While many people take medications or attend therapy to manage anxiety symptoms, exercises that engage your five senses may also be helpful. This is particularly so when you need something that works right here, right now.
Indeed, intentionally focusing on hearing, touch, smell, taste, and sight might offer quick relief. For someone with anxiety, knowing how to effectively use these senses can be a powerful tool.
Grounding techniques are strategies that help connect or “ground” you in the present moment. They’re essentially a form of mindfulness, which has been shown to help many different mental health conditions.
A large 2014 research review with nearly 19,000 studies concluded that mindfulness-based stress reduction programs can ease symptoms of anxiety, depression, and pain.
Experts believe that grounding techniques, specifically, help you detach from emotional pain, so you can better regulate your emotions.
Grounding encourages you to take a break from your negative thoughts that may be causing anxiety until you’ve calmed down.
Grounding methods for anxiety are different from other relaxation exercises in that they focus heavily on distractions and quieting extreme emotions.
A small 2015 study found that just 1 hour of grounding exercises helps improve mood in people with anxiety and depression more than relaxation alone.
An added benefit of grounding techniques is that they can be done at any time, without anyone else knowing that you’re using them.
One popular grounding method is called the 5-4-3-2-1 calming technique.
First, you may want to start with a simple deep breathing exercise called the 5-5-5 method. To do this, you breathe in for 5 seconds, hold your breath for 5 seconds, and then breathe out for 5 seconds.
You can continue this process until your thoughts slow down or you notice some relief.
When you can find your breath, try practicing the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. For that, you want to look around and focus on:
- 5 things you see
- 4 things you feel
- 3 things you hear
- 2 things you smell
- 1 thing you taste
The idea is that the 5-4-3-2-1 technique helps you shift your focus to what’s currently happening around you instead of what’s making you feel anxious.
Focusing on each of your senses is a simple way to distract yourself from those thoughts that may be causing your anxiety.
Consider choosing a couple of exercises for each sense and trying to focus all your attention on the sensations.
To engage your sense of sight, here are some ideas:
- Look at every little detail on a family photo on the wall.
- Focus on a small object, such as a pencil or coffee mug, and identify every color and shape.
- Look at the sky for clouds, birds, sunrises, or anything else you can spot around.
- Focus your attention on a plant or flower and how it moves with the wind.
- Observe a pet while they play or rest.
You can pick large or small items to focus on. Once you choose an object, try to notice the color, texture, and patterns.
Activating your sense of touch can help distract you from anxious thoughts and may help you decrease the physical signs of anxiety.
You might want to try these exercises:
- Put your hands under running water, alternating between warm and cold temperatures every 30 seconds.
- Focus on how your clothing feels on your body or how your hair feels on your head.
- Touch different body parts by pressing down and holding for 30 seconds before moving to a different area.
- Touch the furniture in your living area and focus on its texture. For example, take notice of a smooth table.
Focusing on external sounds can help ground you in the moment.
Here are some noises to notice:
- a barking dog
- a stomach rumbling
- a clock ticking
- traffic outside
- a car or subway engine
- birds singing
- the wind blowing
To incorporate smell into your grounding techniques, you may want to try these tips:
- Walk into your bathroom and sniff a bar of soap or shampoo.
- Light a scented candle.
- Diffuse a scented oil.
- Take in simple smells around you, such as the scent of a pillow on the couch or a pencil.
- Walk outside and breathe deeply through your nose. Maybe you will smell fresh cut grass or flowers blooming.
Try to pick something that you can easily taste, such as:
- a piece of gum
- a mint
- sugar and salt
- a piece of food
You don’t actually have to taste these items if you don’t have them on hand. Instead, try thinking about the distinct flavors as you remember them.
Here are some additional tips to consider that can help when trying to engage your 5 senses to calm down:
- Begin grounding yourself in your senses as soon you realize you’re experiencing strong emotions or a difficult mood.
- Don’t make good or bad judgements. For instance, if you’re focusing on a brown wall but don’t like the color brown, simply tell yourself: “The wall is brown,” instead of, “I don’t like brown.”
- Do your best to focus on the present, not the past or future. If your thoughts wander, softly bring them back to your senses.
- Notice your mood before and after using a technique to see if it’s working for you. You might want to use a scale of 0 to 10 to rate your symptoms. Noticing relief may calm you down even more.
- Be flexible. If you notice one method is more successful than another, stick with that without judgement.
- Don’t give up. It might take a few attempts before grounding methods are successful.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety is a common disorder that affects about 18 percent of adults in the United States. Immersing yourself in your senses may help reduce symptoms of stress and worry.
You can follow simple exercises that activate your five senses — sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste. For example, simply listening to birds chirping or smelling fresh cut grass could help you focus less on your anxious thoughts and more on the present moment.
If you’re having a difficult time managing your anxiety, you may want to consider reaching out to a mental health expert. They can provide you with additional tools to manage your symptoms and discover the root cause of the anxiety.