The simple 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique



When you are in the depths of a panic attack, it can feel like you are never going to break out of it. You feel like you are suffocating. Your heart races, you start to shake, tremble, sweat, and convince yourself that your legs will give way underneath you or that you will faint. You may even think you are having a heart attack.

All in a matter of seconds, and sometimes with no perceivable trigger.

I have suffered from generalised anxiety and panic attacks since adolescence. The more I allow anxiety to take hold, the worse it becomes.  

My first experience of a panic attack was on a visit to London as a teenager. I had lived in a village all my life and had never experienced what it was like to be in a major city. As we entered Liverpool Street Underground station I felt paralysed with fear as everything raced by me. I could barely breathe, and I made a sudden dash to the closest area where I could get some space. 

My anxiety isn't always as outwardly obvious.  More commonly, I catastrophise to the nth degree and my anxiety snowballs out of control. I become certain that the worst possible scenario will happen.

When anxiety pathways strengthen in the brain, anxiety triggers can multiply to such an extent that what was previously perceived as harmful is seen as a threat. Your fight or flight response triggers more often, releasing stress hormones into your body.  

The following technique brings you back to the present and can create more helpful neural pathways by reducing the impact of your anxiety response.  It can help you through stressful situations and is invaluable if you are in the middle of a panic attack. The simple technique explores your five senses to change your focus. It can also be used by parents/guardians/teachers etcetera if a child is having a meltdown by talking them through it.

To begin, take a deep belly breath, and then:

5 - LOOK: Look around you, noticing 5 things you can see. For example, if you are anxious in the middle of a busy shopping centre, you could think/say: I see a bench, I see a steaming mug of coffee, I see a table, I see a plant, I see a shop sign.

4 - FEEL: Move your focus inwards, paying attention to your body. Notice 4 things you can feel. For example, you could think/say: I feel my heart beating, I feel my breath, I feel warmth in my feet, I feel tingling in my fingers. If you are in the throes of an anxiety or panic attack this step may be extremely difficult or distressing, if so it is ok to go back to the first step, move on to the next, or stop there if it is all too much.

3 - LISTEN: Listen for 3 sounds around you. It could be sounds originating from close by, or more distant ones. For example, you could think or say: I hear the sound of distant traffic, I hear the sound of birds singing, I hear the sound of my tummy rumbling.

2 - SMELL: Say/think two positive things you can smell (it's unlikely to help if you hone in on a repugnant odour). Move around to find them if you need to. For example, you could say/think: I smell some freshly ground coffee, I smell a perfume. If you cannot smell anything think of your 2 favourite smells.

1 - TASTE: This may more tricky to explore. Say/think of one thing you can taste. For example, it may be the toothpaste from brushing your teeth or a lingering flavour of something you have recently eaten. If you cannot taste anything, think of/say your favourite thing to taste.

To finish, take another deep belly breath. If you need to, repeat the exercise until you feel grounded.

For more information on panic attacks, I recommend Mind's guide. The charity also provides other fantastic resources around mental health.

If you feel that your anxiety is becoming completely unmanageable, I recommend that you seek guidance from your doctor or mental health practitioner.

Alternatively, the Together We Are Strong website compiled this fantastic international list of helplines to help you in a crisis.

Comments

  1. I have had panic attacks since my early teens its no fun i never knew how to handle thwm and made it worse.thank you fr sharing this I will keep these in mind incase of another attack

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    1. Your'e most welcome, Regina. They feel really scary don't they? I hope the technique helps :)

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  2. Very helpful article. Panic attacks are very serious mental disorder, which can lead to critical problems. Including death.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for your comment. Put simply, they are the result of a release of stress hormones, a fight or flight response. The physical symptoms can be alarming, and you may think you are having a heart attack but the effects are only temporary and will not kill you. There will be exceptions of course such as if someone had a serious congenital heart condition, or getting in an accident from loss of concentration.

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