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How to be a beacon of calm amid stress

Ten strategies to build your resilience against pervasive angst

“One of the best lessons you can learn in life is to master how to remain calm.”     Catherine Pulsifer

A sense of angst is pervasive in the world right now, and in the face of it many feel powerless. People are distressed by the bad news they hear everyday— natural disasters, terrorist attacks, crime, war, plane crashes, famines, random mass shootings; human rights violations. This constant exposure to suffering and harm via 24-hour news cycles seeps through car radios, TV screens, and web browsers, and is overlaid on the routine challenges of life—work demands; commitments of home and family life; health issues to be attended; financial pressures to be sorted.

As a psychologist, I hear how the despairing outlook of my clients is shaped by media exposure. One man was so anxious about the state of the world that he was seriously hesitant about wanting to proceed with his wife’s pregnancy. Indeed, it’s not just our perceptions that are affected by this news exposure but also our mental health.

Exposure to traumatic images in the media is well documented to contribute to anxiety, depression, stress, PTSD, and PTSD-like symptoms. Moreover, our understanding of trauma has advanced to where it is now recognised that indirect witnessing of trauma can have similar effects on our brain functioning as direct exposure. In other words, media exposure of bad news is toxic to our functioning and yet typically we are injected with it several times a day. Is this really helpful?

Nonetheless, the general angst in our society stretches into all corners of our lives. Teachers tell me that in the past decade one of the growing challenges of their job concerns “anxious parents.” They say it is routine for them to be faced with up to 20 parents wanting to see them before school to discuss their child or give an update, and again at the other end of the day a similar horde awaits.

Often it is only to tell the teacher their child did not sleep well the night before, or did not have a good breakfast, or something else seemingly minor. Unfortunately, the queue of parents before and after class only perpetuates a sense of unease, as it can stress teachers already feeling overloaded. (Their list of duties has grown over time to include more extracurricular activities and internal reports, data collection, email, and managing extreme behaviour). Stressed teachers make for a stressed school environment and you know what comes next … how does this affect the kids?

Which leads me to the central point of this article. We are all responsible for the level of calmness within the community. We can all play a role in either raising or lowering the level by how we conduct ourselves and interact. It involves an awareness of how our actions might affect others, being mindful of any flow-on effects. As if our actions stress even one person, the ripples extend far wider involving more people who interact with that person and intersecting with stress from other areas of life (including exposure to distressing news broadcasts). You can see how the level of angst in our society compounds and spirals to create a more pervasive atmosphere.

It also involves starting with our self in generating calmness. It was Marianne Williamson who said, 

“Everything we do is infused with the energy with which we do it. If we’re frantic, life will be frantic. If we’re peaceful, life will be peaceful.”

Hence, the rest of this article outlines 10 pathways for becoming a generator of calmness. Remember the benefits lie not only in making us more productive and feeling better, but it will also help to build an atmosphere of calmness in our world.

1. Slow down

Make a conscious effort to slow down everything you do. Try this for even one day and see how different you feel. Talk slower, walk slower, eat slower, and breathe slower. When you slow down you become more mindful of the moment so you can be more fully present. You notice your environment more so you engage more with your surroundings and spend less time in your head. It frees you from that conscious chatter in your mind, providing a balance between internal stimulation (endless cycle of thoughts) and external stimulation (what’s happening around you). When you eat slower you also taste your food more, noting different flavours and textures. When you breathe slower, taking deep breaths, you immediately feel much calmer. Let this more measured approach be a soft balm that soothes and sweetens your soul.

2. Take a break

Research shows that taking a lunch break actually makes us more productive. It’s even better if you can take this break away from the office. Better still, is a short respite in nature, for example, eating lunch in a garden or public park, on a bench seat in a grove of trees or a shady courtyard. There is nothing like nature to calm us, and as a highly urbanised society we’re too disengaged from that process. We need those interludes of stillness from nature to calm our being. Eckhart Tolle says, “Look at a tree, a flower, a plant. Let your awareness rest upon it. How still they are, how deeply rooted in being. Allow nature to teach you stillness.” When you return to work after such an interlude, you cannot help but generate calmness to those around you.

On a macro level, taking a vacation is vital and will do wonders for maintaining a level of calmness in how you see the world and respond to it. Vacations also provide another opportunity to reacquaint with nature and tune in to its vibes of stillness. Getting away to the beach or mountains, a beautiful lake or forest, is deeply calming.

3. Do head-clearing transitions

This is a strategy I learnt from Brendon Burchard. When switching from one task to another, first stop and empty your mind. Spend 30-60 seconds doing this, saying in your mind, “release, release, release.” Focus on that releasing action, and breathe slowly. Allow your brain to change gear in a calm way, rather than jolting it into a different activity or phase of your day. Even before getting out of a car, spend those extra 30-60 seconds preparing yourself for the next stage of your schedule. Do this activity also between consulting with different clients to allow your brain to clear out and prepare for the next one so that you can be calmly focussed. This approach is being respectful of your brain and the many demands we make on it in one day.

4. Do one thing at a time

Research in neuroscience shows that multi-tasking is stressful for our brain. Sure, we can do it, but it comes at a cost to our levels of calmness and wellbeing. We are not wired to cram so much into one day to the point where we are frantically juggling many tasks simultaneously. We are working against the grain if we try. People sometimes say that they have no choice at work in this respect. However, when they look a bit closer they can see that some of the pressure to multi-task comes from within them. This is the bit that you can work on. Be honest with yourself and look for those times when you can finish one task before even attempting to look at another. Be firm with yourself here, and see the vast difference it makes to how calm you feel.

5. Be consistent with self-care 

When people get stressed and anxious, paradoxically there is a tendency to neglect self-care as a way of saving time and energy. Unfortunately, this approach only adds to the pressure and we end up getting less done and feeling anything but calm. Making self-care a priority is a top strategy for generating calmness within us and around us. Self-care includes making sure you get enough sleep, eating healthily with plenty of whole plant food, and getting regular physical activity. It also includes attending to any health issues by engaging health professionals. (In particular, if your gut is not functioning properly you’ll probably struggle to feel calm overall. Gut flora is emerging as a significant player in regulating our mood, behaviour, and cognitive function. The adult human body has one kilogram of gut microbes, which is around the weight of our brain. To feel calm and happy, we need to keep these microbes calm and happy! So see a health practitioner to assist with any gut issues.)

It’s vital also to schedule regular timeout in your diary as a way of making an appointment with yourself that needs to be honoured. A personal favourite is scheduling a monthly back massage with a trained massage therapist as a maintenance measure. Don’t underestimate the power of these self-care strategies to strengthen your calm.

6. Respond don’t react

Most people are reactive. Something provokes them and they fire with whatever comes to mind. Yet the old proverb says, “Do not learn how to react. Learn how to respond.” This means allowing a gap between stimulus and response. So take a deep breath. Say you want time to think things over. Allow a text/ voicemail message that provokes a strong reaction in you to sit for a while before responding (unless it’s urgent of course! Most times it’s not). You’re much more likely to respond calmly 24 hours later. This strategy allows a space to process raw feelings and it promotes a response that is more centred and reflective rather than impulsive. Remember most times you don’t need to provide an answer straight way to incoming stimulus. The raw contents of your mind, uncensored and unfiltered, could only add fuel to fire. Responding rather than reacting takes practice, but is it well worth the effort.

7. Stay present

“Anxiety happens when you think you have to figure everything out all at once. Breathe… You’re strong.  Take it day by day.”    Salmansohn

A sense of overwhelm at times robs us of calmness. In this situation, often the best thing is to not think; not try to work everything out all at once. Just stay focused on today and perhaps this week, and don’t look any further ahead especially if the future is uncertain. Staying in the present moment means escorting your thoughts back to now when your mind wanders to the past or present. Research shows the more time your mind spends in the present moment the calmer you will feel. You can ground yourself in the present moment by engaging with your surroundings, and focusing on the world through your senses (rather than your thoughts). A personal favourite is sitting on a beach and focusing on the sound of waves and the sun’s warmth on my skin. This exercise keeps you in the present moment and is like a brain massage!

8. Be kind

Kindness is to calmness what love is to caring. You can’t have one without the other. So spend time every day being kind, and you will spend time in calmness. Pamper your pet, shout a friend a coffee; reach out to a loved one who is lonely. Don’t forget to show some kindness towards yourself too, through activities that nurture you.

And those that anger you? What can you do about those individuals who push your buttons? Try to remember that each of us is a soul that is underdeveloped or damaged in some way. Deep down, most of us want our soul to be whole and healed, even if that is not always apparent to others. So think twice about judging others harshly as they are on the same quest as all of us. If you consider your enemies this way, you cannot help but feel kinder towards them, and thus more peaceful.

Also, if you’re feeling disengaged lately from someone you care about, rather than taking it personally (an ego approach), ask yourself, what is happening for that person right now? Are they okay? This kinder approach can only strengthen relations and fuel a greater understanding, thereby promoting peace and togetherness.

Remember, showing kindness is one of the most calming things you can ever do.

9. Protect your Peace Bubble

Imagine you have a Peace Bubble enveloping your whole body. Your number one task each day is to protect it from threats. So as you go about your day, be mindful whenever your Peace Bubble is at risk. You can gauge the level of risk but how you feel. When your Peace Bubble is under threat you will feel uncomfortable and will often note your body tensing. Your immediate response must be to protect your Peace Bubble. This may involve disengaging from a conversation; taking a deep breath; refusing to be baited into conflict; or simply walking away.

You must come to see your Peace Bubble as the most important thing you have because everything else in your life depends on it remaining intact. When your Peace Bubble is safe, you can maintain a level of calmness so that you focus on the things that matter to you. Less of your time and energy is spent on destabilising input.

10. Limit exposure to news broadcasts.

A ten-year-old boy once asked me why grownups always turn up the news on the car radio. This is actually an astute observation about our obsession with news. In reality, however, perhaps we should be doing the very opposite a good deal of the time: for our mental health we should be turning down the news. The final strategy here therefore is to limit exposure to news broadcasts as the toxic effects are insidious. Do we really need to know details of all the grim events several times a day?

“The calmest person in the room is always the                             most powerful.”    Eben Pagan

A calmer world

Practising calmness helps us feel and perform much better. It also helps to generate more calmness in the world, and we definitely need more of that.

Call to action

If you want to focus on the right activities for becoming 10x calmer, and see the positive shift in your life from doing so, check out my calmness checklist.

Click here to get the checklist now.

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