Retrain Your Brain for a Calmer Life
Updated: Jul 16, 2021
Ever find yourself getting upset, frustrated, or stressed out? It’s natural and happens to all of us from time to time. I’ve been asked how I manage to stay calm in the midst of turmoil, and I’m frequently reminded of one of my first jobs out of college. It was in a maximum-security prison. Having a major disturbance (a riot) and 500-800 prisoners out on a concrete breezeway trying to hurt you is the ultimate litmus test. You see, I was on the tactical squad that would have to go into these disturbances.
One time, I remember thinking, I could get killed. As I sat with my fellow officers putting my gear on, my heart was racing, and I was sweating. I thought, how is this helping me? How is this process of anxiety—my heart racing, body overheating—how's this going to help me be clear-headed? At that moment, I just said to myself, I have to really be calm in order to make good decisions in this high-crisis situation.
Ever since then, I have employed two primary tactics. One, I always have perspective. When I have a problem or tough day, I remember that at least I'm not in a riot; no one’s trying to kill me. Perspective helps a lot in staying calm.
The second thing is that I stop and ask myself, is getting upset, nervous, anxious, or vocal going to help this problem that I'm facing. 99.9% of the time, the answer is No! So, you have to collect your wits, be focused and calm, and use your brain to solve the situation you're about to encounter. And if you do that, you'll make the best decisions and have the best alternatives at your disposal. Getting freaked out in a crisis doesn't help you one bit.
Six More Ways to Stay Calm
So, after maintaining proper perspective and not freaking out, what are some other really effective ways to stay calm during a storm? Here are six ways I practice regularly.
1. Pause & Breathe – The next time you’re facing a really stressful situation, just stop for a moment or two and breathe. Taking slow, deep breaths triggers your body to stop releasing stress hormones and to start to relax. Focusing on your breathing can also help to distract your mind from whatever is bothering you so that you are able to concentrate on what is happening at that moment. Be sure to breathe in through your nose and breathe all the way into your belly (not just your chest). Hold it for a moment, and then breathe out slowly through your mouth. Doing this for a few minutes should have you feeling calmer fairly quickly.
2. Relax Your Muscles – We frequently tighten our muscles when under pressure. To get back to a calm state, do a quick scan of your body to see what might be tense. Your neck? Shoulders? Jaw? Gently touch or massage those body parts that are under tension to encourage relaxation.
3. Use Logic, Not Emotion – One of the reasons we get frustrated is that we are in an emotional state. Emotions are fine, but when you’re under stress and need to get back to calm, it’s your rational, logical side that will get you there. Similar to what I mentioned above, take a moment and ask yourself questions, like, “Will this matter in 2 hours or 2 days (weeks/months/years)?” or “How serious is this really?” You’ll make better decisions and handle the situation better if you employ logic.
4. Focus on the Positives – Focusing on the positives doesn’t mean pretending the facts of a situation don’t exist, but it does mean not always seeing the worst. Always imagining the worst in every situation is clinically known as catastrophic thinking and can increase feelings of panic and anxiety. Take a moment and think of the positives in a situation—also known as the silver lining. Did your bathroom just get flooded? That’s stressful, but focusing on the positive of having new flooring can be a nice improvement.
5. Let Go of What You Can’t Control – There are so many things you have no control over—who your parents or siblings are, the weather, flight delays, long lines at the drive-thru. So in those moments when you have zero control, focus on what you can do. Make your grocery list, text or call a friend, find a new podcast to listen to. Stop agonizing over things you can’t control because you’re only hurting yourself. If you can’t do anything about the situation, make lemonade from the lemons you’ve been handed. 6. Take Care of Yourself: Walk, Sleep, Mediate – Wellness Warrior, you know I talk a lot about taking care of yourself, and here’s another area of your life that benefits from it. If you’re feeling a bit stressed, take a quick 5-minute walk. The fresh air and change of scenery will not only do you good but will also give a new perspective (as I mentioned above) on the situation. Make sure you’re getting plenty of sleep (7-8 hours/night). Nothing makes a stressful situation worse than being exhausted. You can't think straight and can be more emotional (vs. rational). Meditating, of course, is one of my go-to ways to relieve stress. It's actually been shown to change your brain over time so you can better manage your emotions and stay calm when you need to most. And you don’t need to do a long mediation. Even 5 minutes of sitting quietly and concentrating on your breathing is a beneficial form of meditation.
Practice these things the next time you’re feeling stress, pressure, or anxiety. Retrain your brain for a calmer life. You can’t control what life will throw at you next, but you can learn to cope with these situations and deal with stress in a healthy way.
Until next time, Wellness Warriors, Live Well, Live Long!