Updated: May 26, 2021
Maybe you have seen this evidence-based technique spattering across your social media feed for the past few years. You may have even paused to see what it was all about, but didn't quite get hype as it was in a quick snapshot post and seemed to land in the endless pile of positive quotes that can be some people's profiles. No shade if you have a profile like that. Well, I want to not only tell you about this anxiety managment method, I want to encourage you to use it and even practice it with any littles ones that you have in your life.
What is the 5-4-3-2-1 Method?
The 5-4-3-2-1 technique is a grounding strategy used to help a child in heightened moments of anxiety or emotional distress when no physical dangers are present. While it works very effectively for most people, it can do very little when it is done incorrectly.
You first identify 5 details of things that you see (details in the key here)
4 things that your body can feel (e.g., weight, pressure, temperature, soreness). It is helpful to try to do this without moving. For a child, you might encourage them to see if their toes can feel the seam of their socks with moving any part of their body
3 faint sounds that they can hear (e.g., cars driving by, the hum of the lights, a bird chirping in the distance)
2 things that you can smell
1 tiny thing that you can taste (e.g., run tongue across teeth, slightly stick out the tongue to notice the flavor of the air, pop a small edible object in, such as one skittle, the corner of a saltine, or one sip of a drink.
How does it work?
In order to understand how the method works, you have to know a little about the relationship between the cognitive activity and the child's physiological being. Our thoughts, feelings (emotions and physical feelings), and behaviors are connected; therefore, when children think something powerful, they have an equally potent reaction that occurs in their bodies. This reaction can include racing heart beat, stomachache, freezing in place, rapid breathing, crying, hiding, etc. We call this reaction, anxiety. In short, anxiety isn't the worry that something bad might happen, it's actually the belief that something bad is happening right now. The mind believes that the scary thing is happening because the thought of the potential future is so vivid. The 5-4-3-2-1 method works so effectively for several reasons.
The brain cannot have two thoughts at the exact same time. - While we can have a rapid succession of thoughts, we do not have more than one thought in the same moment. Therefore, the 5-4-3-2-1 method allows for the child to shift their thinking to a new topic that is physically and emotionally safe.
The 5-4-3-2-1 method only exists in the now. - Anxiety is rooted in the potential future that may never even happen. This method works by having the child focus on sensory experiences that can only exist in the moment and in the environment in which they are at that time.
The 5-4-3-2-1 technique is longer than 90 seconds. - A single emotion only lasts for about 90 seconds. Neuroanatomist and researcher, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, who wrote My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey, discovered that the chemical reaction that we call emotions, only last for 90-seconds. When our emotional journey is longer than that, it is the result of us reentering the emotional loop by thinking about the event that initially sparked the reaction. If we can get a child to ride 90-second wave by giving them something calming to do with their brain, we can help them calm down in a more natural way.
How Do You Use This Method With Children?
This technique works well with adults, and children as young as 2 and a half or 3-years-old can reap the benefits of learning this anxiety management strategy also. Here's how you can use this with child clients, students, or your children at home:
Practice this technique when children are calm and playful. - The order of the senses can be hard to remember in the 5-4-3-2-1 method. Practicing when they're calm helps children remember what to do when they need it. When a child is already extremely anxious, the part of the brain, the frontal lobes, that control executive functioning (e.g., logical thinking, organization of thoughts, planning), shutdown or dull. With slowed down frontal lobes, a child can only readily access their more rehearsed or innate skills. We want emotion regulation to be like a well-exercised muscle that is ready when they need it. Practice helps their adult remember too!
Focus on the details. - One of the ways that people go about this technique in a less than helpful manner is by calling out large things that are in their awareness. That can be overwhelming and cause more anxiety.
Model the method with children using your own sensory experience at that moment. - Give them one example when you introduce each sensory for the first time.
Slow the cadence of your communication to induce a sense of tranquility. - With children as young as three years old, use a soft soothing voice (or calming signing pattern) and say something like, "Let's play detective and see what we can find. I'm going to slowly name 5 teeny-tiny things that I can see without moving my head." Then, mostly only move your eyes as you zero in on a tiny speck of lint or something like that. It can be helpful to sit in the same direction as the child so that your line of sight is similar to theirs.
The 5-4-3-2-1 method really is worth the hype. There are some things about it that make it intuitively helpful to get out of the loop when you or a child is stuck on the anxiety train. Here are a few things to remember as you explore this mindfulness activity.
The cycle of emotion only lasts about 90 seconds; the rest is us getting back on the loop with our thoughts.
Focusing on the details helps pull us to the present moment and reduce anxiety.
Even though our thoughts feel like they are happening all at the same time, they are actually happening one at time and in quick succession.
Practice the 5-4-3-2-1 method when you are calm and playful so that it is effective when you need it.
To remember the order, think of going from what is typically the most broad to the most narrow. Sight is 5, because there are billions of details in our line of sight and taste is 1 because it is not a good idea to go around licking things.
Anxiety is an emotion that we all experience. Therefore, learning how to manage it can be the difference from just existing in life or flourishing. Together, we can flourish. Take a moment to flourish and play a little today.
Looking for therapy or consultation? Schedule a free 15-minute consultation with Dr. Dowtin.
If you use social media and are looking for tips or facts about mental health for children, adults, or people in the perinatal period, follow us Instagram: @PlayfulLeigh_Psyched or follow Dr. Dowtin on Twitter: @PlayfulLeigh