Using the 5-4-3-2-1 Coping Technique in Higher Ed

by Traci Callandrillo | December 18, 2020
Using the 5-4-3-2-1 Coping Technique in Higher Ed

Dr. Traci Callandrillo serves as the Assistant VP of Campus Life at American University. She was a founding member of the Higher Education Mental Health Alliance (HEMHA) and a past Vice President of Professional Practice for the Society of Counseling Psychology. Recently, she presented a webinar with Signal Vine to discuss holiday mental health tips for students and staff. 

As we all have navigated the stressor that has been and is 2020, it can often seem like we are being tossed about like paper boats, going down the rapids of a raging river. In fact, these boats are not only facing rapids; maybe they’ve even sprung a leak or two. And when you’re on a boat like this, there are not many solutions that will calm the river, patch the holes, and dry out the boat. So, life requires us to not only seek solutions but to cope with stressors while we do it. Our ability to do both is essential to our perseverance and prevailing over adversity.

I certainly don’t have solutions to offer for the pandemics that we find ourselves in, but I would like to describe a coping technique that is an important tool in your grounding techniques toolbox: the 5-4-3-2-1 coping technique.

An overview of the 5-4-3-2-1 coping technique

Grounding techniques refer to a central element of mindfulness that stresses the importance of centering ourselves in the present. This grounding allows us to create distance from our thoughts and emotions, which are fueled by past or future circumstances (what has happened, or more often, what could happen). These future-oriented thoughts create powerful reactions in us and activate brain chemistry reactions that release stress hormones into our bodies. This makes it more difficult for us to thrive and maintain the balance needed for resilience and critical thinking.

The less we are able to approach real stressors with critical thinking, the more likely we are to engage in our primitive coping strategies that usually do not have positive long-term effects (for example, stress eating, drinking, etc.). Grounding techniques create space in our brains. We can use that space to replace the primitive coping with planful coping (for example, taking a walk, dancing to a great song, telling a joke).

Mindfulness practice can be challenging, especially in times of high, relentless, and ongoing stress. Many of us have lost our ability to produce ‘surge capacity,’ or that extra reserve of energy that is needed to get through a crisis. The last few months have required us to sit with pain and discomfort in ways that we never have before. As a result, it is hard to stay in the present. However, not being able to ground ourselves in the present leaves us disconnected from much of our strength, and the tools we need to dispute our fears and anxiety about the future. So, it is helpful to develop a mindfulness practice.

Steps to using the 5-4-3-2-1 coping technique

The 5-4-3-2-1 technique is adaptive to any situation and should be curated over time to reinforce how you like to use it. Here is the basic premise: in the present moment, use the senses available to you to ground yourself by engaging. Find the following:

  • 5 things you can see. What’s around you right now? As you see these things, name them in your head. SEE them.
  • 4 things you can feel. What can you feel? The chair supporting your body. Your socks. The airflow from the ceiling fan. FEEL them.
  • 3 things you can hear. What do you hear? Slow down your thinking and let the sounds present themselves to you. The tap of the heating register. The tick of a clock. The airplane outside. HEAR them.
  • 2 things you can smell. What do you smell? The fabric softener lingering on your shirt. Your morning coffee. SMELL them.
  • 1 thing you can taste. What do you taste? That last sip of coffee. TASTE it.

This technique is easily used and transportable no matter where you are. Once you have counted down to one, notice your breath and awareness. Notice that you are in this present moment. What is happening in this moment? All of those things that your senses brought to you are the gifts of this moment. And while there may be parts of your reality that are difficult, these things are also present. And they are points that ground you in the present.

An example of the 5-4-3-2-1 coping technique

The 5-4-3-2-1 technique can be curated by bringing particular objects into focus that tap into all of your senses. I like to use an orange, for example.

  • An orange is visually interesting and dimensional
  • You can feel the different textures of the fruit in your hands
  • You can hear the sounds it makes when you hold it and remove the peel
  • Oh, that wonderful smell
  • ...and taste!

Learn more

As higher education practitioners, we are often ‘burnt out’ at this time of year, as the fall term is winding down, and we have expended our energy supporting our students and colleagues. Use the natural pause of the Winter Break to focus on filling up your reserves at work. That may be taking a full longer break from work and communications. It may also be cleaning out your inbox, refreshing your calendar, having a virtual happy hour with your colleagues, or even buying a pretty notepad for your spring task list. I encourage you to also use this time to practice grounding yourself in the present, and to notice how your body feels when you do.

If you'd like to hear the 5-4-3-2-1 coping technique explained in a video, check out our Holiday Mental Health Tips for Students & Staff webinar recording.

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