The stress and anxiety many of us experience on a day to day basis can be debilitating and exhausting. Fortunately, however, there are a ton of grounding techniques and calming exercises that help to bring us back to our center again. And one of those practices requires nothing other than your five senses, simply referred to as the 5-sense grounding exercise.
Becky Howie, Psychotherapist and Coach, knows just how effective this practice can be in resolving unwanted anxiety: “Oftentimes, when we feel anxious, we get caught up in our heads, listening to the worry tape that plays on repeat without even realizing it,” she says. “ And one way to get off that worry train is to bring ourselves back to our bodies through our five senses, walking through each of them and noticing what information they are bringing to us. I find this exercise has an added calming effect if you do it outside in nature.” Now, let’s begin the countdown, starting with sight:
“Look around and find five different things in your environment that you can see, and describe them in as much detail as you can, as if you were trying to explain them to a blind person. Notice colors, shapes, light, shadow, etc.” Looking out my work window, I see a tree standing tall, with tiny leaves that grow in size as they near the ends of the branches. The tree is planted in a small rectangle of mulch, which creates a break in the concrete sidewalk. I also see my car—a blue trailblazer—sitting about 20 feet from this tree. If I redirect my attention to the inside of my office, I see a stack of books sitting on my desk, which vary in size; a vase of ceramic, pink flowers, atop the ledge of the staircase; and finally, my thermos of coffee, designed to look like a clean cut of wood.
“Same as above, but close your eyes. Try to identify four different sounds you can hear and describe them in detail. You may have to slow down a bit to notice subtle or quiet sounds.” I can hear the click-clacking of my keyboard while I type, which quickens and slows sporadically (I enjoy this noise). I can also hear my coworker guiding his mouse across his desk, cars honking and zooming by outside, and a real mouse gnawing at the beams above me. This last noise I don’t like so much.
“Find three ways to interact with your environment using your sense of physical touch. Can you run your fingers through the grass? Feel your butt in a chair or on the ground? Notice the cool air on your cheeks?” I can feel my foot pressed comfortably against the wall in front of me. My toes fit perfectly between it and a leg of my desk. I also feel the smoothness of my keyboard and the grooves between each key. And lastly, I feel my back pressed against my leather desk chair (which is super cozy, might I add).
“Seek out two things you can smell. Perhaps it’s freshly mown grass, or the smell of your detergent on your clothes.” I can smell the sweet but strong aroma of my coffee, as I raise my thermos to my mouth; this smell is comforting. I can also smell the sweat and the sunshine left on my sweater from the last time that I wore it. I remember thinking I could get one more wear out of this sweater before I needed to throw it in the wash. The smell is nice, and I stand by my decision.
“Is there something in your environment you can safely taste? A drink or food nearby? If not, simply notice the taste inside your mouth.” My mouth is full of sweetness, as I’m in the middle of eating my breakfast: chocolatey granola, ripe strawberries, and vanilla Greek yogurt. I love the bursts of chocolate that awaken my taste buds and the subtler taste of the yogurt that counters it. The simple sweetness puts me in a good mood and sets me up for a great day.
How’d you do? Were you able to count down, using your five senses? I hope so, and I hope that it helped to reduce your anxiety. Now, if you’re up for it, you can perform one more exercise, similar to the one above. Howie calls it finding your happy place: “I invite you to go someplace safe in your mind. This could be a real place or an imaginary one, or a combination of both. The only requirement is that it is a place you feel like you can safely relax, let go, and be yourself. Call that place up in your mind in as much detail as you possible can. And then, walk through the five senses exercise above in your mind’s eye in this happy place you have created.” This exercise can help ease your worries when you feel anxiety coming on, or serve as a reminder to your mind that it’s okay to relax, she explains.