Group Therapy Grounding Exercises

Running Recreation Therapy groups presents challenges regardless of the population. RTs and other activity professionals work hard maintaining a balance when participants’ personalities, skill sets, and agendas clash. Like a tightrope walker, one misstep can send a group into a downward spiral. Sometimes a simple pause and check-in can restore balance and revitalize the group’s therapeutic purpose. Consider group therapy grounding exercises as the RTs long pole we often see tightrope walkers use to keep balance.

What are Grounding Exercises?

Since many of our participants carry lots of physical, mental, and emotional baggage, some groups may cause very reactive responses and behaviors. The anxiety and overwhelming feelings due to challenging participants to learn and grow in activities like team building may be an issue for some groups.

Group therapy grounding exercises allow participants to return to the present moment and regain their composure. It’s like hitting the reset button in their minds so they can once again refocus and re-orientate.  

It takes a keen eye to know the best time to do a group “timeout” for grounding exercises. Doing it too soon may not give the participants enough time to work through challenges on their own. Waiting too long could make managing behaviors and participants’ withdrawl too hard to recover causing the group’s purpose.

Warning Signs:

  • Assertive communication turns aggressive
  • Any signs of aggressive actions
  • High anxiety among participants
  • At least one participant leaves the group activity
  • The group’s subject matter becomes inappropriate or very off-task
  • The skills you’re trying to address during the activity aren’t used
  • Struggles begin to overwhelm the group

By knowing your participants and their personal strengths and challenges, you should have a good internal gauge as to the best time to step in with group therapy grounding exercises. Of course, since we work with a variety of populations having different physical, mental, and emotional abilities there is no universal answer. Attentiveness and experience make some of the best sound judgement.

Rule of thumb: always air on the side of sooner better than later. The consequences of waiting too long are almost always worse than jumping in too soon.

image of kids playing ball

Examples of Group Therapy Grounding Exercises

Before doing these grounding exercises, make sure all activity has paused and you have everyone’s attention. One effective way to do this is designating a specific word or gesture before the activity begins. For example, when you say a phrase like “group pause”, the participants know to stop what they’re doing.

Share and Breathe

Pause the activity. Once you have everyone’s attention tell your participants to shout the emotion they are feeling at the count of three. After they shout their emotions, lead them in a group deep breathing exercise.

For example, have them all stand with their arms by their sides. As they take a deep breath in, have them raise their arms slowly above their heads. As they exhale, have them put their hands together above their head and slowly lower them so both hands are clasped together at chest level.

Repeat this three or four times. More if necessary. Complete a short debriefing session and return to the activity.

Group Clap

A great way to get participants back in the present moment is to have them do a simple action together. After pausing an activity, instruct the participants to complete a short clapping exercise. This varies on your participant’s abilities, but here are a couple ideas:

  • Everyone claps four times then pauses. Repeat.
  • As you count to four repeatedly, have your participants clap when you say one and three.
  • Form a circle and have one person clap. The person next to them then claps. Let them go around the circle clapping a couple times.
  • Have everyone clap ten times then say a grounding word such as “calm” or “focus”.

Group Circle

After pausing the group, have everyone get in a circle. Start with one of the calmer participants and ask them to say a word or two describing what they’re feeling at the present moment. Go around the circle with each participant only using a couple words describing their emotions.

As a leader, acknowledge all the emotions. Say a few words about the good behaviors you saw during the activity. Encourage them to refocus to complete the activity.

Then have the participants say a grounding word together while still in the circle.

Pause and Stretch

Incorporating simple yoga postures can make group therapy grounding exercises effective. This doesn’t mean strange contortions on a colorful mat. It could be as easy as standing straight and paying attention to breath.

Pause the group and do a short debriefing. Lead the group in a simple yoga exercise or two.

Here are a couple yoga postures great for grounding: image of warrior pose

Mountain Pose: Stand straight with your arms at your side. Press your toes into the ground and flex your thighs. Breathe in deeply drawing in your stomach and lifting your chest. Relax the shoulder blades and breathe out imaging a string running from the top of your head to the ceiling.

Upward Salute: Start in Mountain Pose. Take a deep breath and sweep your arms out and up. Have your palms face each other above your head and interlock the fingers. Exhale and press your left hip to the side and bend upper torso to the right. Keep feet grounded and legs tight. Stretch the spine and arms and take a few deep breaths. Return to center and repeat on the other side.

Warrior 1 Pose: Take a big step back with one of your feet and settle into a lunge position. Turn your back leg slightly and lift your arms above your head so your hands are clasped in the air. Look up at your clasped hands and take a few deep breaths.  

There are plenty of yoga resources to help you find the yoga poses appropriate for your participants.

The Power of Debriefing

Think of group therapy grounding exercises as the foundation to restoring a positive group environment. Debriefing provides the solid structure on that foundation. After a grounding exercise, you may want to do a short debriefing session if you feel your participants aren’t focused enough. Sometimes the exercise alone may get some groups ready to return to the activity.

Regardless, a debriefing session is necessary for any activity. Especially one where participants needed a grounding exercise to refocus.

Why? Debriefing highlights the teachable moments of the activity. Running the activities are only part of the therapeutic process. What you teach them allows participants to see how the skills they used during the activity can transfer into everyday life. It’s those “ah-ha” moments where the giant light bulbs turn on over their heads.

Tips for an amazing debriefing:

  • Highlight the positives, troubleshoot the struggles. Make sure you start a debriefing session talking about what the group did well. This sets the tone for the session. When you talk about the struggles, don’t spend time focusing on the negative. Talk about how the group addressed these struggles. Ask the group to provide ideas for ways they would approach the activity differently if doing it again.
  • Don’t preach. All your great ideas for how the group could improve their performance will likely fall on deaf ears. Unless, however, you have great participants that take every word you say as gospel. Most of us don’t have that luxury. Guide your participants to find ways to work better together. Praise them when they find the answers–even if you knew the answers all along. It’s not about you, it’s about your participants learning and growing.
  • Don’t allow finger pointing. Sure, maybe one participant was responsible for a lot of the groups dischord. A debriefing session where participants start blaming others for issues will only result in more disharmony. Have each person talk in “I” statements instead of “You” statements. For example, “I felt frustrated when we started arguing.” Instead of, “You weren’t doing what you were supposed to and it got the group mad.”
  • Transfer the skills. Ask the participants to talk about other times they were frustrated, angry, etc. Have them talk about what they learned during the activity and how it will help them in the future.

If you’re looking for some more tips on leading Recreation Therapy groups you could check out one of my previous posts.


Need more group therapy activity ideas? My new book, Therapy Games for Teens is coming out in September 2020.  It’s one of the most affordable ways to get 150 simple, practical therapy game ideas to address issues like communication, depression, anxiety, and trauma.


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2021 UPDATE! 
I’ve revamped my newsletter to give tips, advice, stories, and other useful information for grounding exercises and more to your inbox each week (or so). Simply keep scrolling down to find the sign up for the newsletter–I like you too much to do one of those annoying pop ups.

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