Experts say it works particularly well for those who've experienced trauma.

By Mallory Creveling
July 07, 2020
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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 now, help you focus on your surroundings, and take your mind off impending stress. How? By engaging all five of your senses—touch, sight, smell, hearing, and taste. (Related: 20-Minute At-Home Grounding Yoga Flow)

"[Grounding techniques] help to remind you physically and physiologically of where you are," says Jennifer M. Gómez, Ph.D., assistant professor in the department of psychology and Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute for Child & Family Development at Wayne State University. "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."

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, Gómez suggests following the steps below for a simple guide to get started. 

Try it for yourself the next time you're feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or worried about the state of the world right or just need to feel more recentered.

5 Senses Grounding Technique

Step 1: What do you see?

"When you're very overwhelmed, try to think of what you are seeing right in front of you," says Gómez. For people who have been traumatized (such as through oppression, racism, death of a loved one, or through experiences as an essential worker) and are having a hard time figuring out what to do or how to handle it, starting with what you see is really helpful, and it's one of the easier senses to access, she adds. You can say what you see out loud, in your head, or even write it down (it's personal preference), but pay attention to the colors, textures, and the points of contact on the walls or trees or the building you see in front of you.

Step 2: What can you feel 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. Also, try to identify how different body parts are feeling. Are your shoulders engaged and up by your ears? Is your jaw clenched? Can you release these muscles? Are your feet planted on the floor? What does the texture of the floor feel like?

Touch is a two-pronged technique because you can focus on touching your own skin or your skin touching a surface, she says. As you focus on this sense, you might also continue to think about what you're seeing in front of you or under your feet or hands as you feel those surfaces. Feel free to jump between concentrating on what you're feeling and what you're seeing. (Related: What You Need to Know About EFT Tapping)

Step 3: Do you hear anything?

Sounds (and how you hear them) can vary and occasionally even conjure up images of past trauma, says Gómez, which is why she suggests focusing on sight and touch first. But if you're in a quiet spot, try tuning into calm-inducing sounds (these can be different for every person, but think: birds chirping outside or the laundry tumbling inside) that can help bring you back to the present moment.

Need some help? The wind is a nice sound to tune into at any time. Listen to it breeze through the trees, then focus on how it feels blowing on your skin, and then how you and the trees are moving through it, says Gómez. That's an easy way to tap into three senses at once.

Music can also bring you into the present. Press play on a calming song and try to separate what instruments you hear in the melody, she suggests.

Step 4: What can you smell or taste?

The smell and taste senses are often used more deliberately, says Gómez. You might keep a candle by your bed or eat a snack when you feel anxiety approaching or are having trouble coming back from a panicked state.

"When you're lost in distress or trying so hard to do grounding techniques, and it's not working, something that can get into your system quickly can help," explains Gómez. Try keeping calming essential oils (i.e. lavender) by your bed if you find yourself having trouble falling asleep. Take a sniff when you feel any anxiety or stress trying to settle in for the night.

Step 5: Don't forget to breathe.

Paying attention to inhales and exhales always works to bring the mind into a moment, but it can also be especially helpful as you're simultaneously focusing on your senses. For example, as you're breathing in, notice the sounds or smells in the air. If it's quiet, Gómez says you can even listen to the sound of your own breath moving in and out of the nose or mouth. You can also think about your inhale as a soothing balm moving through the body, and picture your exhale removing all the yuck, she says. (Related: 3 Breathing Exercises for Dealing with Stress)

When should you try this grounding technique?

Really, you can try this mindfulness method any time you think it might be helpful. Gómez suggests going through your five senses at night when you're by yourself and finally have some alone time to step away from everyday stressors. But you can also lean on this practice in a moment when you start to feel anxious (say when watching the news or seeing violence on TV or social media). When this happens, turn away from the screen (or whatever is triggering you) and simply start the step-by-step process above, focusing first on what new thing you see.

"You can think about it like a muscle that you're building up," says Gómez. Practice going through the five senses and test what order works best for you or which one resonates with you most. Eventually, that muscle memory will get stronger and automatically start playing whenever you start to feel tense.

Who does this mindfulness practice work best for?

Gómez and Exelbert both say those who've experienced trauma, such as sexual assault or police violence or aggression, may benefit most from this grounding technique. That's why it could be especially helpful right now, for anyone who's witnessing police brutality and biases in real-time on TV, and it's causing them to re-live a past experience. "There can be times where you have flashbacks, a sort of movie re-playing in your head of the same event, so even though the event stopped, you might re-experience it like it's new," explains Gómez. "Thinking about what you're seeing, hearing, or smelling gets you into the present," and out of the re-play.

Even if you haven't experienced trauma, though, this grounding technique can work for everyday stressors or times when you're ruminating, like when you're preparing for a big work meeting or a tough convo, she adds.

How can you expect to feel afterward?

Hopefully, less terrified and more relaxed. But it can take some practice. Life is filled with distractions, so as with any mindfulness technique, tapping methodically into your five senses can be challenging at first. But do it enough and you'll realize how often it comes in handy.

Just remember: It's OK to take a break and focus on yourself when your mind and body need it. Some people forget to give themselves permission to rest when things feel really terrible, says Gómez. No one person can fix everything that's happening right now, but taking the time to focus on your mental health is something you can control. "The world isn't going to get any worse if you take a half-hour for yourself," she says.

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