The 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique
Stress journals and the 4 As technique can be used to great effect when paired together, especially if done regularly. But sometimes, you need a technique that will bring immediate relief to a stressful situation. The following technique is often used by those who experience panic attacks; it’s a way to halt the “anxiety spiral” before it runs away with you. You don’t have to have a panic disorder to benefit, though.
The idea is simple: when we overthink and ruminate and stress, we are out of the moment. We chew on thoughts of the past or entertain possibilities in the future. We think about “what if” and run our minds ragged on memories, ideas, probabilities, wishes, and fears. If we can pull our conscious awareness back into the present, we can halt some of this overthinking. And we can do this by checking in with the five senses. To put it another way, the brain can carry you all over the place, but the body—and its senses—is only ever one place: the present.
In moments of panic, we can get really caught up in ideas and thoughts, even though in reality, we are perfectly safe and sound, and there is nothing in our immediate situation to threaten us. With panic, however, we can be sitting in perfect peace in a sunny garden somewhere and nevertheless feel like we’re going to die. Such is the power of the mind!
The next time you feel anxiety and panic spiraling out of control, try this: stop, take a breath and look around you.
• First, find five things in your environment that you can see. You might rest your eyes on the lamp in the corner, your own hands, a painting on the wall. Take a moment to really look at all these things; their textures, colors, shapes. Take your time to run your eyes over every inch and take it all in.
• Next, try to find four things in your environment that you can feel or touch. Feel the weight of your body against the chair, or the texture of the jacket you’re wearing, or reach out to feel how cool and smooth the glass of the car window feels against your fingers.
• Next, find three things that you can hear. Your own breath. The distant sound of traffic or birds.
• Next, find two things you can smell. This might be tricky at first, but notice that everything has a smell, if you pay attention. Can you smell the soap on your skin, or the faint earthy smell of the paper on your desk?
• Finally, find one thing that you can taste. Maybe the lingering flavor of coffee on your tongue. Even if you can’t find anything, just dwell for a moment on what your taste buds are sensing. Are they really “off” or does your mouth almost have a taste of its own, when you stop to become aware of it? Stay there for a moment and explore that sensation.
The point of this exercise is, on the surface, distraction. While your senses are active, your brain is engaged in something other than endless rumination, and your overthinking is halted. You put a spanner in the works and stop runaway thoughts. Practice this technique often enough and you may notice that it instantly calms you and slows you down.
In the moment, you might not remember which sense comes next, but this isn’t important. What matters is that you are giving your full and focused attention to something outside of yourself, and letting anxious energy dissipate. It’s difficult to stop a thought by saying “I think I should stop thinking” because, obviously, this itself is a thought. But if you can put your brain on pause and re-engage your senses for a moment, you unhook yourself from the worry track and give yourself a moment to become present and calm.