Anxiety Grounding Exercises Revisited

You’re in the middle of a huge wave of intense anxiety and fear, or maybe you’re experiencing a full blown panic attack.  Someone with all the best intentions and trying to be helpful instructs you to identify five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.

This is the 5-4-3-2-1 anxiety grounding exercise. If you’ve followed along with me for any length of time you know that I don’t speak too kindly about grounding exercises.

Today we’re going to revisit 5-4-3-2-1 and anxiety grounding exercises in general.  What if there is a  way to use them to our benefit rather than having them blow up in our faces?  

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Let’s talk about anxiety grounding exercises like the 5-4-3-2-1 thing I mentioned to open this episode. In most cases, these exercises are presented as a way to calm down when activated.  If you Google “54321,” you will find a ton of sites all writing about this little technique as a way to regulate the nervous system, activate the vagus nerve, calm down, or stop a panic attack.

Great. Another Paradox!

So now its time to talk – once again – about paradoxes that come with anxiety disorders, which are what we’re talking about when the state of being anxious or distressed itself becomes the problem and the perceived threat that must be avoided at all costs. The paradox here is that when we search urgently and frantically for ways to combat our internal experiences like anxiety, fear, and uncertainty, we are 100% agreeing with the assertion that those states are unacceptable, off-limits, and should never be allowed.

See the problem here? Someone who develops a fear of being afraid or who is anxious because they are or might be anxious, winds up using tools like this as shields of antidotes against anxiety, anxiety symptoms, and scary thoughts, and either finds that they just don’t work fast enough or consistently enough, or else begins to ritualize them and insist that the are only safe and OK if they can engage in special activities when anxious, upset, or feeling a sense of distress.

In the worse cases – which are sadly more common that you might think in the community surrounding this podcast – techniques like 54321 are used to prevent or stop panic, anxiety symptoms, or intrusive thoughts then blow up in our faces because when they don’t work reliably or predictably we draw the mistaken conclusion that we are specially broken or suffering from anxiety that is worse or different than what any other human must be experiencing. 

When the Internet insists that grounding exercises are the go-to when anxious or when in a panic, and we can’t get those tools to work the way we really want to them to work, our assessment of ourselves and the problem we’re addressing can really tank and wind up in some dark places.

This is why you rarely if ever hear me provide grounding or calming instructions and why I am generally not a fan of 54321 in the context I am always addressing.

  • But … what if we can find a way to use 543321 and other exercises in a way that teaches us recovery lessons and doesn’t backfire on us.
  • What would happen if you decided to use 543421 as an experiment rather than as an antidote or shield.

It’s OK To Want To Feel Better

Before we go on with this, let’s acknowledge that anxious people and people in distress absolutely want to make those feelings go away. We want to feel better.  This is not a crime, it’s not wrong to want that, and you’re not doing anything wrong if deep down you really do want a magic wand that will make it all stop.

But wanting that and having that are two different things so it’s OK to have the want so long as we don’t try to will and wish what we want into existence.  That’s where we get into trouble.  Let’s start with the following framing statement:

“I really want a way to make this stop right now so I can feel better right away but since that doesn’t appear to be a thing that I can do on a consistent basis, how can I do my best at the moment to improve my ability to cope with these feelings and these experiences?”

Take a moment to think about that statement, or something like it that might fit better in your particular circumstance. You’ll want to use that before you use 54321 just as a reminder that you’re not trying to feel better instantly even though you can acknowledge that you want that.

What if we looked for five things we can see or three things we can hear to experiment with acceptance, surrender, and tolerance? What if we took a chance or took a risk and turned our attention outward to the environment around us rather than choosing laser focus on our internal state and engaging in detailed internal dialogue about the horrible danger we think we are in when anxious or afraid?’

Rather than looking for things to hear or touch so you can stop your panic, anxiety, or scary thoughts dead in their tracks, consider that if you do make an effort to look for those things WHILE afraid and distressed you might accidentally and reluctantly learn that its OK to NOT focus so urgently and frantically on how you feel and what you’re thinking in anxious moments.

If you can listen for three different birds singing outside your window while your frightened brain is screaming at you to pay attention to the disaster happening in your body and mind, you might give yourself a chance to learn – little by little –  that you don’t have to pay such close attention to yourself. 

5-4-3-2-1 As An Experiment

Imagine using 54321 as a way to test the water before jumping all the way in. The water might be too cold for you, but if you dip your toes in for a minute or two you might learn that it isn’t as cold as you first thought and that it might be OK to take a few more steps into the water.  The key here – as I said – is to refrain from judging the effectiveness of 54321 based on changing the way you feel. 

“I’m going to take ten seconds to make note of five things I can see – and to describe them – as a very basic way to take a small leap of faith toward learning that its safe to do that.”

When we combine 54321 with concepts like accepting, surrendering, floating, or tolerating, we open up paths that lead up toward important recovery lessons, but we also give ourselves instructions or steps to follow which can be helpful for an anxious person that insists that they “don’t know what to do” when they’re really triggered. Not everyone needs or wants steps or instructions, but if you’re banging your head against he wall because I never give you steps to follow or techniques to use, and you might benefit from having some steps, here you go. 

Maybe you can use the 54321 steps, but you can use them with a different intention and for a different purpose. I often say to “do nothing” or “do what non-anxious you would do” when triggered but that can be challenging for anxious minds to comprehend and put into action, so maybe grounding exercises like 54321 could be adapted like this. Think of them as training wheels. They might be ways to start putting surrender and acceptance into ACTION when you’re simply unsure of how to do actually do that.

A Quick Example

I’ll wrap this up with a quick example.

Let’s assume you’re struggling with intrusive unwanted thoughts that pop into your head against your will and disturb you.  They trigger you into an anxious or fearful state and you’re trying everything you can think of to drown out the thoughts, make them stop, or prove them untrue or illogical.  That really doesn’t work with any kind of consistency so your scary thoughts start to stalk you all the time and you wind up on guard all the time waiting to spring into action when they arrive to protect yourself from them.

Next time you experience once of those thoughts and wind up triggered by it, remember your new framing statement:

“I really want a way to make this stop right now so I can feel better right away but since that doesn’t appear to be a thing that I can do on a consistent basis, how can I do my best at the moment to improve my ability to cope with these thoughts and how they make me feel?”

Then, in an act that almost feels recklessly and ridiculously risky when you feel like your thoughts are a real threat to you, you take ten seconds to identify and describe five things you can see in the room.  

“Hmmmm.  I found five things. I don’t feel any better, but I did it and turning some of my attention to that little task felt really wrong but didn’t result in any kind of disaster other than feeling badly.  What if I try to find and describe four things I can touch?  What might happen then?”

See where this is going? In this little example we’re using 54321 as an experiment that helps you challenge your belief that focusing only on how you feel and what you’re thinking is your only safe course of action. 

Please note that this is not designed to be game changing instantly for anyone. It’s a very small shift. A small move. A little experiment. It’s a first step, so please do your best to see it this way.  When it feels absurd to even consider that you might focus on anything other than how you feel and what you’re thinking, this is a way to give that a whirl without trying to solve your entire anxiety problem or make it all go away in one shot.

Remember that this is not designed to make you feel better, stop your thoughts or your panic or your symptoms instantly, or help you achieve any particular state of being emotionally or physically. First we learn that we can move through these triggered stated, then we can start to see changes in how we feel. That’s our deal here so maybe we can use 54321 within this framework.


Maybe this is something you can chew on and consider trying the next time you find yourself struggling. Remember that I’m never talking about doing dangerous things, only difficult things, so keep that in mind when your anxious mind wants to insist that taking your eyes of that pending psychotic break (a common example fear) is a very bad idea.  We base almost everything you hear on The Anxious Truth on the premise that thinking about staying sane (for example) has nothing to do with actually staying sane. It’s OK to look for things you can hear. That doesn’t make that feared psychotic break any more likely.

Links Of Interest


Disclaimer: The Anxious Truth is not therapy or a replacement for therapy. Listening to The Anxious Truth does not create a therapeutic relationship between you and the host or guests of the podcast. Information here is provided for psychoeducational purposes. As always, when you have questions about your own well-being, please consult your mental health and/or medical care providers. If you are having a mental health crisis, always reach out immediately for in-person help.

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Podcast Intro/Outro Music: "Afterglow" by Ben Drake (With Permission)





Founder and host of The Anxious Truth podcast. Therapist-in-training specializing in anxiety and anxiety disorders. Author. Podcaster. Educator. Advocate. Former anxious person.