Staying Grounded in Turbulent Times
December 2019 feels like a lifetime ago. During that dark and snowy time, I started sketching some notes about “turbulent times”, imagining I would eventually write about seasonal mood fluctuations, trauma, and somatic grounding techniques. Winter can be a difficult time for many, as the change in seasons often pushes us in ways both anticipated and unexpected. Winter blues can play a role in mood and energy imbalance which can contribute to changes in sleep, appetite, digestion, and more. Seasonal shifts can feel especially present for folks living with trauma, whether acute or chronic.
Though the topic of seasonal glumness and trauma is still on my mind, I would be remiss not to speak directly to the present “turbulent time” that persists beyond the coldest months. For people who have survived trauma, whether one adverse life experience or the culmination of many (as is true for those marginalized through systemic societal inequality), navigating global crises can be daunting at best. Though “we’re all in it together” in some ways, those most affected by COVID-19 and the governmental policies that accompany it are those already oppressed by our society. Numerous articles have been written about how social hierarchy, for example anti-Black racism in the United States, has drastically shaped health outcomes for COVID-19 as well as other diseases.
In my herbal practice, I often refer to additional resources which offer supportive strategies for coping with the symptoms of trauma. One of those supportive strategies is the use of practices for grounding.
Grounding is simply a way of coping with stressful periods. Having techniques, intentions, and/or rituals for staying rooted in the here-and-now help some people to navigate day-to-day stressors. While the intrusive symptoms of traumatic stress – like flashbacks, memories, and anxious or upsetting thoughts – cannot always be stopped, it can be helpful to learn techniques that minimize their impact. Grounding techniques can help the body to regain a sense of stability and anchor in the present. Doing so can help the body feel more able to cope with stressors, both big and small.
It’s important to remember that these grounding techniques are only some among many. If you try them yourself, you may find one or a few that you like, and others that you despise, and that’s okay. A friend of mine once told me her favorite grounding technique is a meditation called “F*** It & Let That Sh** Go” while another friend recommended autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) videos. As the authors of the self-care critique Self As Other astutely point out,
[Grounding practices] might mean lighting candles, putting on a Nina Simone album, and rereading Randall Jarrell’s The Animal Family. It could also mean BDSM, intense performance art, mixed martial arts fighting, smashing bank windows, or calling out a person who abused you. It might even look like really hard work to other people—or ceasing to function altogether. This is not just a postmodern platitude (“different strokes for different folks”), but a question of what relationship we establish to our challenges and our anguish.
Here are few other techniques I’ve found helpful. It may be useful to engage in multiple grounding techniques simultaneously.
Make noise with your body. Sing, play an instrument, stamp your feet, or clap your hands.
Engage in gentle movement such as dancing, swimming, stretching, or walking.
Focus on visual cues: eye contact with a safe person or animal companion, noticing and naming five (or more) sights in your environment,
Hold, look at, listen to and/or smell a grounding object. A grounding object can be anything (a coin, a stone, a pine cone, a lavender sachet, a photograph of loved ones, etc) that provides sensational variety and comfort and helps anchor the mind in the present. If small and portable, a grounding object can be carried with you and used as-needed.
Deep breathing exercises, such as diaphragmatic or pursed lip breathing
By no means comprehensive, these are a few strategies I’ve found helpful. Similarly, there are a few gentle herbs that can be grounding allies in uncertain times. The three plants listed are bitter in their taste. As such, they stimulate digestion and assimilation, support liver function, and help to ground the nervous system.
Wood Betony (Stacchys officinalis) is a mint-family friend that supports the gut-brain connection. I think about it as supportive to the nervous system when there is anxiety and tension felt in the head, gastrointestinal system, and skeletal muscles, especially when accompanied by mental chatter and indecision. Wood betony is rich in bitter iridoids (aucubin, harpagoside, ajugoside, etc) that help stimulate digestion, stabilize blood sugar, and support the tissue of the digestive tract. I like to use it in tincture combined with nervines like linden (Tilia spp.), skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), and milky oats (Avena sativa).
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) is my go-to plant for tummy tension. I think of it as supportive to the gastrointestinal system as well as the nervous system when there is tension felt in the gut and gastric upset. Like wood betony, chamomile is mildly bitter. It is also rich in phenolic compounds, primarily the flavonoids apigenin, quercetin, patuletin, luteolin and their glucosides, which have been studied for their anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial effects. I like to use chamomile in a tea with nervines such as passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia).
Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) is a bitter nervine that is traditionally used to address a variety of ailments including stress felt in the heart, whether physically or emotionally. Ursolic acid, leonurine, and flavonoids are compounds in motherwort that have exhibited cardio-protective effects in animal studies. Motherwort tastes very bitter, so I like to combine it in tincture with more sweet and floral tastes, such as rose glycerite and cardamom.
Below are links to further resources. I’m always searching for more information about mental health and trauma, so feel free to contact me with more ideas! This information is offered in the spirit of resource-sharing and cultivating mentally and emotionally resilient communities, and is not intended to be a substitute for individual or group counseling. Click here for resources about accessing mental health support in your area.
Further reading and resources