My approach to working with clients with trauma disorders and PTSD happens in three stages, or phases of healing. In a nutshell, the objective of the first phase is to calm down a very overactive nervous system and increase emotional, mental, and physical self-awareness and self-regulation. In phase two, my clients and I work with traumatic memories, processing and making sense of their experiences and finding new meanings. In phase three, we move into trauma assimilation, cultivating posttraumatic growth and psychological resilience.
Traumatic experiences are never purely psychological events, but rather deeply physiological as well. Thus, healing should always include not only cognitive therapies, but also purely somatic experiences, sensations, and embodiment. Trauma therapy and healing can be life-saving and effective when done correctly; however, it can also be exhausting, emotionally demanding, and generally difficult to complete. Trauma processing especially can be very triggering and for some, may result in an increase in intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, or nightmares. To ease this issue, I recommend my clients create “a grounding toolbox” they can use to help them stop spiraling and get grounded and calm.
The toolbox contains items to experience sensations and stimulate all our basic senses. The self-referencing area of the brain, the default network of the brain is where negative thinking, fear, and anxiety take place. The goal of this coping skill is to actively disengage the default network and activate the present center network, making you feel relaxed, calm, present, and hopeful. When evoking strong sensations, the brain is pulled back from being hijacked into the intrusive thoughts or past traumatic memories into the present moment, into here and now, making people feel safer. So, what is in the toolbox to stimulate your senses?
Sense of Touch – a material that has a lot of texture that feels pleasant to the touch. Some materials my clients have used successfully are kinetic sand, playdough, beads, rubbery stress balls, clay, soft animal fur (yes, you can cuddle with your pet for this one!).
Sense of Taste – this should be a food item with a strong taste, such as a slice of lemon, extra dark chocolate, sour candy, or something spicy. When you put such a strong tasting item in your mouth, your brain is immediately alerted and pulled into right here, right now… “Wake up! There is a fire in your mouth!”
Sense of Sight – to stimulate this sense, you can select a picture of a person, pet, or a place that is dear to your heart and floods you with positive feelings and memories. This picture can be a paper cutout, a photo, or an image stored and easily accessible on your phone.
Sense of Hearing – create a playlist of music that brings you feelings of inner peace and calmness or just sheer joy and happiness. Only use this playlist at times when you need something extra to stimulate your senses. Grab your headphones or blast your music loud.
Sense of Smell – many of my clients use essential oils, candles, or soaps that have their favorite smells or fragrances that are associated with happy memories. Some of the favorite essential oils that bring calmness and elevate mood are Lavender, Bergamot, Roman Chamomile, Vetiver, and Ylang Ylang. To enhance your mood, Orange essential oil is a great option.
You may find that activating just one of these senses may already be helpful in your grounding effort; however, I suggest using a combination of at least three if not all of them for the most effective grounding experience.