A Psychotherapist Shares Her Top Strategies for Being Calm in Times of Stress

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.

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?

Here are 10 pathways for becoming a generator of calmness in times of stress. 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. 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).

2. Take a break in nature

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.

3. Do head-clearing transitions

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.

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. 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.

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.

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

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).

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.

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.

10. Limit exposure to news broadcasts.

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?