Using the 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique to Cope With Anxiety
There are many reasons children and teens may feel anxious. A lack of sleep, academic demands, problems with friends at school, peer pressure, and negative thoughts about themselves due to a past experience can make them tense and fidgety.
Like adults, it’s normal for young people to worry from time to time[*]. But during these anxious moments, they can ease their minds using grounding exercise techniques. These calming exercise takes only a few minutes to complete.
What is the 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique?
The 5-4-3-2-1 method is a mindfulness strategy that’s designed to bring your thoughts back to the present moment. It’s one of the many grounding methods (such as splashing water on your face, belly breathing, and pressing your palms together) that therapists recommend to reduce the intensity of challenging emotions.
Let’s say, for example, you have a student who feels panicky before an exam. Using the 54321 grounding technique, you ask them to name the following:
- 5 things they can see
- 4 things they can touch
- 3 things they can hear
- 2 things they can smell
- 1 thing they can taste
Whether you conduct therapy or not, this and other anxiety and panic attack exercises are worth sharing[*]. This article may be focused on grounding as an anxiety coping skill; however, in my own therapy practice, I find that it also helps patients who have suffered trauma, PTSD, depression, or are having panic attacks.
How Does the 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique Help With Anxiety?
Anxiety results from worrying about the future. You could be anxious about tomorrow’s performance or the outcome of a decision you made. The list goes on. A memory that reminded you of an embarrassing situation or reliving a traumatic event (a shooting or police violence), can also trigger anxiety.
Notice that all these things focus on either the past or the future, which causes a person to experience a negative event like it’s new.
I love what Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist, said: “The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness.”
This is where the 54321 grounding technique comes in. By using our five senses — sight, touch, sound, smell, and taste — we’re able to fully experience the present moment. When we live in the present, we’re not in a “fight-or-flight” state. Instead, we feel safe and relaxed. Cortisol levels fall, and the stress response is reduced[*].
How to Do the 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique
It’s good to know that we have the ability to connect ourselves to the present moment whenever we start feeling anxious and overwhelmed.
If you need a tool that will guide a child or teen who may be struggling with anxiety or another mental health problem, download and print our 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique PDF worksheet. Read the steps below to see how it’s done. Try following along!
Acknowledge 5 things you can see.
Don’t overthink it. Identify the things that are right in front of you. It can be a pen, a glass of water, a beautiful view outside your window, flowers, and a wall clock. Kids and teens can say what they see out loud (when they’re alone or in a therapy session) or simply write them down.
Acknowledge 4 things you can touch.
It can be your skin, the surface of the chair you’re sitting on, your shirt, and the keys on your laptop. Run your fingers through your hair. Or squeeze a stress ball. This works too. Pay attention to the texture of the thing you’re touching. Is it soft? Wrinkly? Course? Fluffy?
Acknowledge 3 things you can hear.
You can easily identify sounds when you’re in a busy environment. Cars honking, people talking in the background, and squeaky wheels on shopping carts.
But if anxiety creeps up and you’re in a quiet place — inside your room, for example — play some calming instrumental music. Tap your fingers on the surface of a table and listen to the sound produced by the tapping. You can also breathe deeply and listen as you exhale.
Acknowledge 2 things you can smell.
Maybe it’s the smell of brewed coffee and freshly washed clothes. Try lighting an aromatherapy candle too. Scents like lavender, chamomile, and peppermint are popular for relieving stress.
Acknowledge 1 thing you can taste.
It could be the sandwich you just ate. Eating a small snack, like a piece of chocolate or biscuit, works too. In case this isn’t possible, you can try acknowledging something else, such as a positive quality about yourself!
Important Reminder: It helps to think of the 54321 grounding and other panic attack grounding techniques as a physical workout. It can take a lot of effort and discipline when you’re new to it. But as you keep practicing, it becomes a habit. As parents or care providers, we can lead by example to encourage young people to incorporate it into their daily lives.
The 5-4-3-2-1 method is a simple exercise that takes a person’s mind off anxious thoughts that trigger negativity. As with other grounding techniques, it allows you to live in the present moment by engaging your senses. For young people needing help with staving off anxiety, this can be a powerful tool to create a calm and peaceful mind.
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Anxiety and Depression in Children. 2022 April 19
- Treatment Improvement Protocol. Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services
- Harvard Health Publishing. Understanding the stress response. 2020 July 06