Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Lost in Past Hurts? Ground Yourself in the Present

Use these techniques to bring you back to the present moment.

Mykhailo Dorokhov/flickr
Source: Mykhailo Dorokhov/flickr

Sometimes past hurts can be so overwhelming that you become preoccupied with them. Intrusive thoughts about those memories insert themselves into your mind, derailing you from effectively taking care of, or enjoying, your current life. In a more powerful form, people who experience post-traumatic stress disorder have flashbacks. These are memories that feel so real that you feel like you are reliving them in the moment. But to whatever degree your past overtakes your present, it is essential to be able to return to the current moment.

If you have intrusive memories that are very distressing, preoccupy you, or cause you to overreact to current circumstances, the first step is to recognize your distress as belonging to a memory and not the present situation. Then you must ground yourself in the present. There are many ways to do this. (Please note that if you believe that you truly have post-traumatic stress disorder or your struggles are significantly affecting your life, I recommend also seeking the help of a therapist.)

Ground yourself in your senses, not just labeling the experience, but really focusing on feeling them. Ask yourself these questions and consider the suggestions for associated actions you might take:

  • What do I see? Name five objects in the room.
  • What do I smell in the room? Breathe in a comforting smell (e.g., a scented candle).
  • What do I hear in the room? Turn on music.
  • What do I taste? Eat or drink something, paying attention to its flavor.
  • What do I feel? Hold a piece of ice or a warm drink in your hand.

Ground yourself in physical actions:

  • Bring your awareness to the act of breathing. One way to do this is to say the word “inhale” to yourself as you breathe in through your nose. Then say the word “exhale” to yourself as you breathe out through your mouth (extending this out-breath longer than the in-breath).
  • Walk slowly around the room. Attend to the sensations of walking, such as pressure shifting from your heel to the ball of your foot.

Use positive, comforting, or grounding self-talk:

  • Tell yourself, “I am safe. I can cope.”
  • Talk yourself through recognizing what might help calm you, and then through doing that thing.

Relate to other people:

  • Talk with people. Actively attend to what they are saying.
  • Make eye contact with people. It is hard to get lost in the past if you are consciously looking someone in the eyes.

Try these different techniques, and then repeat the ones that seem most effective. It will take practice. Also, at times when you are feeling less emotional, you might benefit from reflecting back on the situation, learning to see it with a renewed perspective – one that allows you to leave the past in the past. By grounding yourself in the present and keeping your past in perspective, you will be better able to appreciate and remain engaged in your current life.

If you would like to learn more about this topic, check out this brief video:

If you would like email notification of new blog postings by Dr. Becker-Phelps, click here.

Making Change blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional assistance.

Making change through compassionate self-awareness

More from Leslie Becker-Phelps Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today