The key to remaining calm in a stressful situation
With a new year comes fresh challenges, many of which are beyond our control. We may find ourselves in situations where someone says something or an event happens which enrages us and we find ourselves flying off the handle or losing our cool.
It may be something a colleague says or our child knocks something over, or it could be that we read an article in the paper which is misaligned with our views of the world.
It's important for us to realise that there are many things which cause us stress which are beyond our control. We can't influence what other people think of us or their views. We also can't control what is happening on the world stage, be it political changes or threats of pandemics.
What we can control however is our response to the stressor. We have control over our thoughts, feelings and emotions. First, we need to look at the difference between these three;
- Thoughts - this is the cognitive process in which our brain associates one bit of information with another, developing a belief, perception or idea.
- Emotions - these are an automatic and temporary response to a stressor in a part of our brain that is not connected to thinking rationally (the amygdala). Our emotions can be driven by a thought or belief that we perceive to be true - and which often isn't!
Emotions are energy felt in the body in response to the stressor - such as increasing heartbeat or sweaty palms.
- Feelings - these are the conscious processing of emotions which give an emotion a meaning. Feelings are longer lasting than our emotions.
It's important to realise that all of these three things pass. They don't make up who we are, they are like clouds which pass by, sometimes light and fluffy and sometimes dark and angry. We are like the sky in this analogy, the permanent element that is just observing these transitory mental activities.
The key to controlling our response to a stressful situation is finding that space in between the stressor and the reaction which enables us to become aware of our thoughts and emotions.
If we can become aware of how our body is feeling, what thoughts are passing through our minds and what emotions are bubbling up at the point of frustration, we can pause, take note and then take steps to calm our bodies, reduce our mental anxiety and produce a more positive outcome.
Here are 3 steps you can practise to help you manage your responses to stress;
1. Take a deep breath - this breathing exercise involves a longer exhale which will automatically slow the heart rate down and reduce the feelings of stress.
Close your eyes so you can concentrate better on yourself, free from distractions.
Inhale up from the belly, breathing through your nose, for the count of 3.
Slowly exhale through your mouth for the count of 6. Imagine as you exhale you that are blowing out through a straw - taking a long, slow breath out.
2. Do a quick body scan - becoming aware of your body and its sensations is the first step to grounding yourself in the present.
Closing your eyes and starting with your head, just spend a moment noticing any sensations. Can you feel any warmth or tingling? Imagine this is the first time you've noticed your head - how does it feel?
Continue this scan down throughout your body, moving from the head to the neck and shoulders, where perhaps you might notice some tension. Keep moving down to the chest, arms, abdomen, hips, legs and finally your feet.
Each time your mind wanders, bring it back to your body. This may feel difficult at first, but practise will help. You can gently move each part of the body if it helps you improve your focus.
3. Allow yourself a moment to pause.
After your brief body scan, stop and just notice how you are feeling. Focus on your breathing - is it deep or shallow, quiet or loud? Can you feel your heartbeat? How frequent is it?
As you become more grounded in your body, what thoughts or emotions are you aware of? Noticing sensations and feelings in your body help you to become more present in your body.
In this state of embodiment your mind is able to rest, without darting back to traumatic memories or leaping forward to future fears. You have the space to pause and take control of your thoughts, feelings and emotions.
The more you can practise these three techniques, the more you will automatically start to be able to pause in a stressful situation and find the mental space to manage your reaction to stressors.
As neuroscientist, Brian Pennie says "Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional". In life there will always be challenging situations, but if we can find tools that can help us be proactive rather than reactive, we can start to influence the outcomes of our actions for the positive.