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The 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique a mental health counselor swears by when thoughts spiral out of control

Kells McPhillips

Kells McPhillipsApril 8, 2020

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Photo: Getty Images/Nicola Katie

My negative thoughts are living their very best lives right now. And I’m not alone. Early this week, I sat in on an online mental well-being seminar offered by Octave, a company offering virtual therapy sessions. The same question cropped up again and again: “How can I come back to the moment—and calm the F down—when nothing feels within my control?” One answer, said Kristen Scarlett, LMHC, a licensed mental health counselor, is the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique.

Grounding exercises bring you back to the present and root you or ground you into ‘now’ and away from the stress of news alerts, emails from your boss, anxiety thoughts about the future, or feelings of depression thinking about the past,” says Scarlett. This can look like meditating, going on a simple walk outside, or—in the case of the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique (which literally takes 60 seconds)—zeroing in on what your senses are telling you about the world around you.

“Grounding exercises bring you back to the present and root you or ground you into ‘now.'” —Kristen Scarlett, LMHC

To practice the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique, you basically do a roll call of everything you’re seeing, touching, smelling, and hearing right in this moment. You don’t even need to be at home: You can use it when you’re out for a walk, or if you start to feel panicky at the grocery store while you’re shopping for frozen and fresh staples.

A step-by-step guide to the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique

For each step, either write, think, or say aloud the sensations you’re observing.

1. list 5 things you can see right now.

For example, at the moment, I see my water bottle, my boyfriend typing at his computer, a window covered in raindrops, a remote, and a bar cart.

2. List 4 things you can hear

I hear the rain hitting the window, the sound of typing, music coming through the neighbor’s wall, and the hum of the dishwasher.

3. list 3 things you can feel

I feel my butt on a squishy cushion, I feel my arms propped on the wood of the table. My mouth feels dry.

4. List 2 things you can smell

I smell the rain coming through the window, and the cinnamon in my coffee.

5. List 1 thing you’re grateful for, or one thing you can taste

I’m grateful for my sister’s dancing TikTok videos.

“Once you’re done, you should feel present and calmer than you did before the practice,” says Scarlett. “You should also feel a sense of pride and gratitude that you took control of your emotions when you needed to and practiced this exercise.” And for what it’s worth, I do feel just a little bit more here now. I’ve sent all my negative thoughts packing! (Okay, okay—for this moment at least.)

If you’re looking for some positive affirmations, we got you. And here’s why it’s totally fine if you’re not crushing your to-do list right now

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