When I do “Grounding Exercise – Feet, Seat and Back” my level of activation decreases to some degree, usually 10-30%. However, I have found that adding pressure to grounding increases the positive effects dramatically, reducing activation up to 90%.
A month or so ago I was really activated – I was experiencing shortness of breath, and was dizzy, tense, highly agitated and disoriented. After guiding me through the focused attention grounding exercise, “Grounding Exercise Feet Seat and Back,” my therapist applied steady, firm pressure to my feet to help with grounding me even more into my body. After just a couple minutes I experienced an 80-90% reduction in activation. It seemed positively miraculous that something so simple could just wipe almost all the tension, stress, anxiety, frenzy, and distress right out of my body, but for my particular body/mind system, this was the effect.
Then I recalled that in California, my Somatic Experiencing therapist always put a therapy pillow on my lap and this always was hugely helpful as well. I think hers was filled with buckwheat hulls which are surprisingly heavy.
It seems that whenever a therapist exerts pressure in any way to assist with the therapeutic process, it exaggerates the sensation of my body pressing into the floor or chair and has a noticeable impact on my entire system.
Note that these dramatic effects, such as a 90% reduction, have only occurred when I have been working with a therapist. Probably their supportive presence and guidance increases the effect. But even when I am alone, the pressure from my Awesome Lentil Therapy Pillow usually reduces activation 40-60% which is more effective than just the focused attention exercise.
And I’m not alone in my response to pressure. “Deep touch pressure,” the pressure typically used when holding a child, hugging someone or petting/stroking a pet, has been found to have therapeutic effects on people. For example, a calming effect has been found in children with psychiatric disorders and autism. Normal babies in institutions and hospitals, such as preemies, benefit as well. When given a regular tactile stimulation program including deep touch pressure they develop better and show other benefits. Animals are also calmed by pressure.
When she was 18, autistic professor and author Temple Grandin invented the “squeeze machine” or “hug machine,” a large contraption with two padded panels that apply pressure along the sides of the body. The squeeze machine is now commercially available and used by autistic people to manage and reduce sensory over-stimulation, tension and anxiety.
Between the ages of 18 and 25, Temple Grandin used this machine to gradually reduce the oversensitivity and frequent states of activation of her nervous system. During puberty, she felt like she was experiencing constant “stage fright,” states of extreme fear, anxiety and tension which would be referred to as panic attacks today. By 25, after using her invention for 7 years, Grandin experienced the following changes: She was able to feel previously overwhelming stimuli as pleasurable; she was able to tolerate being touched by another person; she was able to relax in the machine and not pull away from it and she felt less aggressive and less tense in general. These are huge results. Studies done with the squeeze machine show it produces a reduction in tension and anxiety in autistic children, and induces states of relaxation in a statistically significant number of normal college students.
While the activation states suffered by autistic people relate to areas of the brain that did not develop normally and are physically abnormal, activation states related to PTSD result from changes to the brain brought on by traumatic experiences that are many times temporary (and in some cases become chronic). Pressure may be helpful for PTSD symptoms in certain people and it’s worth giving it a try to see how your unique body/mind system responds.
Ways to Apply Therapeutic Pressure
Following are some ways of applying gentle but firm “deep touch pressure” to calm the body. Note that all of these examples are applying gentle pressure – please do not apply pressure to yourself that may cause pain, suffocation or cut off circulation. The amount of pressure is somewhere around the amount you apply when hugging someone that you want to comfort, someone with whom you feel comfortable. The amount of pressure is something you are always in control of and can change. Pay attention to what your body responds to most positively. Your body’s needs can change from minute to minute so pay attention and adjust as you need to.
1. Therapy Pillow / Grounding Pillow. A therapy or grounding pillow is a pillow that is filled with something that gives it substantial weight such as buckwheat hulls, lentils, peas, mung beans, rice, sand, etc. Place the pillow on your lap, feet, stomach, or any part of the body that needs it.
2. Mat or Mattress. Place your feet under mats; put your body under the mat, put any body part under the mat, roll up in mat.
3. Corset. Some people have found the hugging feeling of a corset to be calming. This would not be a corset cinched tight, rather this would be one that is adjusted so that it applies gentle but firm pressure, the amount of pressure a human would apply when giving a hug.
4. Wrapping. The wrapping of something around yourself, such as bandages around a part of the body.
5. Floor. Pressing your heels, feet or hands into the floor.
6. Commercially Available Solutions. Squeeze Machine. “Squeezer” and “Double Squeeze Steamroller” use large foam cylinders above and below the body and are mainly used for autistic children.
In these exercises, you receive deep touch pressure from another person (therapist, friend, partner etc.) Note that all of these examples should be done with your express permission.
1. Feet on Feet. The other person puts their feet on your feet and applies gentle firm pressure.
2. Pressure Using Hands/ Therapeutic Touch. The other person applies gentle, firm pressure with their hands to your thighs, knees, shoulders, even on the head can be grounding.
3. Massage. Professional massage therapists are trained to use pressure to relax muscles, but it could also have the benefit of calming activation.
I will go into two of these exercises in detail in the next post – Feet on Feet and Therapy Pillow. Also I will give instructions for Making Your Own Awesome Lentil Therapy Pillow for Grounding.
Calming Effects of Deep Touch Pressure in Patients with Autistic Disorder, College Students, and Animals
TEMPLE GRANDIN, Ph.D.
JOURNAL OF CHILD AND ADOLESCENT PSYCHOPHARMACOLOGY
Volume 2, Number 1, 1992 Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., Publishers
Heidi Hanson is an artist and writer in Asheville, North Carolina currently working on an illustrated book chronicling her journey healing from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.