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Substance Use Blog Series: Grounding Strategies for Coping with Cravings

Welcome back to the Deltassist Substance Use Services (SUS) blog series. Until the end of March we will be exploring a variety of topics that will build off information and tools offered in posts written in 2020. The aim is for all posts to include a balance of information and actionable strategies for coping with your own substance use challenges. The tools being presented have been shown to work for many individuals, but they are not meant to apply to every situation or everyone. A huge part of the recovery journey is finding what works for you and when. That may or may not be what works for somebody else in a similar situation. The goal is to approach these tools with curiosity and use them to explore and discover your own resources and strengths.

Today we are exploring grounding skills. Grounding skills are used to create distance between ourselves and emotional pain by focusing outward on the external world rather than our current internal experience. 

Grounding vs. Mindfulness Skills

Grounding and mindfulness skills are often described interchangeably, and while they can complement each other nicely, they are different sets of skills. Jon Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness as “paying attention, on purpose, and without judgment to what is happening right here, right now.” Grounding, on the other hand, focusses on guiding attention away from our thoughts and towards present safety. The main difference, then, is in intentionality, as grounding skills intentionally focus attention away from overwhelming emotions and sensations instead of feeling through whatever comes up (Brisbane Harmony). For some people, coping with cravings and triggers non-judgmentally through mindfulness can be a difficult first step when cravings can feel so overpowering. The Reflective Mind provides another description of the relationship between these two skillsets:

Mindfulness is a way of being where we pay attention to the present moment, without judgment. Grounding is a technique that brings us to the present moment

Mindfulness skills are well supported as valuable tools for coping with substance use [1]. They are a valuable resource for many people and we encourage you to explore those skills if they resonate with you, but today’s focus is on grounding skills.

Triggers and Cravings

A blog post has already been written on triggers, and can be accessed here. This post explained how triggers are activated when we come in contact with a stimulus that reminds us of a past painful experience either with or without our immediate knowledge. Triggers can lead to cravings and a desire to use a particular substance. This makes sense when considering that any addictive substance or behaviour gradually develops because it relieves pain or discomfort, and when our brain recognizes the substance as its primary pleasure source over time, that pathway remains until different ones are built (Harvard Health).

Grounding Skills and Cravings

Grounding skills can be used at any time and in many situations. One such situation is when experiencing cravings, and grounding is well supported in this context [2]. When we’re triggered and feel swept away, our nervous system reacts as if we were actually experiencing the negative event where the memory occurred. Then, the urge for relief comes on, sometimes in the form of a craving. If you’re trying to abstain from substances or use harm reduction strategies to decrease your substance use, familiarizing yourself with grounding techniques that work for you can be a valuable practice. By doing so, you can learn to catch yourself at the beginning of a craving and bring yourself back into the present moment until the craving passes.

Since triggers can return our nervous system to its state during a past negative experience, it becomes increasingly difficult to regulate emotions as the trigger continues to escalate. If a craving arrives, it may be increasingly difficult to resist the urge. For this reason, the earlier you practice grounding skills in this sequence of events, the more control you will feel and the greater the chance of resisting the urge to use. As you become more in touch with your triggers and cravings you will start to notice the sequence of events in more detail, and will be able to detect early signs. Try using some grounding strategies at the first noticeable sign that cravings are showing up to optimize your ability to stay in the present.

One common strategy is the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 technique. This technique involves noticing and acknowledging 5 things you see, 4 things you feel in your surroundings, 3 things you hear, 2 things you smell, and 1 thing you taste. The following video leads you through the process more closely, and may be helpful for those who prefer to be led through exercises:

There are countless ways to ground yourself. Ultimately, any activity at all that orients you to your surroundings in a neutral way will work. As long as you are not actively focusing on your temporarily overwhelming emotions, then you’re grounding! Sometimes it is helpful to think of activities that resonate with you already and that bring a sense of relief, attention, and meaning, and to work with that. For example, a musician might experiment with focusing intently on the sound of their instrument and/or the vibrations. An athlete might pay close attention to how their muscles feel while exercising. A home cook might focus on the smell and colours of a meal they’re cooking. It is also helpful to practice these skills often, and not only when experiencing a trigger and/or craving. By doing this, grounding can become somewhat of a second nature and will make it easier to practice when in a more vulnerable state.

Based on information found at Winona State University that is based on Lisa Najavits’ techniques, we have provided an infographic that provides multiple strategies for you to try. This document goes through three types of grounding (mental, physical, and soothing). Happy grounding!


[1] Young, M. E., DeLorenzi, L. A., Cunningham, L. (2011). Using Meditation in Addiction Counselling. Journal of Addictions & Offender Counseling, 32, 58-71. 

[2] Najavits, Lisa M. (2001). Seeking safety: A treatment manual for PTSD and substance abuse. New York: The Guilford Press. 

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