Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Anxious? Justin Bieber Wants You to Try the 5-4-3-2-1

It's from Panic Free: The 10-Day Program to End Panic, Anxiety, & Claustrophobia

The 5-4-3-2-1 Exercise
Source: Instagram

The singer shared the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise on Instagram, saying, "My gramma just shared this with me. Share if this helps u."

Both he and his grandmother are right. The 5-4-3-2-1 is useful. It is a mental game that shifts attention away from anxiety-producing thoughts by focusing, for a minute or two, on non-threatening things around you. By focusing only on non-threatening things briefly, the stress hormones present "burn off" without being replaced. At the end of the exercise, a person is able to focus on what they choose to, rather than being pushed by stress hormones to focus on anxiety-producing thoughts.

Obviously, if a person returns to the anxiety-producing thoughts, stress hormones will again be released. As the hormones build up, feelings of anxiety will return. So, before starting the exercise, plan ahead. Decide in advance what to focus on when finishing the exercise.

The New York Post picked up on Bieber's Instagram post and quoted Jennifer Wolkin, Ph.D. as saying “I often use this with clients who are experiencing general anxiety, panic attacks, difficulty regulating emotions and even after trauma. The aptly named '54321 grounding technique,' is meant to direct attention away from either a rumination spiral or physical sensations that are unsettling,"

The 5-4-3-2-1 is based on a NeuroLinguistic Programming (NLP) technique that helps people with insomnia fall asleep. I adapted the NLP technique to help fearful fliers deal with in-flight panic, named it the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise, and introduced it to my clients in 2005 in a video.

The 5-4-3-2-1 is detailed in Chapter 17 of my book, Panic Free: The 10-Day Program to End Panic, Anxiety, and Claustrophobia. The version of the 5-4-3-2-1 Bieber offered is a bit off. The exercise is worth learning, so learn it right.

The 5-4-3-2-1 Exercise:

  • Focus on an object in front of you. Keep your focus on that object throughout the exercise. If your focus drifts, just bring it back.
  • Say, “I see,” and name something in your peripheral vision. 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. Repeat this statement another four times. If you can’t detect five different sounds, repeat some.
  • Say, “I feel” and name an external sensation (not internal, like your heart pounding or tension). Continue until you have made five statements. For example, “I feel the chair under me, I feel my arm against my leg,” and so on.
  • This set of statements makes up one cycle. Paying close attention to sights, sounds, and sensations takes intense concentration, which is exactly what you want. As you concentrate on these non-threatening things, your jolt of stress hormones burns off, and you relax. You don’t have to force yourself to relax; it happens naturally.
  • That completes the first set of statements. Now, repeat the process, but instead of making five statements, make four. If you need to repeat the process again to calm yourself, make three statements, and so on down to one, if necessary. The reason for varying the number is to sustain your concentration. If you simply repeated the exercise without variation, you would soon be able to do it without much thought. Your mind might be able to entertain anxiety-producing thoughts while you worked through the exercise. With a varying number of statements, the exercise remains complex enough to require all your concentration.

After you have finished the exercise, if you want to be even more relaxed — or to fall asleep — do the exercise again starting with five statements. If you lose count, that is a good sign, because it means you are relaxed.

If any of the other exercises described in the book fail to calm you enough, use this backup exercise to burn off the stress hormones and focus your mind where you, rather than the stress hormones, want to focus it. But to encourage the development of automatic alarm attenuation, take a minute before you do the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise to write down what triggered your anxiety. Later, break the trigger down. Separate it into its parts. Before facing that situation again, use the exercises in previous chapters to link each part of the triggering event to a friend’s face, voice, and touch, and to a memory that releases oxytocin.

But don't think of it as more than it is. It is a band-aid to use in a tough moment — not ones basic way to deal with anxiety. A person's basic way of dealing with anxiety should be the parasympathetic nervous system. We all have this calming system. But many of us, perhaps as many as 40% of us, lack good "mental software" that lets the parasympathetic system operate as nature intended. It should automatically kick in when we need it.

More from Tom Bunn L.C.S.W.
More from Psychology Today
More from Tom Bunn L.C.S.W.
More from Psychology Today