.
  • Start noticing what is going on in your body core and head. Is my heart beat fast or slow? Is my breathing deep or shallow? Does my face feel hot or cool? Then try narrowing it down with more precise descriptions (cool as tap water or cold like ice?), or making a visual scale rating how fast or slow (from 1-10), how hot or cold, etc.
  • Once you’ve noticed and described these physiological sensations, try naming the emotion that goes with it. Again, start big (e.g. sad), and get more detailed (grief, regret, disappointment…).
  • Emotions are sometimes grouped into four ‘BIG’ categories, ‘mad – bad – glad – sad’. Each category can be broken down into smaller groupings and descriptions of a range of different emotions.
  • Once you have given it a name, ask: Is it OK for me to feel this? Why/why not?
  • Are there social judgments about men expressing this emotion? Who with/where would it be OK to express this feeling without being negatively judged?

Getting to know your feelings and emotions in this way can gradually help with making decisions about whether to try and ‘stay with’ your feelings. We are not suggesting that there is a wrong or right decision, but that you can make your own decisions.

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Celebrating Life

It is worth noticing that despite whatever abuse you have experienced and whatever problems this may have brought into your life, you are still here.

Not only are you still here, but you are doing things to build the life you want, not a life that is determined by your experiences of abuse.

Take time to acknowledge what you have achieved. What do you feel good about? What are you proud of?

It could be a relationship, parenting, success in work, or sports achievements. It could be something you have done to help someone else.

It could be standing up against injustices, no matter how small or large.

It could be anything that reflects the life you want to build for yourself, based on your own values, beliefs and preferences.