When it comes to regulating emotions and managing anxiety, many people assume in therapy that mindfulness and grounding are the same thing. In fact they are quite different and it is important to understand the distinctions in order to use the right tools at the right time. Some research shows that sometimes introducing mindfulness skills in therapy can be contraindicated. This is particularly true in trauma therapy where the priority is to start with stabilization.
Simply put, mindfulness is present moment awareness with equanimity. In this mindful state, we are able to observe thoughts, feelings and body sensations without feeling too overwhelmed or dysregulated. We may feel anxiety or other unpleasant emotions and sensations, but they are still within the window of tolerance.
Grounding, on the other hand, is a technique for regulating overwhelming and difficult emotions by coming back into the present moment in order to re-establish a sense of safety in the body. Grounding techniques are needed when we are outside of our window of tolerance and need to come back into a zone of safety.
A good rule of thumb for knowing if we need grounding skills or mindfulness is to ask ourselves where we are in the window of tolerance. This can only be answered by connecting how we are feeling in the body and honouring whatever we are experiencing. People tend to override difficult feelings and push on, especially when anxiety takes over. The first step is just paying attention.
Here are some different ways that you can access grounding vs. mindfulness tools, depending on where you are in your zone of safety.
So if you have been introduced to mindfulness skills for trauma recovery and felt triggered by paying attention to feelings of anxiety and distress, don’t be discouraged. It may take time before mindful awareness feels “safe enough”. Just understanding the difference and having grounding skills that you can access when you go outside the window, is a very good starting point. Mindfulness takes time, patience and perseverance and is not a quick fix.