Grounding is useful for regulating intense emotional pain. Grounding involves generating signals of safety in the body that are transmitted to the brain and expanding awareness beyond emotional pain by using our senses: Sight, Hearing, Touch, Taste, Smell and Sense of space. Finding which grounding skills work for us takes practice and some experimentation. Here we consider the role of grounding, and it's possible benefits when managing emotional pain, and explore some suggestions about how to begin developing grounding skills in everday life.
When we experience high levels of stress, our bodies respond by triggering the brains ‘smoke alarm’ and activating survival responses. This is invaluable in helping us to move to a safe place when there is an active threat to our physical safety or a threat of abandonment from our social support network. This response can however be problematic for several reasons.
Firstly, as we have explored in the ‘Beyond Fight or Flight’ series, these systems are geared towards calling for help, running away or shutting down. These responses may not be effective in managing many of the situations we face in modern life, such as managing financial difficulties, which require more of our problem-solving skills. If we however are in current danger (for example, domestic violence), it is important to get appropriate help to address and reduce these dangers as in these instances our responses are in fact helping us to survive, and therefore calming strategies are unlikely to be of benefit.
Secondly, often the skills we need to move on from stressful circumstances (for example, an argument with someone we love) require us to use the very brain areas that are “turned off” by the crisis response. As discussed in the ‘Three-part Brain’ and ‘The Brain’s Response to Threat’ pages, the thinking brain activity is reduced in these instances – meaning we struggle to take in other’s perspectives, to problem solve and think creatively.
Finally, the threat we feel may be based more on our past experiences than the present (for example, if we have been punished or hurt in the past in similar circumstances). Although the situations we face in the present are safe, these memories are triggered resulting in feelings of threat and perceived danger. In these instances, we may become stuck in a persistent sense of threat in response to situations in our everyday life that are essentially safe.
We can regulate emotional pain by using strategies which can be separated into ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ approaches (Van der Kolk, 1994). These approaches are named in accordance with the different brain areas they influence.
Focused on the higher-level brain areas, the top-down approaches bring the top ‘Thinking Brain’ to observe ourselves, our responses to the situation, and our environment. This expansion of our awareness brings the thinking brain back online and helps us better monitor our experiences and regulate our feelings. Engaging with our environment using all of our senses is key to expanding our awareness. We have included suggestions on how to practice this in the printable guide below.
Focused on providing soothing input to the ‘Life Sustaining Brain’, the bottom-up approach focuses on generating bodily signals of safety to sooth the emotional brain. This involves influencing parts of the fight or flight system – such as breathing and touch – to activate parts of the vagal nerve that puts a brake on the survival response.
The Power of Breath
Slow breathing helps activate our soothing systems and places a brake on the survival response. Taking slow breaths and noticing the way the body responds to the breath through its natural course is a powerful skill. Using timing cues such as 4 second breathing (4 seconds inhale, pause, 4 second exhale, pause, and repeat) can help us to tune into the calming effects of the breath. There are smartphone apps which can help with the timing of this (for example, the Calm app). In addition to influencing the bottom-up input to the brain, this practice can be enhanced with top-down observation by paying close attention to the breath. Noticing the effects that breathing has on the body, the way it is always there even when it is outside our awareness, and the nourishing effect that oxygen has on our body.
In line with research into what helps regulate emotions, we have benefited from using many of these strategies ourselves and noticed this too in others who have incorporated grounding practice into their lives. We have therefore developed a printable guide below to share some suggestions on how to begin developing your own grounding practices.