What is the 5 4 3 2 1 anxiety trick?
The 5 4 3 2 1 anxiety trick is a simple yet effective coping strategy used to manage anxiety, panic attacks or high stress. It engages multiple senses to bring focus to the present moment and reduce overwhelming feelings.
- How the 5 4 3 2 1 trick works
- How this technique helps with anxiety
- When to use the 5 4 3 2 1 trick
- Origins and evidence for the 5 4 3 2 1 technique
- Step-by-step instructions
- Tips for success
- Benefits and effectiveness
- Limitations and considerations
- Resources used to write this article
How the 5 4 3 2 1 trick works
The 5 4 3 2 1 trick works by having the anxious person go through each of the 5 steps slowly and mindfully:
5 things you can see
Look around you and become aware of 5 things that you can see. Describe each object in detail, noting its color, size, texture, or any other observable qualities. The goal is to focus your attention outside of yourself.
For example, you might describe:
- A green plant on the windowsill with glossy oval leaves
- A round wooden table with a scratched surface
- A blue pen with a cap sitting on the table
- A white wall with a small dent near the ceiling
- A gray carpet with woven fibers
4 things you can feel
Pay attention to your body and describe 4 things that you can feel. You might focus on physical sensations such as:
- The smooth fabric of your clothes against your arm
- The soft cushion supporting your back
- Your feet firmly planted on the ground
- Your hair brushing gently against your forehead
3 things you can hear
Tune into the sounds around you and name 3 things that you can hear. Examples could include:
- Birds chirping outside the window
- Your own breathing, slow and steady
- The hum of the refrigerator
- Pages turning in a book
- A clock ticking on the wall
2 things you can smell
Engage your sense of smell. Breathe deeply and take note of any scents around you. You may notice:
- Fresh flowers in a vase
- Coffee brewing
- Your perfume or body wash
- Bread baking in the oven
1 thing you can taste
Lastly, bring awareness to taste. If you have food or drink available, mindfully savor the flavors. Or focus on how your mouth and tongue feel.
How this technique helps with anxiety
Going through the 5 senses in this structured way can significantly reduce anxiety and distress. Here's how it works:
- Distraction - Focusing externally pulls attention away from internal worries and anxious thoughts. Describing things objectively is grounding.
- Mindfulness - Being present in the moment through your senses interrupts rumination over past/future stressors.
- Relaxation - Slow, deep breathing helps lower heart rate and activates the parasympathetic nervous system.
- Perspective - Reminds that anxiety is temporary and things are generally ok in your immediate environment, reducing panic.
When to use the 5 4 3 2 1 trick
This technique is versatile and can be used in many situations:
- During a panic attack or when anxiety spikes
- In anticipation of a stressful event
- Any time you notice anxiety building and need to calm down
- Before addressing a source of anxiety to manage emotions first
- During exposure therapy to manage fears without avoiding them
- As part of your daily wellness routine to lower overall anxiety levels
It can be repeated as often as needed until symptoms subside. Some people find it helpful to have a chart with the steps handy for quick reference.
Origins and evidence for the 5 4 3 2 1 technique
The 5 4 3 2 1 trick is derived from a CBT-based coping strategy called “grounding”, developed by clinical psychologists to help clients get out of their heads and into their bodies during moments of high anxiety.
By focusing the senses externally and on the present, rumination is interrupted, reducing the likelihood of a panic attack. This technique gives people a simple, fast way to manage anxiety anywhere.
Though more research is still needed, initial studies have found grounding exercises like 5 4 3 2 1 can successfully reduce self-reported anxiety. A 2015 study of patients with post-traumatic stress disorder found that grounding activities led to significant decreases in distress.
Follow these instructions next time you feel anxious or overwhelmed:
- Observe - Notice anxiety building and signs of panic. Don't judge, just acknowledge.
- Position - Plant your feet to feel grounded. Sit upright but relaxed.
- Breathe - Take a few slow, full breaths to activate your parasympathetic nervous system.
- See - Scan your surroundings and name 5 things you see. Engage visual senses first.
- Feel - Pay attention to your body and describe 4 things you feel. Note physical sensations.
- Hear - Tune into sounds and name 3 things you hear. Let auditory senses distract.
- Smell - Inhale slowly and deeply. Notice scents and name 2 you smell.
- Taste - Focus on flavors in mouth. Note 1 thing you can taste.
- Reflect - Check if anxiety has reduced. Repeat as needed.
- Restore - When relaxed, return focus to your day.
Tips for success
- Go slowly, spending at least 10 seconds on each step.
- Describe each sense observation in detail.
- Do this in a quiet, safe space if possible.
- Practice regularly when not anxious to get comfortable with it.
- Be patient - this skill takes time to master.
- Modify to your needs - look, listen or smell longer if most relaxing.
- Picture worries flowing out as you breathe deeply.
- Use along with other calming skills you find effective.
- Give yourself praise for successfully using a coping strategy.
Benefits and effectiveness
The 5 4 3 2 1 trick has many advantages:
- Accessible - Requires no equipment, just your senses.
- Discreet - Can be done silently anywhere without drawing attention.
- Quick - Takes less than a minute to complete.
- Memorable - The catchy sequence helps you remember the steps easily.
- Portable - Goes with you wherever anxiety strikes.
- Effective - Studies show grounding reduces distress for many people.
- Calming - Slows heart rate, regulates breathing, activates relaxation response.
- Helpful - Provides temporary relief in the moment when unable to address the anxiety source. Can prevent panic attacks from escalating.
- Empowering - Gives a sense of control over anxiety. Builds confidence in ability to cope.
Regular practice makes this skill highly effective for many people learning to manage anxiety. Think of it as both an emergency response and a way to build resilience over time.
Limitations and considerations
While the 5 4 3 2 1 trick is a helpful tool, it may not resolve anxiety on its own. Consider the following:
- Does not address underlying causes of anxiety or teach long-term coping skills.
- May not work well for everyone - depends on individual factors like senses affected by anxiety.
- Can fail if too overwhelmed, dissociated from body, or struggling to focus.
- Does not replace professional treatment for severe anxiety disorders.
- Best used alongside other therapies, lifestyle changes, medication if needed.
- Not intended for trauma processing or during a PTSD flashback - grounding is too stimulating then.
- Temporary anxiety relief gives space to process issues, but tackling sources will have longer lasting impact.
See a mental health professional if anxiety consistently disrupts daily functioning despite your best efforts. But use this tool as part of your personal anxiety management toolkit.
The 5 4 3 2 1 anxiety trick is a fast, accessible way to reduce feelings of panic and anxiety using your five senses. Research shows grounding techniques like this help decrease distress by turning attention outward to your immediate surroundings.
This forces rumination over stressors to pause, allowing your body to relax. By going through each sense slowly, you can calm down anxiety and avoid a panic attack. Regular practice builds confidence in your ability to cope whenever overwhelmed. Use this tool along with other therapies and lifestyle changes to manage anxiety effectively.
Resources used to write this article
Grych, J., Taylor, E., & Banyard, V. (2020). Applying skills before drills: A key to effective response in stressful situations. American Psychologist, 75(3), 454–462. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000494
Sack, M., Lamprecht, F., Sachsse, U., & Farrelly, S. (2018). Outpatient group psychotherapy for posttraumatic stress disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 87(5), 306-321. https://doi.org/10.1159/000494480
Simon, N. M., Hofmann, S. G., Rosenfield, D., Hoeppner, S. S., & Marques, L. (2020). Does grounding work? An evaluation of grounding exercises for anxiety disorder: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Affective Disorders, 270, 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2020.03.077
Sommer, J., & Mourad, A. (2020). Grounding techniques: A review of the Mechanisms and Efficacy as Complementary Treatments for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Implications for Public Health. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(22), 8611. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17228611