When anxiety develops, you might turn to a relaxation exercise — or to meditation — to escape. It’s not a good idea to run away from things you need to do. Use the 5–4–3–2–1 when feelings of anxiety threaten to stop you.

Let’s say you need to fly someplace. Any intelligent person will have the thought that their plane might crash. That’s normal. But a series of thoughts about crashing — or about having a panic attack on the plane — will release enough stress hormones to cause the “fight or flight response.” Your heart beats faster. Your breathing rate increases. You feel sweaty and tense.

Since this is what you feel when you are in danger, the feelings begin to hijack your brain. Do these feelings mean you are heading into danger? Are these feelings an omen that you shouldn’t take the flight? Or what if there is too much turbulence and you panic?

Feelings triggered by imagination have no meaning. But since the feelings are real, the dangers you are imagining feel real. This is a case of “feeling is believing.”

If you allow imagination to hijack your mind, feelings take over. The feelings will block you from doing what you need to do. This is where the 5–4–3–2–1 Exercise comes in. To regain control, you need to get rid of the stress hormones that are causing the feelings

Use The 5–4–3–2–1 Exercise

Sit or recline comfortably. Choose an object in front of you to focus on. Keep your focus there throughout the exercise. If your eyes drift off, just bring them back. Try doing the 5–4–3–2–1 Exercise out loud. Then, try it silently. See which works better for you.

  • Say “I see” and name something in your peripheral vision. Then say “I see” and name something else in your peripheral vision. Continue until you have made five statements. For example, I see the lamp, I see the table, I see a spot on the lampshade, I see a book on the table, I see a picture on the table.
  • Say “I hear” and name something you hear. Then say “I hear” and name something else you hear. Continue until you have made five statements. You will have to repeat something if there are not five different things you can hear. For example, I hear the computer running, I hear a car outside, I hear my breathing, I hear my voice, . . . (running out of things, repeat one of them), I hear the computer running.
  • Say “I feel” and name something you feel (not internal, like heart pounding or tension, but external). Continue until you have made five statements. For example, I feel the chair under me, I feel my arm against my leg, I feel my left foot on the floor, I feel my right foot on the floor, feel the shirt on my shoulder.

That completes the first of five cycles. The exercise takes intense concentration. That is exactly what you want. As you concentrate on non-threatening things, stress hormones get used up without being replaced. You don’t have to make yourself relax. You just get more relaxed as you do the exercise.

What about the second cycle? If you always made five statements, you soon could do the exercise without intense concentration. Your mind could drift back to “bad” thoughts. To keep the concentration intense, make one change. Instead of five statements, make four statements.

  • Say “I see” and name something in your peripheral vision. Continue until you have made four statements.
  • Say “I hear” and name something you hear. Continue until you have made four statements.
  • Say “I feel” and name something you feel. Continue until you have made four statements.

In the following cycle, make three statements. In the next cycle, make two statements. Then, in the final cycle, make one statement. If relaxed enough, stop. If not, go back to five, then four, then three, etc.

Is it OK to name the same things? Sure. Same or different is fine . . . just say whatever comes to mind.

When do you stop? When you are as relaxed as you want to be, just stop. If you want to be more relaxed, or fall asleep, continue.

What if you lose count? That is a good sign. It means you are getting so relaxed you are losing concentration.

Pleased don’t do this when driving, or as they say, when operating heavy machinery : -)

The 5–4–3–2–1 Exercise works. But it is a lot of work. Recent neurological research has shown us how anxiety can be controlled automatically. This is done by training your mind to activate your calming system — the parasympathetic nervous system — whenever anxiety arises. Here is one of the exercises in my book Panic Free: The 10-Day Program to End Panic, Anxiety, and Claustrophobia that teaches you to control anxiety automatically.

The parasympathetic nervous system responds to a person we feel completely safe with. Calming takes place when we remember their face, voice, and touch.

  • Imagine your friend has placed on her forehead a sticker with a picture of a button with a 1 on it. Another sticker, showing button number 2, is pasted on her chin. A third sticker, with button number 3, is pasted on the back of her hand.
  • Now imagine feeling alarmed.
  • Imagine putting your finger on the button 1 sticker and then releasing it. Her face comes clearly to mind. You see the softness in the eyes. It feels good.
  • Imagine putting your finger on the button 2 sticker. As you release it, the person’s lips begin to move, and you hear her greet you in a special way. You may notice that the quality of her voice calms you deep inside.
  • Imagine touching the button 3 sticker on the back of her hand. When you release the button, your friend lifts that hand and gives you a reassuring touch or a hug—whatever gesture is appropriate in your relationship with this person. You may notice a calming stillness coming over you.

Now that you know how to activate your calming system, activate it every time you feel anxious. As soon as you notice anxiety, imaginarily press button 1 to see your friend’s face. Notice the anxiety again and imagine you are pressing button 2 to hear their voice. Bring the anxiety back to mind and imagine pressing button 3 while being given an affectionate hug.

If you practice this daily, soon your calming parasympathetic will automatically activate whenever anxiety starts. The tricky thing is this: once you have “installed” this program by repetition, it will work unconsciously and stop anxiety before it is noticeable. Since it will stop anxiety before you are aware of it, you may not appreciate what the exercise is doing for you until you look back and realize you are just not as anxious a person as you were a week or so ago.