5,4,3,2,1: A quick, effective and versatile grounding technique

What are grounding techniques?

Grounding techniques (aka stabilisation techniques) are useful when we feel distressed and anxious. Situations when our minds have wandered to unpleasant memories or worries about how future events may play out. When this happens, we can find ourselves endlessly wrestling with difficult thoughts, in an attempt to rid them from our minds. This process is reflected in an old metaphor of a fish who wrestles to free itself from a fishing hook. The more that fish wrestles with the hook, the more embedded that hook becomes. We can visualise our negative thoughts as if they were these fishing hooks passing through our minds, trying to catch our attention, make us bite, and reel us in to unpleasant territories of our minds.

Grounding techniques can help protect us from these thought hooks. Grounding techniques are like anchors that drag our wandering minds out of the past or future, right into to the present moment, to the world around us. They help us direct our attention away from those fish hooks, allowing them to pass by without the need for us to grapple with them all of the time. This is one of the key principles of mindfulness.

There are hundreds of grounding techniques out there, such as those that involve breathing exercises, body scans, music, art, nature, and soothing objects. When working with a client, I find it’s usually a case of ‘trial and error’. We practice several different grounding techniques until we identify one or two that work best for the client. However, there’s been one grounding technique that comes up as a favourite, time and time again – the 5,4,3,2,1.

How to do the 5,4,3,2,1

I’ve found the 5,4,3,2,1 to be one of the most simple, effective and versatile grounding technique there is. And here’s how it works:

Make yourself comfortable and get into ‘the zone’ by taking a few slow and deep breaths. Focus on your breathing for a moment, then take your time in following these 5 Steps.

5– First, take some time to notice five things you can see around you. Be curious.  Focus in on the detail. Explore with your eyes the various patterns, colours and textures.

4– Now try to identify four things you can feel in the connection your body is making with the world around you. You don’t need to be moving for this. For example, this could be feeling your feet on the ground, a chair supporting your weight, your posture, the wind in your face, the temperature on your skin. Spend some time tuning in to these sensations.

3– Next, take some time to notice three things you can hear. Listen carefully. If you can’t detect three sounds, take some time to observe the silence or listen to the sound of your breath. Notice the sounds you may not usually pay attention to.

2–  Now notice two things you can either smell or taste. You may need to interact with what’s around you for this one.

1– Finally, think about 1 positive thing about yourself. This could be a compliment you have received from someone you care about, or an act of kindness you have made. Take a moment to accept it, feel it, and believe in it.

Tips for using the 5,4,3,2,1

  • Don’t worry about following the script exactly. Be flexible with it. The purpose is to activate your senses and connect with the present moment. It doesn’t really matter whether you notice five things or ten, or whether you do all five steps or focus on your favourite two or three.
  • Your mind will wander! When this happens, try not to feel frustrated or put pressure on yourself. Our minds are designed to wander. Instead, notice where your attention has gone and gently redirect it back to the 5,4,3,2,1. You may find yourself having to do this frequently at first, and that’s fine.
  • There is no time limit! The entire 5,4,3,2,1 can be done in as little as a couple of minutes or extended to several minutes on each step.
  • You can use the 5,4,3,2,1 anywhere. From the therapy room to the bus stop, or from queuing in the supermarket to going to sleep. I find it works particularly well outdoors, such as when you’re out walking. For example, I’ve used it with groups whilst paddling in canoes across a lake, as a way of creating a deeper connection to the natural world.
  • The 5,4,3,2,1 isn’t just useful when feeling anxious and distressed. Can you recall a time when you’ve treated yourself to a nice meal and then realised you’d eaten it without actually tasting it? Or a time when a special occasion with friends and family has passed you by because your mind was elsewhere? The 5,4,3,2,1 can help us tune in and immerse ourselves in the experience that’s right in front of us. Helping us to enjoy and make the most of the present moment.
  • Just because mindfulness techniques like the 5,4,3,2,1 are useful, it doesn’t mean we should aim to spent ALL our time in the present moment. Not only would this be impossible, but there is also a substantial part of our day where we need to be thinking about the past or future in order to function, learn and develop. The key is noticing when being in that mode of thinking is no longer productive.
  • Grounding techniques on their own don’t usually get rid of problems, they give you a break from them. But sometimes this break can allow you to find solutions that may not have been visible before.
  • As you practice the 5,4,3,2,1, you will start to find yourself switching on your senses more often, without having to consciously follow the steps. Turning your attention to the present moment from time-to-time will become more habitual.

Written by Dr Sam Cooley | @samjoecooley