You need to buckle down and get some work done but can’t stop yourself from checking Facebook for the 111th time. You’re trying to think clearly, but you’re emotionally distraught. You want to accomplish something but you keep getting distracted by – well – everything. There’s a simple way to clear out distractions and strong emotions in just a few minutes – and all you need are your five senses.
We’ve all been there. No matter how much we try to settle down and accomplish something important, we can’t. Thoughts swirl around our head uninvited. We’re still upset about the fight we had two days ago with our best friend. We feel anxious because our bank account balance isn’t what it used to be.
It could be a million things – but whatever it is, the bottom line is that either you can’t get your mind to settle down, or you can’t shake strong and distracting emotions, or both. You’ve tried to think about something else. You’ve worked hard to focus on your breathing. You even got down on the floor and into your favorite yoga pose. But nothing seems to work. The thoughts keep swirling and the emotions keep churning. And you can’t get anything done.
Time to try something radical. Use your five senses.
There are any number of methods I use to help people get calm, settled and focused. One of the quickest and most effective is a simple exercise that uses your five senses, which I have adapted from a longer exercise by Dr. Daniel Siegel, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute.
Many of us try to get calm and focused by paying attention to our breath as is practiced in standard meditation. This can sometimes be helpful, but you may find that the breathing technique, without more, only goes so far.
By adding a step-by-step exploration of your five senses, you allow your attention to wander in a controlled way (which is more natural than one-pointed attention on the breath), and in doing so can quickly gain control over your thoughts and emotions.
The Five Senses Technique – How to Get Calm and Settled in 5 Minutes or Less
Learn and follow the steps below and you’ll have access to a technique you can use virtually anywhere and anytime to become clear, calm and focused whenever you need it. The technique works best with eyes closed. However, you can also use it effectively with eyes open if you are in a situation, such as a meeting, where it would be awkward to close your eyes.
1. Begin with breathing. Yes, I did say just two paragraphs ago that focusing on your breathing often isn’t enough to get you calm and settled. And it often isn’t. In this exercise, breathing is only the beginning.
Start by simply observing your breathing (with eyes closed if possible). Notice the inhale, the exhale, and the short space that exists in between the exhale and the inhale. Notice if your breathing is fast or slow, calm or stressed, easy or labored. Don’t try to control your breath or change it. Just notice it with each inhale and exhale.
2. Transition from your breathing to your senses. Once you’ve observed your breath, the next step is to experience your breathing through a different lens. Instead of watching your breath with your mind, now feel your breath in your body. That is, instead of observing the breath, feel the sensation of your breathing as it happens.
You are no longer watching it from the outside. You are merging with your breath and becoming part of the inhale and exhale as it occurs. This will prepare you to fully engage with your senses for the remainder of the exercise. 3. Listen. This is as simple as it sounds. All you need to do is listen – really listen to the sounds around you. What do you hear? What kind of sounds exist close to you? Farther away? What is their quality – loud, soft, harsh, gentle, long, short?
Extend your listening to the sounds that exist inside you – the thoughts in your head and any subtle sounds inside your body, such as your heartbeat, that you may notice. Listening alone can get you very grounded and focused – you can read the instructions here for a full listening exercise to increase focus.
4. Look. Next, switch to your sense of sight. If your eyes are closed, and you don’t want to break the momentum, you can look at the colors and images that appear in the area behind your eyes while closed. Otherwise, you can open your eyes and look at the area in front of you. Notice what objects are there. Notice the shape of the objects and the space between them. Notice the colors. Notice the lighting. 5. Smell. Next, focus on the air that enters and exits your nose. Notice any scents or aromas that come to you. They may be strong or very subtle. Notice the qualities contained in those scents. 6. Taste. Switch to your sense of taste. Notice your tongue in your mouth. Become aware of any tastes and their qualities.
7. Touch. Conclude the exercise by exploring your sense of touch. You can transition from the sense of taste by noticing the feeling between your tongue and the inside of your mouth. Notice the sense of touch between you and the chair on which you are sitting. Your feet and the floor. Your two lips. Your hands on your lap or touching each other.
Another option is to conclude the exercise with breathing as you began it.
That’s it. Start with breathing – first observing and then sensing. Then simply notice in succession your sense of hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch.
Although some choose to do this as an extended exercise lasting 20 minutes or more, you can use it to achieve calm and focus very quickly by focusing on your breathing for no more than a minute, and then devoting about 30 seconds to each of your senses.
This exercise works to calm and center you because it quickly takes you away from the thoughts and emotions that are derailing you. The act of noticing each sense has an inherent calming effect, and at the same time gives your mind something tangible to focus on.
I suggest first practicing this exercise a few times when you already are calm and focused – that is, when you don’t need it (although it can help deepen your level of calm and focus at any time).
If you’re afraid you’ll forget the steps when you’re in a state of distraction, write a note that you can keep with you to remember the trigger words – “Breath-observe and sense. Listen. See. Smell. Taste. Touch.” Then try it whenever you find yourself getting distracted or distraught.