Sensory orientation

Do you sometimes find yourself – especially now during the holidays – waking up in a strange place feeling disoriented? You look around and can’t find anything familiar. Your brain and body struggle for several moments to reorient you in time and space. It can range anywhere from confusion to discomfort to outright panic.


Holiday travel for me brings with it some weird feelings of disorientation. I wake up 30,000 feet in the air to the smell of coffee being served by flight attendants and the sound of a baby crying across the aisle. (We just had lunch, jumped two time zones, and now it’s breakfast?)

Back on the ground, I wake up after a jet lag induced nap on a friend’s couch to the sound of conversation and laughter. Then in the city, I find myself startled from sleep by the sound of barking dogs, fighting neighborhood cats, and the muezzin’s call for prayer at 5 am.

The sound of roosters crowing starts way before dawn in Nairobi. The Swahili saying jogoo la shamba haliwiki mtaani (the country rooster does not crow in the city) tells me that these are no country roosters. Nairobi roosters start crowing at 4:30 am every morning – I checked. In contrast to the brutal city awakening, when I am out in the country, I’m gently awoken by chirpy songbirds and sunshine filtering through my window.

Then there’s the dreaded hypnopompic state –  that liminal place between sleep and waking consciousness – where you’re in bed trying to wake up but feel paralyzed. You may get a sense of a sinister presence either near your bed or sitting on your chest. You can’t move and feel helpless. You’re filled with dread and fear. While sleep scientists tell us this experience is quite common, it still feels scary and discombobulating. Luckily, the feeling goes after a few seconds (or were they several minutes?).

5-point sensory grounding

I’m taking time nowadays to notice the sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and textures that orient me to my current time and space. I’m aware of how the birds and crickets in Georgia have different melodies and syllabic phrasing than those in Nairobi or Nanyuki or Sagana. I’m noticing how the local flavors of mandazi and masala chai transport me emotionally to old memories from my childhood in Mombasa or to my college days at Kenyatta University. As I look into the familiar faces of old friends or hear songs on the local Kenyan radio station (like the Boney M Christmas album), I’m aware of the waves of nostalgia that wash over me.

I learned this beautiful technique called 5-point grounding or the 5-4-3-2-1 technique that I practice when I feel disoriented. It is used in mindfulness practices as a way to help bring us back to the present moment through the senses.

It is also used in trauma therapies like EMDR to decrease anxiety and establish a sense of calm and grounding, and is particularly helpful for trauma survivors who tend to dissociate. I like to use it when I first awaken from sleep to help reorient myself into waking consciousness, especially in unfamiliar places.

Here’s how it goes:

  • Five sights: When you open your eyes, what are five things you can see in the room? What colors pop out at you? If it’s dark, what shadows or silhouettes can you make out? Are there familiar pictures or furniture or people in the room?
  • Four touches: Reach out with your hands. What four textures can you feel with your fingers? How does the room temperature feel like on your skin? If your head is on a pillow, take a moment to distinguish whether the pillow feels soft or firm, fluffy or crisp, warm or cool. How does your body feel in the sheets, blanket, pajamas, chair or bed?
  • Three sounds: Shift your awareness to things you can hear. Are the sounds coming from inside or outside, far or near, are they natural or human made? What about sounds from your own body? Perhaps if you listen closely you may hear your own heartbeat, your breath, your stomach growling.
  • Two smells: Focus on smells around you: food, perfume, smog from the city streets, rain on the earth. Some people like to carry around their favorite fragrance (like lavender, peppermint, sandalwood) and take a whiff of it to feel calm, alert or grounded.
  • One taste: What kind of taste is in your mouth? Or what was the last thing you remember tasting? Some food, or maybe some coffee, water, or juice you drank earlier. What did it taste like: refreshing, cool, bitter, savory, sweet, sour, fruity, creamy?

Practicing sensory orientation while awakening from sleep can make you feel grounded by the time your feet hit the floor, especially when you’re away from home and your familiar environment.

Or it can be a simple mindfulness exercise that allows you to experience the present moment no matter where your mind or your travels take you.


Photo by Battlecreek Coffee Roasters on Unsplash