While activation of the stress response system (fight/flight/freeze) can be helpful in life-threatening circumstances, it is often ineffective in dealing with the complicated, non-life-threatening problems characteristic of the human condition. Successfully coping with social conflict, performance anxiety, or making a mistake at work requires a nuanced approach only possible with resilient coping strategies for stress.
Resilient coping, as opposed to potentially destructive coping, hinges on our ability to inhibit fight, flight, and freeze responses in safe environments. We can inhibit these responses by using cognitive strategies, or strategies that rely on thinking. A few examples of cognitive strategies include: positive self-talk; framing thoughts as questions, rather than statements; looking for evidence that disproves negative thoughts; and identifying and rephrasing distorted or exaggerated thoughts.
A problem, though, is that our ability to access and use cognitive strategies is greatly impaired- sometimes impossible- when we are in fight, flight, or freeze mode. In these circumstances, we are more likely to quiet our nervous systems successfully if we focus on our senses.
The Five Senses Countdown
The Five Senses Countdown can be helpful in reducing many of the uncomfortable signs and symptoms associated with anxiety and panic. You can do this anywhere, at any time, and it goes like this:
Step 1: Take a deep breath and look around you. Describe 5 things that you can see.
Step 2: Listen and name 4 things that you can hear.
Step 3: Touch and name 3 different textures and notice how they feel.
Step 4: Notice and name 2 different smells.
Step 5: Taste and name 1 thing; and take a deep breath.
Most of us are not great at doing new skills for the first time. It is normal to get distracted by thoughts and sensations while doing this skill, especially at first. If you notice your mind drifting – no big deal- gently bring your attention back to the skill and keep going. It can be helpful to do this one with a partner or aloud if focusing in persistently problematic.