Integration, Tools & Coping Strategies

Sensory grounding Strategies taught me how to communicate with and listen to my body

Disclaimer: I am not an expert by any means. Not a therapist, medical or mental health professional. I do not diagnose, treat, or tell people what to do. The main purpose of this website and blog is education and support. If you are unsure how the suggestions and resources here may affect you, please discuss any changes to your existing treatment plan with your medical and mental health providers first.

Movement creates sensations (not all pain) in mind and body

Up until 10 years ago, I switched between feeling numb and feeling pain in my body. Nothing else.

Then something happened during counseling. Almost like a dam broke in my mind. And I started experiencing all these different sensations in my mind followed by increased physical pain. All the time.

It was so scary…I felt like I was going crazy. Up until then, I wondered what life would be like without the numbness.

Then, I just wanted to go back to the emptiness. Everything else was overwhelming. In mental health terms, I was experiencing a crisis situation. And my counselor at the time did not work with trauma.

Not every physical sensation is pain. It's our body's way of communicating with us. How we move and think about moving matters
If you want to learn more about my experiences with body memories and pain, check out Untangled Connections and the post associated with this graphic

I knew this at the beginning our our relationship. We agreed to leave out the trauma and focus on the other symptoms: anorexia nervosa, depression, anxiety, phobias, and obsessive compulsive disorder. If the PTSD symptoms increased, the counselor would help me find alternative resources.

And that is what happened. I went to a crisis center program that taught me about emotions through Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and coping strategies effective for people with anxiety and phobias. One of those strategies was called Sensory Grounding.

The Sensory Grounding premise goes like this:

When engaged, a strong sensory experience (i.e. smell, taste, touch, sound, or visual stimulus) can bring a person in the middle of a distressing event or emotionally overwhelming state back to the present moment.

Example:

A common trope is: one person complaining about an aching foot. The companion offers to help with a distraction. When the first person agrees, the companion punches the first person in the shoulder. Now the first person is thinking about the shoulder instead of the foot.

My personal favorite way to use Sensory Grounding Strategies is to engage all 5 of my senses at the same time through an object meditation or breathing exercise. Chocolate, blueberries, grapes, coffee, tea, anything that engages your senses and is safe to smell, touch, taste, hear and look at will work.

The meditation goes like this:

  • Sit or stand in a comfortable position with the grounding object near by
  • Breathe in for 10 seconds. Breathe out for 10 seconds. Repeat 2x
  • Pause and observe and observe as many details as possible
  • Vision: look at the object
    • As you continue to breathe in and out, notice the color, texture, shape, size – as many details as possible.
  • Touch: feel the object
    • What sensations are your skin, fingers, hands, lips sharing with you? Describe them if possible
  • Smell: bring the object close to your nose and smell it
    • Do you notice any distinctive scents? Are they from the object, your hand, both, something else?
  • Sound: noise in, on, around the object
    • Can you hear any sounds as you move the object? Are the noises associated with your movement or the object or both? Maybe it’s silent or an absence of noise is still something to notice
  • Taste: bring the object close to your lips and tongue
    • First what do you smell? Is it interesting, flavorful, something you want to try? Next, touch the object to your lips and/or tongue and let it stay there. What sensations do you experience? Finally, if you can, put the object in your mouth and chew. What does the object taste like in your mouth?
  • As you finish chewing, continue to breathe slowly and observe how your body and mind feel
  • Take two more deep breaths in and out to end the meditation
sensory grounding strategies; more than a coping technique
Sensory Grounding is how I learned to communicate with my body again

This coping strategy became my go-to resource at work and while commuting to and from home. I used it all the time and continue to use it every day now.

At first, I started small with one sense at a time. For visual stimulation, I used colors of different objects at home. For hearing, I listened to my favorite music and tried to notice each instrument being played. For touch, I used clothing, furniture, bedding, and stuffed animals. Taste – well I love food and beverages – so used this to help with anorexia relapses and food fears too. Smell, well at first, I used cooking and baking for smell. Then I learned about aromatherapy and incorporated that too.

Finally, I learned that sensory grounding meditation and breathing exercises can help me learn to understand information my body shares with me through sensory experience. Not every sensation that I feel in my body is pain.

I still don’t have words to describe all the sensations, but these days I can separate them as “pain” or “not pain” and sometimes “fun” or “fear” or “joy” or “anxiety” or “guilt” or “anger” too. And as I connect emotions to body sensations, my coping strategies and ability to cope with every day life stress integrates with my lifestyle goals and become part of my every day routine.

When I go to the Chinese medicine clinic for treatment, I can work with the practitioner by telling the practitioner what sensations are happening in different parts of my body as the acupuncture stimulates healing energy movement in my body. With that information, the practitioner can refine and tailor each treatment for maximum effectiveness without causing a negative reaction.

Caution: This type of change requires shifts in perception, beliefs and self-talk

And I mean it when I write that here. For many years, I never voiced these thoughts and opinions out loud.

Every time they popped into my mind, I shrugged them aside. Did that until I couldn’t deny it anymore. Because to deny it was to deny the progress in my body’s recovery journey.

Still, I had a hard time explaining these concepts to my practitioners. Then getting them to keep an open mind about the concepts as we worked together. My ideas and thoughts about sensory integration and grounding as ways to reduce physical pain and communicate with the mind/body connection together often got dismissed – not rejected or denied, but not given much attention either.

That was okay. Western medicine is still trying to quantify the mind/body connection. And I was still skeptical even though it was happening to me.

But the more Sensory Grounding worked to effectively cope with all kinds of triggers and reduce my panic attacks, the more I believed.

When I started going for treatment at the current Chinese medicine clinic, the students and supervisors listened, supported me, and offered their thoughts and opinions about the mind/body connection and sensory integration as part of healing our whole selves. We discussed after care and how I can safely incorporate more movement into my life – I wanted to exercise more, but couldn’t because of the pain – by using the sensory grounding techniques to communicate with my body.

That was a revelation for me. And in the three years since I started going there, I am more active and able to travel with freedom instead of fear that I might overdo it, have a panic attack, and not get home safely before I pass out.

If you wonder how I can work and live independently in spite of the physical pain, panic attacks, and other stress in my life, this is one of the many lifestyle experiments that worked.

Maybe it will help you too. Or maybe not. The concepts written here are opposite of conventional medical advice and knowledge.

So, as always, take what I share with a grain of salt and decide for yourself.

Love and Rainbows ~ TJ

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