While a lot of psychological techniques have a learning curve and take time to make tangible improvements in life, some work within seconds. One of these is the popular 5-step psychological sensory grounding mindfulness technique.
It is a widely practiced psychological & self-help “first-aid” technique which aims to stop uncontrolled thoughts, spiraling, mental chaos, growing anxiety & stress. It’s a recovery method to snap out of short-term high-intensity bouts of anxiety, flashbacks, and unwanted negative thoughts so you can relax and calm down.
Before we get to the steps, let us understand the name of this technique. There are 4 keywords in the name:
Psychological – The technique is a mental process within your control
Sensory – Each of the 5 steps is about your senses or perceptions
Grounding – The technique forces a re-connection with your immediate reality
Mindfulness – The process involves paying deliberate attention to certain immediate experiences.
You might have guessed that this technique is supposed to hijack your attention, divert it, and focus it on immediate experiences and “ground” you in the moment. Much like how spider-man’s iron spider suit grounds him with 8 powerful legs while falling so he can regain stability and fight.
Let’s get to the process now.
The 5-step psychological sensory grounding technique to snap out of anxiety and regain mental control in your personal reality
Step1: Look at 5 things
Notice 5 things visual stimuli around you one by one. These can be anything from colors to objects. Notice the chair, the wall, a person’s clothing, the shape of your phone, etc.
Step 2: Notice the touch of 4 things
Pay attention to the feeling of 4 objects that are touching you. These can be your glasses, your shoes, clothes, a chair, etc. Focus your attention on how your skin feels, the intensity of the touch sensation, and minute changes that you might notice.
Step 3: Listen to 3 things
Direct your attention to the various sounds around you. Notice 3 sounds one by one. Traffic sounds, bird-song, conversations, machines, music, etc. You can focus on any of these and sustain your attention until you fully acknowledge and appreciate the sounds around you.
Step 4: Notice the smell of 2 things
Focus your attention on 2 unique smells around you. Smells are powerful in evoking emotions and noticing smells can dominate your experience. Hunt for the smell of greenery, flowers, food, coffee, etc. When this isn’t possible, notice your own smell. If it is possible to relocate yourself to a place you can smell something pleasant, go ahead.
Step 5: Focus on the taste of 1 thing
It’s not always easy to access a particular taste while you are spiraling. In some scenarios, you can bite on some food and taste it mindfully. Notice how it feels in your mouth, appreciate how the food feels. If this isn’t possible, bring your attention to the current taste in your mouth. Even brushing your teeth could help.
So far so good right? Following these steps with dedication and concentration will ground you in reality and help you snap out of anxiety and spiraling thoughts to regain focus so you can relax.
There are many more psychological techniques that can help you calm down after anger/anxiety, stop negative thoughts, and relax. You might want to look into these emotional-regulation & cognitive defusion techniques.
Sometimes, steps 1-3 are easy. Smell and taste can be difficult to access. In that case, there are alternatives.
Alternative 1: The easiest thing to do is just name 5, 4, 3, 2, & 1 object(s) instead of finding them in your present reality. Recalling your experiences can work too. For steps 4 & 5, you can remember and name the most pleasurable smells and tastes you can think of and let that memory envelope your mind for a few seconds.
Alternative 2: Follow steps 1 to 3 as they are. Once that is done, notice 2 things you can taste OR smell. Not both. For step 5, you can list 1 emotion that you want to feel in the near future. It could be excitement, happiness, thrill, satisfaction, etc. Choose a feeling which doesn’t overwhelm you.
Another variation of this technique is to top it off with 5 things you can do in the near future that will make you feel good.
Pretty easy right? The 5-4-3-2-1 psychological sensory grounding technique can help you instantly in moments of panic, anxiety, and overwhelmingly uncontrollable negative thoughts. In fact, it is a common coping technique many therapists teach their clients.
Perhaps that is enough for you; but if you are like me, you might want to know why this technique works and why it has gained popular attention.
Explaining this isn’t easy in spite of its popularity and simplicity. Intuitively, it distracts you from your thoughts and forces your attention to get occupied by various sensations and feelings which are not related. But, let’s dig deeper and explore more because, surprisingly, this technique hasn’t been abundantly studied “as is.”
Why does mindfulness reduce anxious thoughts and relax your mind?
At a very fundamental level, there is a relationship between what researchers call sensory processing sensitivity and negative mental health symptoms like increased anxiety, negative thoughts, stress, and depression. This relationship is partly modulated by mindfulness – the ability to accept and acknowledge one’s current experience.
Sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) describes how sensitive a person is to sensory experiences. High sensitivity describes how small sharp sounds annoy people. Low sensitivity describes how people can be indifferent to bright colors in the environment. It is the extent to which people process sensory signals. There may be positive outcomes like appreciating beautify as well as negative outcomes like constantly being overwhelmed. The SPS is part biological (your personal thresholds) and part attentional (your ability to focus on or distract from experiences).
There is some evidence that shows that high SPS is related to anxiety but there is also some evidence that shows that high SPS can improve intuitiveness and one’s learning capacity. So it’s not all bad. But, the more important finding is that mindfulness and accepting the current experience can reduce distress for those with a high SPS. This is particularly useful for people who often get overwhelmed. Deliberate attention seems to promote a “cognitive” disengagement from the emotionally loaded experiences/thoughts which cause anxiety – a typical scenario while spiraling and getting overwhelmed.
The psychological grounding technique discussed in this article resembles SPS in some ways but it has one important difference – the grounding technique is about mindful attention and acceptance whereas high SPS is more like sensory noise.
Cognitive disengagement due to attention to sensory experiences explains some of the detachment-from-thoughts & attachment-with-reality the technique creates. Cognitive disengagement leads to lowered cognitive control, possibly because the lateral prefrontal cortex (L-PFC) which was otherwise occupied in mental distress.
In a way, the brain diverts resources away from the L-PFC to accept the sensory experiences (all the 5 steps in the technique). That is, instead of controlling the negative thoughts and panic, the brain is more ready to “let it go.”
Reflect: When you tell yourself don’t think about it, do you end up thinking about it? A part of the reason is that the instruction “don’t think about it” tries to exert “cognitive control” over your thoughts and keeps the brain resources as they are. The grounding technique takes care of this problem and diverts them to your sensory processing.
There is some reason to believe that emotional pain and “pain” in general have a common denominator based on how it is processed. Mindfulness, especially sensory mindfulness, is effective in reducing both types of pain. Even the subjective feeling of pain (in case, it is blown-up in your head). Such pain might be present while experiencing traumatic flashbacks or intense panic.
Leventhal’s dual-processing theory of emotion suggests that people can be biased toward an objective/sensory type of processing or a subjective/emotional type of processing. When we use a sensory grounding technique like the 5-4-3-2-1, it activates templates of mental processing called schemata for the objective sensory processing level. That schemata demands resources and conceptualizes emotions according to the sensory template which is less explosive.
The brain’s default mode network is linked with negative rumination (repeated fixation on negative thoughts), a hotspot for bursts of anxiety. Mindfulness activities appear to reduce the activation of the default mode network. This network of brain regions govern automatic mind-wandering and attention to sensory experiences in a non-emotional/judgmental way reduces the influence of the default mode network.
The amygdala, an emotional processor of the brain, is also down-regulated when attention is diverted to sensory experiences. That is another brain resource that feeds emotional thoughts and the grounding technique takes those resources away from the amygdala. While reliving negative thoughts or a traumatic experience, sensory grounding can help people get in touch with their current reality again. In short, sensory mindfulness pulls the brain out of the negative mental space.
A key aspect of the sensory grounding technique is figuratively descending through the 5 common senses. Taste and olfaction are at the end. Olfaction, the sense of smell, is a powerful emotional stimulus. It has a greater potential to stimulate a new train of emotional processing in the brain which might over-ride the existing emotional state. Effectively, this furthers the disengagement process we talked about previously. Looking, hearing, and touching, are relatively neutral. That makes it easier to begin. Attending to the neutral senses also reduces the competitive demand for mental resources needed to detach from anxiety and then relax. Moving from the eyes to smell slowly increases the reallocation of mental resources to change its fundamental state to complete the “grounding” process – effectively soothing your mind.
When it comes to changing mental states from the noisy spiraling mode to a sensory-acceptance mode, it is important to understand the concept of internal brain noise. The brain is inherently noisy because of the millions of processes taking place. Unlike computers, brain circuits are not very efficient and they are signals which get picked-up by unintended receivers. This is just one part of the noise. The other noise is sensory information which is not guided by attention. Some parts of the brain are dedicated noise suppressors which learn to ignore that noise and let our attention do the cherry-picking of information. When you are overthinking, bodily sensations are a part of the noise. When you are attending to your senses, mental overthinking is a part of the noise.
For practical purposes, dedicated attention to sensations around you is a noise-canceling mechanism. That is why creating a psychological demand for paying attention to your senses is an important part of successfully snapping out of mental rollercoasters. This is an additional hurdle the brain has to overcome to shift gears to be fully grounded.
These lines of research uncover the processes that come together to create a mental state that is best described as “relaxed in reality,” especially when the starting point is an overactive negative mental state.
The research in exploring the complex relationship between attention to sensory experiences, mindfulness, and mental well-being is still yet to reach a scientific consensus, so we’ll have to wait to know a little bit more.
In the meanwhile, you can continue relying on this self-soothing mental tool.
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