This Sensory Grounding Technique Is a Calming Way to Get Ready for Bed

Because sleep isn’t just about having the right bed – it’s also about being in the right state of mind.

Woman doing the 54321 sensory grounding technique for relaxing sleep.
RossHelen/Getty Images/iStockphoto

When it comes to sleep advice, we’ve heard it all: Put your phone away before bed, turn down your thermostat, make your room dark... But there’s one thing that’s often overlooked when it comes to sleep: anxiety.

Anxiety may be the unseen piece of the puzzle that keeps you from getting a good night’s rest, and it can manifest itself in many forms, including insomnia. If you’re struggling to get the sleep you need, both in quality and quantity, your solution could be in the numbers: 5-4-3-2-1 mindfulness exercises – a grounding technique known to help with anxiety, stress, and even sleep.

What are 5-4-3-2-1 mindfulness exercises?

The 5-4-3-2-1 technique is a relaxation technique that focuses on “grounding” your anxiety so it doesn’t keep you wired and up at night. The struggle to fall asleep can lead to racing thoughts and a type of performance anxiety about being able to fall asleep.

As a mindfulness exercise, 5-4-3-2-1 engages all five senses to create a sensory feedback cycle that turns your focus from the worries to the “here and now.” By taking a pause to recognize the different messages your senses are sending, you can take back control of your thoughts and feelings.

While there are many other physical and mental grounding techniques you can try, the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise is considered one of the primary coping skills for anxiety and panic attacks. If you have racing thoughts or anticipatory anxiety at night, this exercise could be a foundational part of your relaxation routine before bed.

How to try grounding with the 5-4-3-2-1 technique

Often, anxiety is the result of the brain hyper-focusing on a real or perceived threat. When dealing with perceived anxiety, it’s literally “in your head,” but bodily reactions can end up feeling very real and exhausting. The 5-4-3-2-1 technique helps your brain reconcile perception and reality by asking you to ground yourself in the present. It can also help you realize how much your body processes without your even noticing, which is an empowering reminder to prioritize relaxation.

To get started with anxiety grounding, start by bringing your attention to your breath, and acknowledge the following:

  • Five things you can see
  • Four things you can touch
  • Three things you can hear
  • Two things you can smell
  • One thing you can taste

As simple as this practice is, you’ll want to start this exercise wherever you feel most comfortable before trying it in a high-stress situation. Once you get the hang of it, you can apply this technique any time you want to feel a sense of calm.

A visual outline of how to do the 54321 grounding technique for your senses to help with sleep.
Leo Medrano

Adapting the 5-4-3-2-1 technique for better sleep

The 5-4-3-2-1 technique can also help clue you into anything disrupting your sleep, or preventing you from achieving the best-quality sleep each night. Work through the list, determining if any elements of your sleep setting are uncomfortable or noticeable when you are awake at night. Getting your body to expect the same sensory stimulation at bedtime can help you fall asleep faster and ultimately achieve better quality sleep.

Use your senses to integrate your 5-4-3-2-1 mindfulness exercises into your nightly sleep routine. Here’s how:

  • Sight: Blue light can decrease melatonin, so try to surround yourself with dim, warm light in the hours before you go to sleep. A unique nightlight or a salt lamp can be a beautiful visual before sleep.
  • Touch: Experts say that the right temperature for sleep is 60–72 degrees Fahrenheit, so pay attention to your thermostat before you get into bed. And there’s nothing quite like getting into a soft, cozy bed, so sheets made of the right material – bamboo, silk, or microfiber – can make all the difference.
  • Sound: Don’t underestimate the power of sound when it comes to sleep. Try a white noise machine, practice meditation, or listen to a calming playlist to fall asleep feeling relaxed.
  • Smell: A smell can bring back so many memories. Reserve a scent for bedtime – whether it’s a linen spray, an essential oil diffuser, or a candle you only burn before bed, you can train your brain to associate the scent with sleep.
  • Taste: Just like smell, taste is a sense that we associate with certain places and things. End your day with a soothing cup of herbal tea before bed or keep a certain lip balm on your nightstand so that you can start to associate certain flavors with going to sleep.

Why do grounding techniques benefit your sleep?

Being human means we’ll all experience anxiety at some point in our lives. Anxiety only becomes a problem when it starts to dictate your life to the point of preventing relaxation or sleep. That’s where grounding comes in.

Grounding techniques help you refocus on the present through structured activities or practices. Shown to help with anxiety, trauma, and intrusive thoughts, grounding techniques interrupt your anxiety and redirect or decrease it so you can make way for calm, relaxing thoughts and let go of the day before, or the day ahead.

Remember, soothing yourself to sleep is much more beneficial for your health than falling asleep out of exhaustion.

We recommend the 5-4-3-2-1 technique because it’s the easiest to learn and do anywhere, but there are other grounding techniques that can help you sleep, including:

  • massages, from a professional or yourself
  • diaphragmatic breathing, such as box breathing or 4-7-8 breathing
  • dance or rhythmic movement
  • progressive muscle relaxation
  • yoga

Many of these exercises focus on slowing down your breath, which helps calm the mind and body. Not all of these, like the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise, can easily be done anywhere, though. Keeping this technique in your back pocket until it becomes a habit can turn it into a tool you can carry and use anywhere, such as on a noisy, cramped plane, for easier sleep.

Takeaway: Be patient with your progress

Mindfulness takes time to master. If these anxiety grounding techniques feel overwhelming, don’t worry – you don’t have to jump in headfirst. Start with the step that feels easiest to you, and once you have that down, add another one.

You can also keep a log of your observations by journaling after your meditations. Overtime you’ll be able to look back at your progress and also narrow down your likes and dislikes when it comes to the senses.

When it comes to mental health, taking matters into your own hands is empowering, but it doesn’t have to be a one-person journey. In cases of severe anxiety, complementing these grounding techniques with professional treatment can go a long way toward positive outcomes. And if these don’t work, talk to a mental health professional about your experience. They can help tailor a relaxation routine that fits your needs.