By Jan M. Bergstrom, LMHC, SEP, DaRTT
It never fails to surprise me that I receive many calls from my clients that are completely stressed out. In my 24 years of practice, I see my clients in a constant state of rev in their nervous system. Rev is when the sympathetic branch of the nervous system gets into a chronic state of hyperarousal. The sympathetic branch regulates arousal and gets us ready for action. So, when you are in a chronic state of sympathetic arousal or rev, the experience of your life feels like “always having the gas pedal on”. Here are some great interventions from my new book called Traveling the Journey Home, coming out this June 2019 for your use during these challenging times. Enjoy!
Grounding and Centering Practice in Action
Grounding and Centering are two other practices that reconnect you directly with the resources that are naturally available in your own body. It is important to reestablish your relationship to both the ground and to your body’s center, the place where action and feeling originate. These functions are compromised during trauma reactions. In trauma, you lose your ground, so an important part of healing is learning how to find your ground and center again. As you ground and center yourself before each exercise below, it will help you create a feeling of safety, and a sense that you are in charge. Here is how you do it.
- Sitting in a chair, gently push the heels of your feet into the ground. Notice the sensations in your legs when you engage the muscles and release the muscles. Experiment with finding just the right amount of pressure in your feet.
- Bring your awareness to what your feet feel like in your shoes as they are resting on the floor. Wiggle your toes and name the sensations that arise. Become aware of your feet on the ground.
- Begin Deep slow breathing – explore pace breathing by Marsha Linehan (Linehan, DBT Skills Training, Handouts and Worksheets, Guilford Press, 2014), where you slowly inhale to a count of five, completely expanding the rib cage and belly, then slowly exhale to a count of seven until your rib cage has contracted and your shoulders have dropped. Do this at least five times.
- Gain physical support from a comfortable chair. Bring your awareness to your buttocks as it sinks into the chair and your back as it is being supported. Name the sensations that arise. Experiment with slumping over and then sitting up straight, lengthening the spine as you do so. Imagine having a string pulling you up straight. Notice any and all sensations as they arise. Does your back hurt? Your vertebrae creak? Can you feel the blood leaving your head? Do you feel taller? More in control? Become aware of each sensation, whether physical or cognitive. Don’t judge these sensations, just greet them.
- Focus nonjudgmentally on the sensations you can feel throughout your whole body. Start scanning your feet and slowly move up through your legs, abdomen, torso, into your arms and hands, finishing off at your neck and head. Just allowing whatever shows up to be there.
- Tense, then relax your muscles. Try using an exercise ball if you have or can get one. If you don’t have one, try a beanbag, a roll of socks, a crumpled towel—anything that you can hold in your arms or between your legs and squeeze tight, hold for five seconds, then relax for five seconds. Notice the sensations and the difference between the engaging muscles and releasing muscles.
This same practice can be done with movement, such as Tai Chi, Qi Gong or Yoga. Take a class and see if you can focus on what is happening in your body moment by moment rather than thinking about your day or what is in the future. If you start thinking about the past or future, don’t worry. Just gently bring yourself back to your body awareness and breathing.
As with the Mindfulness practice, this Grounding Technique will help you to calm yourself, control your thoughts and triggers, and enable you to bring yourself to the present at will—whenever you find your thoughts and anxieties spiraling into the past or worries of the future.
The Grounding Technique becomes even more powerful when it is combined with the Centering Technique. This technique is a bit more unique, but every bit as transformative.
- Place one hand on your heart and notice what happens in your body when all thoughts are dropped, and you focus on just your hand. Observe the weight of the hand, its temperature, the sensation of the hand itself and the sensation of it resting over your heart. Notice any changes in your breathing, your heartbeat, even the energy you feel in your hand. Visualize in your mind’s eye a warm ball of golden energy swirling around in your hand as it rests upon your heart.
- Keeping your hand on your heart, gently place the other hand on top of your head. Apply a slight pressure on the top of your head to create a sensation of being grounded to the earth. With the hand on your heart, focus on channeling warmth and empathy throughout your body through this hand.
With practice, you will find these techniques are effective in helping you to gain and remain calm and detaching yourself from the thoughts and memories that haunt you. By learning how to become aware of your thoughts and the sensations they awaken in your body, you will gain mastery over them.
Techniques to Help Stay Grounded and Centered
There always comes a time when you find it hard to stay present with an emotion or body feeling. This is totally normal, and you may find yourself wanting to stop your investigation of the material that is coming up. No problem! In fact, it is important to know when to stop and what to do. I recommend healthy alternatives rather than medicating your feelings by eating, drinking, taking drugs or engaging in self-abusive behaviors. Here are some healthy techniques for staying grounded and centered. You may have heard these suggestions a thousand times and, like anything we hear a thousand times, they may go in one ear and out the other. But this time, try something different., Try at least three of these exercises, just once. Afterwards, reflect on how your body feels, and how your mind feels. Then do them again, another day. You’ll be surprised with the difference such simple activities can have on both your body and your mind.
- Go outside and take a walk in your favorite place. If you find your thoughts spinning off into worries as your feet carry you along the pathway, bring your mind back to the moment. Observe the sky above you, the earth below you, the flora and fauna. How many birds can you see? Smile at the people you pass. When you get home, see how many things you can recall from your walk. The more alert you are to the world that surrounds you, the less space there is in your mind for worries.
- If you have a dog, take your dog for a walk or go to a dog park. Use the time to truly enjoy your pet’s own joy for the outdoors.
- If you have a cat, pet and play with it. There is a reason we call our pets “pets.” Just petting the fur of a dog or cat can have a comforting effect on both the pet and ourselves, as our endorphins are stimulated.
- Call a close friend and reach out for support. If you are in recovery, call a fellow member or your sponsor. Be sure to listen and be there for your friend, as much as your friend is there for you. If your friend is unavailable for such an emotional call, don’t judge your friend. They might be in the middle of taking care of their own needs. Ask them to call when they have more time, and call someone else. Remember, we are all struggling. The more thoughtful you are of your friends’ time and needs, the more thoughtful they will be of yours.
- Work out moderately at the gym or at home. If you haven’t worked out for some time, start small. If you find yourself watching TV, use the commercial breaks for short spurts of exercise. Try finding a five- or ten-minute YouTube video you can work out with. If you go to the gym, start with twenty minutes, work up to half an hour, and make a fifty-minute workout three times a week your goal. Don’t push yourself too hard. Be gentle with yourself. You’ll get there.
- Dance to your favorite music, journal your feelings, draw or use some medium for an artistic expression of what you are feeling. Indulge in your playful side. You never lost it—you just learned to ignore it as you matured. Let it out!
- Move your body and open your arms and spread them out to create a circle. Experiment with expanding the size of this ‘container’ until it is “big enough” to hold all the feelings and sensations or “all of the parts” of your pain.
- Use your body to put one palm on the side of each knee: push arms against the outer part of the knees while simultaneously pushing out with the legs. Or use the arms to push against the side of the body. This creates resistance and engages your muscles to fight back, which can give you a feeling of empowerment.
- If you have a flashback or start to dissociate or “fade out,” become aware or what is called “orienting” to the external environment (or room). This technique can be a helpful way to “come back” into the room. To do it, just choose and describe three things in the room that you like and reflect on why like them.
- You can also turn your head and neck and slowly as you focus on objects in the window, the wall, the door, the lamp, the bookcase. Or focus on objects that might be comforting such as your most favorite object, or cues that tell you where you are.
Mind’s Eye Imagery
Mind’s eye imagery is a technique that draws on images to calm and ground the body. Remember all these resources I’m referring to are those internal or external cues that help you to find a safe place to return to when you become triggered as you navigate through your childhood trauma.
I usually ask my clients to think of a time in their life when they traveled somewhere, had a favorite animal they loved, connected with someone special and experienced a felt sense of calm, acceptance, grounding, centeredness, and safety. Once they find this experience (or several experiences), I ask them to write them down. These visual image resources will be used throughout the rest of the book for any of the processes that we journey through. They will act as anchors. An anchor is like a ballast. It gives stability in times of need. And that is just what you are seeking.
Mind’s Eye Imagery Practice in Action
While in this grounded and embodied state, sit somewhere where you are comfortable, and close your eyes to contemplate these scenes below. Allow yourself at least a minute for each scene. Notice your felt sense or bodily sensations. See if you can put words to them. Some examples might be: calm, relaxed, soft, warm, centered, tight, airy, spinning, or whatever words describe the sensations. Remember, don’t judge the sensations—just find a word that best describes the sensations you feel as you contemplate the scenes that follow.
- Sitting on your favorite beach listening to the ocean waves
- Hiking up your favorite mountain, reaching the top overlooking a beautiful valley
- Looking across the Grand Canyon and the river that flows through it
- Being on a tropical island
- Sitting in a cozy cottage with a warm fire burning in the fireplace, the snow gently falling outside
Did these scenes calm you? Excite you? What changed in your internal state as you contemplated these scenes? Did you find one that brought you instant calm? If you didn’t, think of a time when you were traveling or in nature and you loved what you were seeing and feeling. If so, you have created a room in your mind where you can find instant comfort. When stressed, anxious or triggered, go to this place and relax. There’s no admission to be paid, no taxes or mortgages you must come up with, no applications to fill out. This place is yours, available to you whenever and wherever you find yourself. Welcome!