A “Dip Your Toe In” Approach to Sensory Grounding with Complex Trauma

Trauma has the potential to promote disconnection from the present, from experience, from the body, from the self, and from more full engagement with the broader world.  These responses were in the service of survival. They may have been essential.  Sensory grounding is a go-to resource in trauma work because our senses bring us home.  They can help bring us into the “safety” of the present when we want to be or when we need to be more present.

Sensory grounding is a needed resource in trauma work, where we ask clients to “glance” at a traumatic memory, but advise them not to fall into a memory.  Sometimes, simply interacting with the memory in any way can cause it can cause us to fall or dissociate into it.  Sensory grounding in the present brings you home.  It brings you into a place where the bad thing isn’t happening right here, right now.

If you already do 5-4-3-2-1 grounding, you do a version of what I’m about to walk you through.  However, I want to show you a way to do this that includes several things that may be different than many common approaches.  You will notice several things:

  • Ask permission of parts to engage in this (or any other) exercise.  Asking permission gives parts the chance to consent.  Absent that, they know how to communicate discontent and they may communicate it in ways that looks like what we used to call “resistance.”
  • Let the client know how long we will be in this exercise (and it should be really quick).
  • Teach the exercise quickly.
  • I’m not asking for verbal feedback in the middle of the exercise, but I am keeping my eyes on the client and reading nonverbals.  I don’t want to slow the exercise down when I’m first teaching it.  I’ll ask at the end, which is okay, because this exercise is only going to take 60-70 seconds total the first time we do it.
  • I’m adding additional “tasks” to the client’s noticing to promote more active engagement with the senses.  Because, for instance, it’s possible to touch in a fairly disconnected way.  It’s possible to notice objects in a fairly disconnected or dissociated way.
  • We will have already identified something in the room that the client can use for the sense of scent (a candle or essential oil) and possibly taste/temperature (a warm or cold drink) prior to engaging in this exercise.

Script: When we have difficult experiences, those experiences may be stored in the part of the brain that doesn’t or can’t know that the experience is over.  Sometimes, accessing a memory takes us out of the present and puts us into an experience when we did not feel safe.  I’d like to show one strategy that you can use to find your way back into the present.  Often the present may not feel “safe,” but it is likely to be safer than the experience from the bad memory.  The exercise will ask you to very briefly engage your senses, one at a time.  We will spend only a few seconds at a time getting information from each of the senses. If we keep it very brief, many people are able to tolerate this exercise well.  If anything difficult comes up, we can stop.  Is this an exercise that any part of you might object to, assuming that we do it quickly and that you can stop anytime you like?

If there is an objection. Stop and explore that objection.  See if there is a way to do this that is not objectionable to that part that allows us to continue.  Otherwise, full stop (parts will need to know that they can stop).

Vision: I invite you to look around the room and notice several things you see.  Notice several objects and notice the color of those objects.  Also notice that if you were to go up and touch these objects, would they be hard, soft, or some other texture?  [Wait 5-10 seconds]

Touch: Place an open hand on the table or furniture next to you for just a moment and notice if it is colder, warmer, or the same temperature as your hand.  [Wait 2-5 seconds]  Good.  Move your fingertips across the surface and notice if it is completely smooth or has a texture.  [Wait 2-4 seconds]  Good.  Move your fingertips across the texture of that surface and just notice if the temperature changes as you move.  [Wait 2-5 seconds]  Good.

Hearing: I’m going to be very quiet, notice whatever you hear in order of loudest first.  [Wait 5-8 seconds]  Good.

Smell: I’ll give you a few moments to smell the essential oil [or other object] that you selected.  [Wait 5-10 seconds]  Good.

Taste: I’ll give you a few moments to taste, smell, or feel the temperature of the drink that your brought to session.  [Wait 5-10 seconds]  Good.

How was that?  [explore] What was your experience with that exercise?  [explore]  Which of those senses seemed to be the most helpful in bringing your awareness more into the present? [explore]

As with all resources with client with complex trauma, send the client home to practice first at their baseline and not when something has happened that has severely triggered them.  Once the nervous system becomes comfortable with this resource, then use it as a fire extinguisher.

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