How to Use The 5 Senses Exercise to Cope With Anxiety and Panic

What is anxiety?

Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental health disorders in the United States. Anxiety typically involves intense, uncontrollable terror or dread. Additional symptoms may include increased heartbeat, sweating, shortness of breath, muscle tension, racing thoughts, and stomach ache. Chronic symptoms can interfere with activities of daily living, work performance, and educational progress. Additional problems may arise for individuals who experience panic attacks, which are sudden, chronic episodes of intense fear that causes severe physical and emotional reactions. 

What does anxiety look like? 

While learning about anxiety, several dots that had been scattered throughout my life suddenly connected. Childhood anxiety can include frequent crying, complaining of stomach aches, and quickness to anger, which reminded me of countless memories during which I struggled to navigate the world rationally. I thought back on my first grade teacher, who contacted my mother to discuss her concerns about my frequent crying, stomach aches, and general sensitivity during the school day. In fact, my sister still rolls her eyes when recalling her embarrassment about frequently pushing my sad, sobbing sack onto the school bus. At home, my exquisite ability to throw a sudden, nonsensical temper tantrum earned me the nickname “Little Thundercloud.” 

My experience with anxiety has never had a severe impact on my life, but it has caused me difficult moments of paralysis, shakiness, racing thoughts, heart palpitations, and intense stomach aches. There have even been a few situations where my symptoms escalated to panic, featuring blurry vision, tightness in my chest, and trembling. Those moments left me emotionally exhausted and confused, and when they occurred I knew I had to find a way to address how I was feeling.

What causes anxiety?

When feeling threatened or sensing danger, all animals have an instinctual reaction referred to as fight-or-flight. As a reaction to the detected danger, the heartbeat intensifies, senses heighten, and the body prepares to either run away to safety or fight off the threat. Chronic anxiety and panic disorders are what happen when the brain inaccurately detects danger. An individual could be genetically predisposed to anxiety disorders, or symptoms may be triggered by a traumatic experience. 

In an outpatient therapy setting, I worked with a client who suffered with an immunodeficiency disease. She struggled with uncertainty related to her health and underwent frequent medical testing during childhood. The illness caused frequent long term hospitalizations, requiring her to quarantine to avoid exposure to germs. After finally being diagnosed and starting an effective treatment regimen, she was permitted to be her life as normally as possible. However, she enrolled in mental health therapy after noticing that being in public and near other people caused intense panic about her getting sick, even though her health was now stable.

Mental health typically moves in patterns. Identifying those patterns is a critical step in learning how we can break them. In the example above, my client displayed a pattern. She spent time in public, experienced intense fear, and engaged in avoidance behaviors to limit that unwanted feeling. To break this pattern, we had to determine the first sign of anxiety and put something into place that would help derail the cycle.

How can I overcome anxiety? 

Like most obstacles we discuss here on the blog, to overcome anxiety we have to learn about it. I quickly learned that my own anxiety fluctuates based on my level of depression, and when I feel more depressed I display more symptoms of anxiety as well. This basically means that if my depression is the chicken, my anxiety is the egg. It was important for me to understand where my anxiety was coming from, but it was also important to identify skills that would help me cope with it. 

Grounding techniques can intercept anxiety faster than Troy Polamalu can intercept a football. Grounding activities provide mental distraction that redirect one’s focus onto the present moment. They can help control symptoms of anxiety and panic disorders, and they can serve as tools to increase tolerance of distressing emotions. Now don’t get me wrong, traditional mindfulness skills, such as deep breathing, are incredibly useful. However, grounding techniques may just be strong enough to stop a panic attack in its tracks.

My favorite grounding technique is known as the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise, or the Five Senses exercise. The exercise incorporates all of the body’s senses that pull together to bring awareness back to the present. Personally, as soon as I notice my vision blurring and thoughts racing, this is what I do:

THE FIVE SENSES EXERCISE 

Use this exercise when the first symptoms of anxiety and panic arise.

5: Identify FIVE objects around you. It could be a spot on the wall, a book, anything in your surroundings.

4: Identify FOUR things you can feel. Notice the sensations of your clothing on your skin, the ground beneath your feet, or your hair tickling your face.

3: Identify THREE things you can hear. This can be either external, such as traffic outside, or music. It can also be internal, like the sound of your heartbeat or the sound of your breath.

2: Identify TWO things you can smell. Breathe in the smell coffee brewing or maybe you take a walk and acknowledge the scents of nature.

1: Identify ONE thing you can taste. Maybe you can take a sip of tea or juice and focus on how it hits your taste buds, or maybe pop a piece of gum in your mouth and focus the burst of flavor.

How can I get the best results from my grounding exercise? 

The most important thing to practice during a mindfulness or grounding activity is the ability to focus attention on the present moment, without judgment. The purpose of the exercises are to refocus on things outside of oneself, rather than what is going on in the mind. It is critical that we do this with a sense of open curiosity. 

The best part about the 5 Senses Exercise is that it can be done anywhere. It can be practiced in a park, at home, walking in the community, at work, in a car– as long as it’s safe! If anxiety or panic is persistent, the exercise can be lengthened by increasing the amount of things you identify. One might even draw out the exercise by finding as many things in each category as possible. 

This is an the exercise that I teach clients most frequently, and the feedback from those who have tried it has been consistently positive. I always love to hear about your experiences. If someone out there tries this exercise, let me know how it went for you! What works for some may not work for others, but this one hasn’t let me down yet. 

Your Turn!! 

Do you have other grounding techniques that you love? Leave some or your tips and tricks in the comments to help out our fellow wellness warriors. 

I hope everyone is having a great start to the week. As we continue through the work grind, don’t forget to stay grounded and mindful. 

Much love, 

Kel

6 thoughts on “How to Use The 5 Senses Exercise to Cope With Anxiety and Panic

  1. Thank you for the follow Kelly and for sharing here. I get anxiety/panic attacks, sometimes for no rhyme or reason. And yeah, deep breathing only goes so far. This 5-4-3-2-1 exercise is definitely worth a try! 🙂

  2. Hi there, thanks a million for the follow and the informative post as well. As a beginning practitioner of mindfulness, I have often struggled staying mindful, but after trying the 5-4-3-2-1 Technique( a few minutes ago) I think it might just be my key to maintaining mindfulness. Thanks a lot.

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