Using the Five Senses to Calm

Jamie Sumner
Special needs mom and author
05/24/23  6:45 AM PST
five senses

There is a technique in trauma therapy that calls upon the five senses when hurt or the memory of past hurt becomes too overwhelming. It’s so simple it feels almost impossible to be a thing that works. But in my own experience, it’s often the simplest methods that do the trick. Like setting out running clothes the night before or pre-programming the coffeemaker—it’s a hack to make life a tad easier.

The first time I ever heard of the five senses method was in researching horseback riding therapy for my son. Horses are big. Even small, adorable horses are still bigger than your average labradoodle. In an effort to make children comfortable, the instructor would ask them to do five things with their five senses when they first met their therapy horse:


  1. Name five things you see.


  1. Name four things you feel.


  1. Name three things you smell.


  1. Name two things you hear.


  1. Name one thing you taste.


By the time the kids got down to one thing they tasted, more often than not, they were in touch with their bodies in a way they hadn’t been a few minutes ago. The fear in their heads had dissipated as they grounded themselves in the present moment and touched the horse, smelled the air, listened to the swish of a tail, tasted the bubblegum toothpaste that still lingered from the morning. By acknowledging and cataloging these things, they honored the time and space they were in instead of getting stuck in their worries.

One late afternoon, I found myself overwhelmed with a sense of grief for someone dear to me that I had lost. Nothing happened to set it off. I was washing the dishes at the sink and suddenly my heart felt heavy—so, so heavy. My mind wouldn’t let go of the unfairness of it all—that this person was here and now they are not, but I still am and have to fight each day to make sense of it. I felt my breath getting faster, my shoulders tighter. So I pulled the plug on the drain, walked outside with my hands still dripping, sat on the front steps while my kids rode bikes in the cul-de-sac, and grumpily decided to give the five senses a go.


1. I saw a cardinal bossing around another cardinal

a piece of grass stuck to my big toe

a weed I needed to pull

the leaves of the crepe myrtle stirring in the breeze

one snail slowly creeping up the step next to me


2. I felt the breeze that was stirring the tree

the roughness of the pebbled step on my thighs

a hangnail that I really wanted to pull

my heart still beating fast


3. I smelled the damp tar of the asphalt from the recent afternoon storm

the deep, sweet of magnolia blossoms on the tree next to me

smoke from a charcoal grill drifting over from our neighbor’s yard


4. I heard the two cardinals chirping in quick bursts

a siren somewhere in the distance


5. I tasted the peanut-butter-y goodness of the Reese’s pie I’d made for dessert


By the time I got to the pie, my heart was slower, my breath easier, and my mind a bit clearer. No, it wasn’t “all better,” but that’s not the point. The point is to know that feelings are not facts and a moment can pass from something hard/sad/scary into something else. You just have to wait it out. I’ve used the five senses method many times since and I think I like it most because you can to do it anywhere at any time and no one else needs to know. But you will know and you will feel a touch lighter at the end of it.


child with special needs
Jamie Sumner is a special needs mom and author.
Author of the middle-grade novels:















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