Annie is a busy mom who works from home. Her children are old enough that they don’t require constant care or supervision. However, she often feels extremely annoyed when they bicker among themselves or leave messes—which she feels obligated to clean up. She knows that blowing up at them like she’s done in the past is the wrong response. Recently, she started using the 5-4-3-2-1 technique to calm down before addressing her kids’ behavior.

Bill has a fast-paced job managing a restaurant, where he deals with a steady stream of challenging customers and employees. Sometimes, the problems seem to come at him faster than he can address them. The frustration inside him builds until he either explodes at work or later at home. His tirades are damaging both his professional and personal relationships, so his counselor suggested the 5-4-3-2-1 technique to help prevent these outbursts.

What is the 5-4-3-2-1 technique?

The 5-4-3-2-1 technique is a method to help a person calm themselves so they can deal with stressful situations in a positive way. Specifically, it can help us focus on the present moment and to let go of some of our anxious thoughts. It works by using our five senses to bring us back to the current point in time. Staying “in the moment” stops us from adding unhelpful, negative thoughts to whatever trial we’re facing.

If you feel overwhelmed, start the practice by taking a few deep breaths to calm your body and mind. Then, name:

  • Five things you can see.
  • Four things you can touch.
  • Three things you can hear.
  • Two things you can smell.
  • One thing you can taste.

The beauty of the 5-4-3-2-1 technique is you can do it anywhere, at any time. It’s easy to remember and it only takes a few minutes. Importantly—it’s effective!

How this technique helps our mental state

The 5-4-3-2-1 technique works by grounding our mind in the here and now. When we are feeling anxious or stressed, our minds tend to wander to the past or the future. We start to worry about things that have already happened or things that might happen, adding to the tension we feel.

By focusing on our senses, we are forced to pay attention to what is happening right now, in this moment. This takes our minds off our worries and calms us down. The procedure also helps us to focus on the positive by noticing good things in our environment, regaining a more balanced perspective.

When Annie caught her annoyance growing, she paused long enough to notice the 15 different sensations from the exercise. Then, she was in a more relaxed state when she called her tribe together to redirect their activity. She saw that her children responded better, and their relationship improved dramatically with her new approach.

Likewise, Bill started taking a walk to go through the 5 phases of the system. He returned a few minutes later as the composed leader or husband he aspired to be. His employees and wife all noticed the difference!

Some tips for using the 5-4-3-2-1 technique

Go slowly through each step. Take time to really focus on the sensations you are experiencing. Notice the details of what you see, touch, hear, smell, and taste.

Try to let go of any thoughts about the past or the future—just focus on the present moment. If you find yourself getting caught up in anxious thoughts, be gentle with yourself. Then, begin again. There’s no penalty for starting over.

Find a quiet place to do the technique. If you are in a noisy or crowded environment, it may be difficult to focus. Many people find walking in nature is a rich environment for their senses.

One caution: while the 5-4-3-2-1 technique is a great way to help manage anxiety, it’s not a cure-all. If you struggle with severe anxiety, it’s important to seek professional help. Otherwise, the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, give it a try.