Plenty of content on social media and in the news these days can cause stress levels to skyrocket and panic and anxiety to settle into your headspace. If you feel this coming on, there’s a simple practice that may be able to bring you back into the present moment and away from potential threats. This grounding technique is meant to bring your attention to the present, help you focus on your surroundings, and take your mind off feelings of impending stress. How? By engaging all five of your senses — touch, sight, smell, hearing, and taste.
“[Grounding techniques] help to remind you physically and physiologically of where you are,” says Jennifer M. Gómez, Ph.D., assistant professor at Boston University’s School of Social Work. “It’s like a release — a switch to turn off the light on all the stress and to be in a place of less chatter and anxiety,” she notes.
Specifically, tapping into all five senses as a type of grounding technique can bring your body out of a fight-or-flight state — when your sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive, which can cause feelings of energy, anxiety, stress, or excitement, says Renee Exelbert, Ph.D., psychologist and founding director of the Metamorphosis Center for Psychological and Physical Change. When you’re in panic mode, you don’t always have the ability to think clearly, says Exelbert. But bringing your mind to the sights, sounds, and smells around you can bring you back to a calmer state, mentally and physically.
While you can think about what you see, touch, hear, smell, or taste in any order, try following the steps below for a simple guide to get started, suggests Gómez. Try it for yourself the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or worried about the state of the world — or just need to feel more recentered.
5-Senses Grounding Technique
Step 1: What do you perceive?
“When you’re very overwhelmed, try to think of what you are perceiving right in front of you,” says Gómez. For people who have been traumatized (such as through oppression, racism, or the death of a loved one, for example) and are having a hard time figuring out what to do or how to handle it, starting with what you perceive is really helpful, and it’s one of the easier senses to access, she adds. You can say what you perceive out loud, in your head, or even write it down (it’s personal preference), but pay attention to the colors, textures, and points of contact on the walls or trees or the building you perceive in front of you.
Step 2: What can you sense around you?
Touching your own wrist or arm is a good place to kickstart the touch sense, either by rubbing your arm or giving it a squeeze, says Gómez.
Additionally, endeavor to recognize the sensations experienced by individual body components. Are your shoulders involved and elevated near your ears? Is your jaw gripped tightly? Can you alleviate tension in these muscles? Are your feet firmly planted on the ground? How would you describe the sensation of the floor?
Step 3: Do you perceive anything?
Noises (and how you perceive them) can differ and occasionally even evoke images of past trauma, notes Gómez, which is why she recommends concentrating on vision and touch initially. However, if you’re in a tranquil location, try tuning in to soothing sounds that can help ground you in the present moment. These may vary for each individual, but potential examples include the sound of birds chirping outside or the tumbling of laundry in the washing machine.
Require assistance? The wind is a pleasant sound to tune into at any given moment. Listen to it rustling through the trees, then focus on how it feels brushing against your skin, and finally, how you and the trees are moving together with it, suggests Gómez. This is a simple way to engage three senses simultaneously.
Music can also bring you into the present. Start playing a calming song and attempt to distinguish the instruments you hear in the melody, as recommended by Gómez.
Step 4: What can you perceive by smell or taste?
The senses of smell and taste are often utilized more intentionally, according to Gómez. You might keep a scented candle near your bed or have a snack when you sense anxiety approaching or when you’re struggling to come back from a state of panic.
“When you’re overwhelmed or trying too hard to engage in grounding techniques, and they’re not effective, something that can quickly enter your system can be beneficial,” explains Gómez. If you find it difficult to fall asleep, try keeping soothing essential oils (e.g. lavender) by your bed. Take a whiff when you experience any anxiety or stress attempting to settle in for the night.
Step 5: Remember to breathe.
Paying attention to inhalation and exhalation always assists in bringing the mind into the present moment, but it can also be particularly helpful while simultaneously focusing on your senses. For instance, as you inhale, notice the sounds or aromas in the air. If it’s quiet, you can even listen to the sound of your own breath entering and exiting the nostrils or mouth, notes Gómez. You can also envision your inhalation as a soothing balm traveling through your body and visualize your exhalation eliminating any negative sensations, she suggests.
When to Try This 5-Senses Grounding Technique
In reality, you can attempt this mindfulness approach whenever you believe it may be beneficial. Consider going through your five senses for grounding at night when you are alone and finally have some solitude to step away from daily stressors, suggests Gómez. However, you can also rely on this practice when you begin to feel anxious (for example, when you encounter upsetting news or content on social media). When this happens, divert your attention from the screen (or whatever is triggering you) and simply start following the step-by-step process above, focusing first on what new thing you observe.
“You can perceive it as building up a muscle,” says Gómez. Practice engaging in the five senses and experiment with the order that works best for you or resonates most with you.
Ultimately, that muscular recollection will become more potent and instinctively initiate playing whenever you commence sensing tense.
Who This Mindfulness Practice Works Best For
Gómez and Exelbert both state that individuals who have encountered trauma, such as sexual assault or police violence or aggression, may derive the greatest benefit from this grounding technique that engages all five senses. It could be particularly advantageous for those who are witnessing real-time instances of police brutality and biases on television, as it may trigger a re-living of past experiences. Gómez explains, “There are moments where you may have flashbacks, a kind of replay of the same event in your mind, so even though the event has ceased, you may perceive it as if it were new.” By focusing on what you see, hear, or smell, you can bring yourself into the present moment and break free from the replay, according to Gómez.
Even if you have not experienced trauma, this grounding technique can still be effective in managing everyday stressors or situations where you find yourself overthinking, such as prior to a significant work meeting or difficult conversation, adds Gómez.
How You Can Anticipate Feeling Afterwards
Ideally, you will feel less terrified and more relaxed, although achieving this state may require some practice. Life is replete with diversions, so, as is the case with any mindfulness practice, consistently engaging your five senses can be initially challenging. However, with sufficient repetition, you will come to realize its frequent usefulness.
Just remember: it is perfectly acceptable to take a break and prioritize self-care when your mind and body demand it. Gómez points out that some individuals forget to grant themselves permission to rest when they are undergoing intense distress. While no single individual can rectify all the issues transpiring in the world, tending to your mental well-being is within your control. Gómez reassures, “The state of the world will not deteriorate if you allocate half an hour for yourself.”
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