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Cyles of Five: Another Way To Disrupt Anxiety

When you are overwhelmed with pain or anxiety, you perceive THREAT. That’s a healthy response. The amygdala is the part of your brain that processes emotions. When it perceives threat, it responded by triggering the production of cortisol and other hormones that trigger a flight or fight response. Your heart beats faster, your stomach and intestines stop digesting food. You become hyper-aware of your environment.

It also changes how your mind interprets the environment. We interpret neutral stimuli in our interactions with others and in our body as potentially threatening. And we feel anxious or scared.

Feelings of threat are important for pain and make us feel worse. That’s one reason stress reduction is an important component of pain treatment. One way to reduce your perception of threat is to focus on your MIND rather than your FEELINGs.


Cycles of five is a simple technique. When you are feeling overwhelmed with pain or your thoughts are swirling:

  • Name FIVE things you can see
  • Name FOUR things you can touch
  • Name THREE things you can hear
  • Name TWO things you can smell
  • Name ONE thing you can taste

That’s it. All it does is CHANGE your focus and GROUND you in your body and in the here and now. That’s important because both anxiety and pain can overwhelm you with scary images of ‘what might happen if . . . ‘

Psychologists call that cascading focus on potentially negative futures ‘catastrophizing’. I know some people hate that term, but for me, as a mom, it really resonated because it’s exactly what I was doing. My son would get a migraine and I’d worry he wouldn’t make it to school. And then he’d miss a test. And every migraine makes it more likely he’d have another migraine. And if he missed a test and another day of school he might fail a class. And then another. And then fail the grade. And not graduate. And never go to college. Or get a job. Or get married or have children or be happy or be able to support himself or . . . .

Catastrophizing. If you’ve done it, you know the feeling. People with anxiety do this all the time. It takes productive worry and planning and turns it into free-floating and constant fear. And that is not healthy.

The Cycle of Five

The Cycle of Five Excercise helps you get out of that cycle and back into the PRESENT by focusing on where you are right now in your body. It breaks the panic cycle.

When doing the exercise, a few things help:

  • Say the prompts out loud. “I see a table.” “I see my dog.” This brings your body as well as your mind and sense into it. It also SLOWS YOU DOWN and forces you to breathe because you are speaking.
  • Speak slowly. You are trying to calm yourself down.
  • Breathe between each item.
  • PAY ATTENTION. Look at your dog. Smell that coffee. Listen to the wind. Taste that cookie.

How to Use The Exercise

This simple exercise can help break a cycle of anxiety when you find yourself worried and your thoughts swirling around you.

You can also use it for pain. For example, when a child is crying from a headache, you can use this when you’re snuggling with them. Make it a distracting game. When they are thinking of things they see, they are not focusing on how much they work. Distraction is your friend.

You can also vary it:

  • “I spy” is a great variation. If you or your child is bored with their room, pick up a picture book or magazine. “I spy, with my little eye, five things that are RED.” or “Three things I can use OUTSIDE.”
  • Make it harder. Go for colors or beginning or ending letters instead of just anything your see.

How we feel is a product of our thinking and feelings. We need to integrate and recognize both. However, it is easier to control thinking than feelings. Use that power to take control.

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