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26th Jul 2020

Why the ‘5-4-3-2-1’ technique is now my go-to for tackling anxious feelings

Anna Rourke

When I was little and I felt upset with someone, I’d put them in a bubble in my mind.

I’d sit there, in class or at home and, with my hands, I’d carefully unwrap an imaginary piece of pink bubble gum from a non-existent wrapper. I’d pop the gum in my mouth and slowly pretend to chew. I’d then blow and blow until, in my head, I’d blown a bubble big enough to fit a person inside. Then, I’d picture the person being put inside and having to float there. I wouldn’t torture them, I wouldn’t even really look at them. I’d just leave them in there, separate from me, until I felt better.

I don’t know where six-year-old me got the idea from but doing this ritual when I couldn’t articulate how I was feeling always had a soothing effect. There was something in the slowness, the methodical nature of each action that felt like a little bit of magic. Little did I know then that I’d created a healthy blueprint for how I could calm myself down for the rest of my life.

Just like that six-year-old, I’ve often found it tricky to find words for certain feelings as an adult – and have always strived for ways to make myself feel better in the moment when I just can’t manage to speak about how I feel. That’s why I love using the ‘5-4-3-2-1’ technique for anxiety.

Also known as ‘grounding’ or ‘earthing’, this step-by-step technique helps you to reconnect with your senses in a clear way when they’re overwhelmed.

First, you identify five things you can see around you, whether it’s the sky, your feet or anything in between. Focus your mind on each of them, one by one. Next, you identify four different sounds you can hear. Take time to listen for each sound on its own. Then, look for three physical things you can touch. Ask yourself, what does each thing feel like? Next, two smells. Again, slow down and experience each smell on its own. Finally, what can you taste? Even if it’s just your own tongue, spend time sitting with its taste in your mouth.

Having always found meditation and mindfulness frustrating, I didn’t have high hopes for the 5-4-3-2-1 technique when I saw a blogger I follow talk about it on social media. Still, I’d give anything a go once. It has taken patience and practice, but the technique has become super helpful when I feel chest tightness and other symptoms of anxiety coming on. It helps me to use my senses to focus on what is real rather than the ‘not real’ – the perceived danger that the anxiety is making me feel. I also take a sense of control from being able to tackle my feelings myself, not using words or relying on others but harnessing the power of my own mind.

Recently. I remembered my bubble gum routine for the first time in years and it made me feel lighter. Though my childhood method is a little different to the one I use now, I realised I’ve always been able to calm myself using my own mind.