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  • Eileen Ward

Grounded in Memory: Using the Five Senses Exercise

Panic and anxiety take away our ability to see the whole picture and shrink it as you feel the panic climb up your throat. These anxiety and panic attacks can be life-altering and until I understood what was happening to me, they were. Dialectical Behavior Therapy has some great techniques for helping recognize what is happening in your body, and through practice, using these techniques to redirect your thoughts can calm the psychological response to stress.

The 5 senses technique is exactly what it sounds like; you use your 5 senses to force your body to be aware of more than just the anxiety. You can experience what your senses are experiencing in the present or think back to a comforting memory. I like to use happy or calm memories to not only help when I’m anxious, but as a grounding technique to remember times when I feel calm and happy.

For this example, I’m going to use a memory of sitting on a dock at the ocean shore, as my memory. I go through each of my senses and focus on what my senses experienced when I was on that dock.


I see the small weather-beaten wooden dock under me and the larger metal dock that attaches to it, far enough away from the shore that boats can be docked at it, the angle changing with the tide. I see the rocks that I climbed as a child, and the shore covered in rocks, barnacles, and long strings of seaweed. I see the waves lapping against the side of the dock, and a sandbar exposed by the ever-changing tides. I see seaweed reaching up from the ocean floor. I see rocks and exposed wood covered in mussels and barnacles. I see the lobster trap buoys riding the waves, and the small boats attached to their buoys as well.


I hear the waves lapping against the side of the dock and row boats hitting their bumpers against the side in rhythm with the waves. I hear birds in the distance. I hear the wind blowing and the constant, never-ending cadence of the waves hitting the shore.


The smell of the ocean is a huge memory trigger for me. I smell the salt, the brine. The decaying plant and animal life washed up or dropped by birds on the shore. I can smell the wood of the dock and the salt on the air.


Salt. Mostly I can taste the salt on the air. The crisp wind, always chilly, even in the middle of the summer.


I feel the wind blowing across my face and through my hair, the sun against my skin. I feel the roughness of the wood of the dock under me, and under my hands. If I reached in the water, I would feel the cold of the water and even the sliminess of the seaweed. I mostly feel the dock constantly moving under me, governed by the movement of the waves.

Now that I have gone through all of my senses, I am immersed in the memory. I am feeling more relaxed, and my heart rate is slowing. I love doing this with multiple memories and even doing it out loud, so that obtrusive thoughts can’t distract me.

This method is also great for grounding yourself in the present when you are calm, or happy. You can take a moment, almost a snapshot of this happy time and run through how you are experiencing the moment using your senses. The more you practice, the easier and more natural this method becomes.


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