‘Serenity is not freedom from the storm, but peace amid the storm’ – Anon
When you’re feeling upset and anxious it can be frustrating to be told to “calm down”. For most of my adult life this would have acted like red rag to a bull until a chronic and debilitating illness lasting almost a decade taught me to deal with stress very differently.
In my late forties I had developed M.E./Chronic Fatigue as a legacy from driving myself too hard and experiencing a series of personal challenges, including the death of a much loved father. M.E. is a complex, often misunderstood illness that is multi-faceted in both its causes and symptoms. Most of the body’s major systems become compromised, notably the Autonomic Nervous System which gets locked into the ‘Fight or Flight’ response (an automatic response originally evolved in our forebears to keep them safe from danger). This state of burn-out teaches us a lot about how the body reacts to stress and how to take preventative measures.
The Fight or Flight response is designed for a quick discharge of energy, after which the system returns to normal. The trouble is it hasn’t evolved sufficiently to cope with the constant pressures of 21st Century living. We tend to ‘normalise’ stress which then allows its drip-drip effect to build over time without us necessarily being aware of it. The body simply isn’t designed to withstand stress indefinitely; eventually something has to give and a breakdown in physical and/or mental health occurs.
During my illness I learnt how to bring my stress levels down again and again throughout the day so my body could get on with the business of healing itself. This was one of the most important steps that set me on the path to better health. Now fully recovered, I’ve found the ability to manage stress to be extraordinarily liberating; as a meditation teacher and personal development facilitator it’s my stock in trade.
We all have the ability to be calm -it’s just a question of learning how. You don’t have to be a guru and meditate for hours on end – all it takes is a little knowledge of how the mind affects the body.
Understanding how your thoughts shape your emotional and physical state is fundamental in helping you to manage your stress levels. Anxious thoughts instantly flood the body with stress hormones and take it into ‘Fight or Flight’. Where you go in your head you’ll go in your body. Learning to step out of the Stress Response loop: anxious thoughts>stress hormone release> anxious thoughts>stress hormone release… is the first step in learning the language of calm.
Here are my top tips for a calmer life:
Twenty stress management tips for a calm life
- Stay centered in the here and now rather than living in the past or future
- Ground yourself. Keep a sense of having both feet on the ground
- Remember to breathe out fully, most of us habitually hold in our breath
- Stop making disaster movies in your head. Detach from anxiety making thoughts. They are just thoughts – let them go
- Be pragmatic. Notice what helps and what doesn’t help (worrying doesn’t)
- Stop beating yourself up. Watch out for that inner critic
- Reassure and appreciate yourself rather than seeking validation from others
- Slow down. Rushing creates stress and won’t necessarily get you there faster
- Step back and get the bigger picture
- Turn that inner intensity dial down. Less is more
- Take regular breathing spaces during your day
- Put things down on paper rather than holding everything in your head
- Allow time for things to process. Learn to temper impatience
- Appreciate the spaces in between ‘doing’ instead of filling them
- Know when to take a break. Watch out for “I’ll just do this last thing …”
- Get support. You don’t have to do everything on your own
- Set appropriate boundaries with yourself and others
- Accept your limitations. Give yourself permission to be human
- See all mistakes as opportunities for learning
- Remind yourself of the good things in your life and make time for them
The ability to be calm is a natural skill that has to be learned through experience, theory isn’t enough on its own. It’s something that develops incrementally as we gather the understanding, build the neural pathways and collect the cellular memory to make it possible. Like most things that are worthwhile it takes commitment and patience. Having learnt the hard way myself, I strongly recommend that you see managing stress as an essential part of your survival tool kit for life.