In a previous blog, I wrote about different manifestations of anxiety: generalized anxiety, anxiety attacks and panic attacks. At the Mindful Psychotherapy Practice, I often encounter clients who experience one or all of these forms of anxiety, and many of them get great temporary relief from the “3-2-1” exercise.
One of my patients, Janie, just had this kind of experience few weeks ago. She had turned in the final draft of a report she and her team had been working on for months, and it suddenly occurred to her that she might have forgotten to double check one section. She came into the therapy session wracked with anxiety and worry over this possible mistake, and was overcome with dread and fear about the disastrous consequences, as if she had definitely overlooked that section and conclusively missed something important. She reported to me that she was unable to let the thought go, even though there was absolutely nothing she could do about it until the next day at work. Jumping to negative conclusions and creating worse case scenarios in her head were driving her crazy and contributing to shortness of breath and a racing heartbeat that made her thoughts more intense.
So I taught her one of the most effective mindfulness tools for calming the nervous system, the 3-2-1 exercise:
It’s really simple.
Take a deep breath and name for yourself 3 things you see (e.g. the woman across from you, the advertisement above the railing, the cracked window), then name 3 things you hear, ( the rumble of the train, a child talking, your own breath), then, name 3 things you feel, tactilely (e.g. the hard seat under your backside, your watch on your wrist, and the soles of your feet in your shoes).
Take your time and try to focus exclusively on those things as you name them.
Next, do the same but name two things you see, you hear, then you feel. If you can’t find new ones every time that’s okay, but just really experience them fully as you name them. Finally, name 1 thing in each category.
By the time Janie came into her next therapy session, she reported using the 3-2-1 technique and was surprised to find that her thoughts were no longer spinning. She was able to breathe more calmly, her heart rate slowed and she was able to assess the situation more realistically and redirect her thoughts to calm herself down further (“I can’t do anything about this now, so I will turn on my music and relax”.) Bottom line, Janie used the exercise to ground herself in the present and free herself from racing thoughts that led her to catastrophic and extreme assumptions.
When you feel anxious and unsettled, try the 3-2-1 exercise. It’s also very useful if you have trouble falling asleep, your mind filled with worried preoccupations. At the least, this exercise will ground you in the present. At best, you’ll be able to proceed serenely with your day, or clear your mind and fall asleep.
Author: Kayla Schwartz - LMSW - Clinical Associate