An illustration of a person doing a breathing exercise

Breathing exercises can help calm the body and mind. Illustration by Alyssa Gocinski

At the start of each class, professor Kathleen Flinton leads her students through a guided meditation. She begins, she says, by asking them to close their eyes and focus on the present. 

“Check in with your body and make any necessary adjustments,” Flinton, a trauma expert, tells her students. “You may have other distractions prior to sitting down. Just give yourself a moment to let them go.” 

The ability to connect to the present is the foundation of grounding, a practice that can help quiet flashbacks, unwanted memories, or negative emotions. Flinton, an assistant professor of practice in the Boston College School of Social Work, says students can use grounding exercises, such as breathing slowly and deeply into their belly, to help clients overcome distress and deal with the fallout from their own indirect exposure to trauma.

As she prepares for the start of the fall semester, she says she hopes that the practice will quell the anxiety of returning to in-person learning on campus. 

“We all go through life with a list of what happened before and where we need to be after,” says Flinton, who has worked with survivors of trauma for more than 20 years. “This is about learning how to be present in the moment that you're in.”

Grounding aligns with the philosophy of the school’s Trauma Integration Initiative, a holistic program that prepares students to help clients cope with trauma while guarding themselves against its effects. According to studies, 85 percent of social workers routinely treat clients with a traumatic condition, while one in seven social workers develop post-traumatic stress disorders.

“A key component of recovering from trauma is learning skills to manage arousal in the moment,” says Flinton, who co-chairs the initiative. “We want our classrooms to be places that support student healing. When we do these exercises, we are supporting our students in whatever challenges they may be facing.”

To prepare to teach “Adult Psychological Trauma” and “Child and Adolescent Trauma” this fall, Flinton created a series of grounding exercises that build on each other from week to week. 

The first week of exercises will focus on settling into a new space and letting go of distractions. “You are supposed to be here,” Flinton plans to say to students in both of her courses. “Let yourself arrive here. Focus on being present.”

In week three, Flinton will teach students a breathing technique designed to promote relaxation. She will ask students to imagine there is a balloon in their stomach and then instruct them to brreathe in and out to deflate and inflate the balloon. 

“Belly breathing is a useful skill for trauma survivors to learn,” she says. “It stimulates the vagus nerve, indicating to the body that there is no danger present.”

In week five, Flinton will instruct students to pay close attention to their breathing and then ask them to imagine a container where they can put unhelpful thoughts, memories, and emotions. This mediation, she says, will teach students how to better control disturbing thoughts and feelings stemming from traumatic experiences.

“The container is yours, you control it,” Flinton will tell the students. “It is there for you when you need it.”

Kathleen Flinton

Kathleen Flinton, an assistant professor of practice in the Boston College School of Social Work. Courtesy photo

Students respond to guided meditation in many different ways, says Flinton, who added grounding exercises into her lesson plans in 2014, when she was teaching at Boston University. Some students, she says, find it hard to sit still and focus on their breathing. Others enjoy meditation, especially when it’s done in a group. And many, she notes, have used the practice to help themselves and their clients at schools, hospitals, and nonprofits. 

Vanessa Warshaw, a second-year student in the mental health field of practice, applies some of the strategies she learned in Flinton’s “Child and Adolescent Trauma” course to de-stress outside of class. Her go-to exercise, she says, is progressive muscle relaxation, which focuses on slowly tensing and then relaxing each muscle group from the toes to the head. 

Alejandra Trejo, who is pursuing the MSW/MBA dual degree program, practiced grounding at Doc Wayne Youth Services, a nonprofit that fuses sport and therapy to strengthen young people. 

During one group therapy session on Zoom, Trejo asked teenaged immigrants to recall a time in their lives when they felt joy. “Where are you?” she asked the teens. “Are you alone or are there others with you? What do you see? What do you hear?  What do you feel on your skin? What do you smell? What do you taste? What did you believe about yourself at that time?”

As students recalled happy memories, Trejo encouraged them to notice what they were feeling in their bodies. She assured them that they could reconnect to these joyful moments by placing their hands on the parts of their bodies where they felt sensation connected to their cheerful recollections.   

Trejo recalls that many of the teens reflected on their favorite memories from home, including the smell of their grandmother’s cooking.

“I believe it helped them understand that missing home is valid and healthy,” says Trejo, who belongs to the school’s Latinx Leadership Initiative, which prepares students to work with Latinx clients. “It was so powerful and opened up the conversation about missing their home countries, something most students in the group had in common.”

Flinton found guided meditation to be particularly useful during online courses, saying that it helped students feel like they were connected even though they were far apart. She hopes that the practice will help students reacclimate to life back on campus, when classes start on Sept. 1. 

“Even being around other people is going to be stressful,” she says. “We’re going to take a moment to do this with intentionality and understand that we’re in this together.”