The Action of Distraction: re-grounding is really good for you

Whether it’s a natural disaster, work-related incident, or a slow build-up of any number of work-based woes that overwhelm us, trauma can keep on triggering distressing physical, emotional and mental reactions that play havoc with our nervous system and make functioning in life and work pretty hard-going…

Whatever the contributors, trauma happens first through the body. And re-grounding is a simple way to get back in touch with your body, re-balance both your physical reactions and emotions, and return yourself to your ‘resilience zone’ where you can be hopefully more trauma-resistant. The more you do it, the more you may be able to bring mind and body under control and feel more in control and emotionally safe.

How does it work?

   

In my Trauma First-Aid Self-Help and Support Clinics, I refer to re-grounding as the ‘action of distraction’ – because that’s what it does essentially. By focusing as much mindful attention as you can on the action of contact between yourself and a physical object (chair, wall, grass, tree, bottle etc), it actually distracts you from focusing on worrying physical reactions or anxiety-creating thoughts. It’s that simple.

  • Because we take in what’s happening in the outside world through our body’s sensing equipment (sight, sound, smell etc), we pick up trauma through our body first, since they set off our body-alarms and disrupt our nervous system.
  • Brain science shows the act of focusing has a calming effect on our body, emotions, nervous system and the thoughts that upset us. Our minds spend a lot of time flitting from one worrying thought to another. This adds to our stress, panic and trauma.
  • When we focus on something that’s right here, right now – breathing, body contact with an object etc – we can almost instantly become more calm and collected in body and mind.
  • If you really focus on being in your body, your thoughts can’t be anywhere else but there. It’s the only way to be present: to get back in your body and out of your head where we mind-wander, stress and worry – forming alarm-filled narratives.

Because your body’s always anchored in the here and now, it’s a handy tool to return us to the present so long as we know how to focus our attention on it. Distraction’s long been known to calm us down by ‘taking our mind off things’. Learning how to re-focus activates brain areas to damp-down bodily alarms and disruptive thoughts and feelings.

  • The idea is that we can sense-away trauma in a way we may not be able to talk it away (cognitive) or feel it away (emotional). A body-based approach means sensing what trauma reactions are doing in our body then using a re-ground technique to control excess stress, panic or sensory overload.
  • Perhaps I’ll lean with my hands flat against a wall. Clutch the sides or back of a chair. Take my shoes off and toe-the-grass or taste and smell a cup of tea, see a sight like a tree, pelican, flower or field, or simply breathe slowly and deeply. Simple material contacts like these take your attention away from focusing on your trauma sensations and thoughts.

Re-grounding works because it anchors you back in the present, bringing your attention back to bodily contact you’re having with various things – feet to floor, hands to wall, back to chair, a handful of sand and so on – helping rebalance your nervous system.

Whatever the specific re-ground I use, I’m refocusing on the bodily feel of some solid something right now, in order to counter-balance stress-feelings my nervous system alarms may be “ringing” to mind. 

This helps calm our limbic system and gets us back into balance. It also relieves trauma reactions by re-shaping alarming neuronal pathways we get stuck in as a result of trauma.

Of course, re-grounding like this is a form of mindfulness. And mindfulness practices have proven to play a very effective role in trauma-recovery because they can re-shape parts of the brain most trauma-affected. In the last decade, lots of studies show brains of people who practise some sort of mindfulness, even for a short time, grow calmer and less reactive. This can help reduce and combat trauma-responses.

Re-Grounding is any direct contact you make between your body and the ground (or other solid supporting surface). Re-grounding helps you stay in the present moment by getting you to refocus on your body on your body in relation to the ground. When you’re grounded, you’re not worrying about past trauma, future fears or current panics. Because this helps you focus, the more deeply you re-ground, the more you put your mind and body back into balance.

Re-Grounding Routines

 

Re-grounding is the second of 5 Trauma Resistance Management Strategies we recommend in our Resilience-Based Trauma Training Pocket Guide.

Re-grounding helps you regain control, feel physically and emotionally safe (or at least more secure), and stops you from getting lost in the past. Because it re-orients us to here-and-now, you can also use re-grounding as immediate trauma-first aid if anyone you help feels overwhelmed by trauma-signs like:

  • Feeling dissociated, disconnected or dizzied, shaking or trembling
  • Intense anxiety, panic or feeling overwhelmed
  • Feeling like you’re in a pressure cooker or going to explode or implode

Whatever actual techniques you use, here’s the basic steps for grounding you can follow:

  1. First, ask people to notice the part of their body that is making contact with whatever object they’re grounding to – floor, chair, wall etc. Ask them to notice how they’re being supported by it.
  2. Now ask them to notice and describe the quality of this contact more closely. The object they’re grounded against – cold, soft, smooth etc. The part of their body contacting the object, and what that feels like: back against chair, bum on seat, feet on floor. Notice body-sensations that are calming, relaxed, pleasant or neutral – but also any that are rigid, tense or unpleasant?

Bringing more attention to particular sensations you detect from re-grounding potentially increases your focus and attention – in other words, it acts as a better distraction. Sometimes of course, you may not feel able to do a more detailed description – that’s OK.

  1. Ask them to notice any muscles relaxing or any other places in their body that are starting to feel more relaxed, pleasant or just neutral. I sometimes suggest asking them to also notice parts of their body that are tense and relax those on their out-breath.

For example: lower back tense? Relax it. Feeling the weight of your feet on the floor even more? Noticing other points of contact? Don’t force any of this. Just slide into it. Do you notice breathing steadying? Any other comfortable sensations or muscle relaxations? If they notice uncomfortable or painful sensations, suggest they shift attention back to those places that feel better, more comfortable, relaxed or neutral.

  1. To close the re-grounding routine, ask them to slowly scan their body reviewing areas that feel more relaxed, neutral or pleasant, since they started. Now slowly look around and take in your surroundings. Notice a few things.

Practise re-grounding at first when the person is feeling relaxed and reasonably balanced, just to remind themselves what that’s like when they’re feeling OK inside their skin.

Re-grounding Top Picks

 

There’s literally hundreds of ways to reground. Below, is a bit of a tick-list of some top re-grounding picks from participants at our Trauma First-Aid clinics… 

  • Water Works. Splash your face with cold water. Run wrists under cold water. Do the same with a cold can or bottle. Feel it cold in your hands. Hold against wrists, back of neck, forehead. Sip it. Don’t gulp. Savour in the mouth, then swallow slowly.
  • Movies. Stamp, tap, flex your feet. Rub finger tips together. Wring your hands. Rub one on back of the other. Cross arms and rub. Stretch arms to side or overhead. Get up, walk around slowly. Notice each step, one after the other. Focus on feeling body sensations as you make these moves.
  • Tapping: with the first three fingers lightly bunched together, tap repeatedly and firmly, first on your cheekbone 10 times. Then forehead for 10. Then jawbone, and then finally side of nose or eye-brow ridges.
  • Mind your breathing. Take ten breaths. Focus on each breath – on the way in and way out. Count the number of the breath to yourself as you exhale. On each exhale, relax a part of your body that’s tense.
  • Comfort Stops. Hold onto a familiar object you find comforting. Notice how it feels. A rock you picked up on a beach. A shell. Your pet? Anything you attach a good memory to. If you don’t have one, find one.
  • Place it Safe: Imagine yourself in one of your quiet, calm or safe places. Go over the detail of what it looks like in your mind’s eye. Focus on feelings of safety you get when you think about this place.

You’re the Voice. Use your voice. Speak out loud to yourself. Rumble or hum in your throat. Say what you feel. Name a concern. Say what you’d like to see or a positive action to do.

Feeling It. Feel clothes on your body. Breeze on your face. Bottom in the chair. Hands on the wheel. Feet in your shoes. The bed you’re lying on. The table or chair your hands rest on. The tool you’re holding. Really focus on the feel of things

Resilience-Based Trauma Training

  

While many tend to automatically associate trauma with tangible incidents, work-based trauma resulting from an accumulation of less readily visible factors also appear to be on the rise. I’ve noticed over the years that workplaces have spawned more ‘busyness cultures’. The pace and pressure of such ‘rush-n-hurry’ cultures comes at a cost. Stress and it’s toxic effects can steadily build-up over time and take us by surprise without us noticing. Erratic, uncivil behaviour can become endemic, and in a vicious systemic circle, provide a breeding-ground for more work-based trauma.

The Change Forum is committed to making workplaces more trauma-informed and supportive. We now have a range of programs including 1-day Trauma First Aid Awareness for everyone, a 2-day program for managers and trauma supports, as well as a 1-day program for those who want to facilitate Trauma After-Incident Reviews in their workplaces.

My involvement in trauma self-help springs from my work over the past fifteen years that has centred on helping people build emotional and social intelligence capacities needed to create more caring cultures. Emotional intelligences such as self-management, resilience, mindfulness and focus seem have a lot to do with what inspired me to create Resilience-Based Trauma Training, as well as write our Building Resilience and Handling Trauma pocket guide on that accompanies our clinic.

See our on-line course calendar at thechangeforum.com for dates our public clinics are coming up in your area.  And if you’ve a group of 10 or more, we’re happy to come to you.  Use our on-line enquiry form or call me direct to discuss arrangements for an in-house clinic at a venue of your choice.

More on our Resilience-Based Trauma Training clinic on-line at thechangeforum.com.

 
BILL CROPPER

Director – The Change Forum
Mob:  +61-(0)429-687 513
Email: billc@thechangeforum.com

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