Slipping away and finding one’s way back

by Kat

Stimming and Grounding

Comparing and contrasting how people use and perceive these techniques

Sometimes I feel like I’m slipping away when my worries overwhelm me. My brain is still sitting in my seat, but my mind feels distant —  maybe it’s mild dissociation — I don’t lose time, but I don’t feel present either. I attempted to describe this experience when I wrote Enough:

It’s like a wave, the story often starts, I sit in it, it passes eventually, never entirely overwhelming me — but disconcerting nonetheless.

Prior to entering therapy, I had trouble identifying this experience. I noticed during dance aerobics classes, sometimes my mind seemed elsewhere, and I would lose track of my steps. I’d get stuck in worry loops, then will myself back to the present moment (“You’ll fall over if you try to worry and move simultaneously”). In class, I made lists of ways to manage worrisome situations, so I could return my attention to the lecture. I still create lists in the margins of my notebooks; sometimes I draw trees, but these days my jottings also include unfinished poems and recalled affirmations.

My therapist noticed I became distant when we talked about painful topics. She taught me grounding techniques when my worries seemed overwhelming, and I felt as if I was slipping away. To ground yourself, you focus on novel, sensory stimuli — what’s in your surroundings that you can see and touch (1). Therapist lady handed me a rock  (from one of those small office fountains), and I traced its crevices with my fingers as I described what it felt like. I came back gradually, and we learned to help me return to the present moment.

As I learned to remain present, even when I felt ridiculously anxious, I noticed that I stim. I wondered why this was happening; I didn’t know I stimmed and yet I found myself clapping happily in response to good news or tapping my fingers together when I was feeling anxious. I still practice grounding when my anxiety heightens: I rub my fingers against textured surfaces or place my hands near my diaphram to feel my breathing. For me, stimming and grounding serve similar functions — they help me self-soothe and/or respond to evocative scenarios.

According to the editors of The Stimming Checklist,  “Often the cause of a stim is some need for self-regulation, or a way to feel in control of ourselves and our experiences” (2). Some people stim to regulate their emotional or sensory experiences. I stim to manage my anxieties (e.g., tapping slightly or rubbing my fingers together) and sometimes when I’m distracted by background noise. I find my own rhythm by tapping my fingers or toes, so that I can focus on present tasks.

We all stim sometimes — if we remember stimming includes those small movements that get us through the day — tapping pencils or feet, fidgeting with jewelery, clicking pens, twirling hair, and doodling during lectures are some examples. The Stimming Checklist has an array of stims that people submitted (3). There are stims for a variety of emotional states and scenarios. Anabellistic (on her YouTube channel, MainJelly) created a video of subtle stims people could do in a classroom to stay engaged (4). We stim because it works.

So why talk about stimming and grounding in the same blog post, you might ask, dear readers. I think there are a lot of similarities between stimming and grounding (as shown in the Venn diagram I made – penchant for charts continues), but the social contexts in which these behaviors occur differ. I intentionally learned to ground when I was feeling overwhelmed; stimming seemingly happened to me — and yet, both techniques are useful. If I look weird plopping down in the middle of things to slowly breathe or tapping my fingers as I walk somewhere, that’s okay.

  1. Automatic Reactions and Grounding Techniques —
  2. So What IS Stimming? Definition from The Stimming Checklist —
  3. The Stimming Checklist —
  4. Way-To-Stim Wednesday: Classroom (from MainJelly’s YouTube channel) —