How to keep calm and carry on

Life throws stressors at us at every turn, from traffic jams and relationships to watching the news and being overworked. Some stress and anxiety is normal, it gets our adrenaline going and helps us overcome obstacles. But what happens when it all gets too much, how can we stay calm under pressure?

Cognitive control is the scientific terminology for remaining calm under duress and many successful people have mastered this technique. It may take some practice, but it's a skill that can be learnt by everyone. Here are some tips to make it work for you.

Mind diversion

We think that to achieve the goals we have to focus intently on the subject at hand - a work deadline, a relationship problem etc. Yet researchers at the University of Illinois have found that taking a mental break could lead to better performance.

Focusing intently on the job at hand can lead to additional stress. So the next time you begin to lose your calm when focusing on something, take a break, think about something else and return to the task or issue in a calmer state of mind.

Take a deep breath

Deep breathing encourages the body to stop releasing stress hormones and focusing on the breath also distracts your mind from whatever is causing you to lose your calm.

There are many different breathing techniques, you just need to find one that works for you.

  • Abdominal breathing - place one hand on your chest and one on your belly and take a deep breath in through your nose, making sure you fill your stomach and not your chest with air then slowly exhale. 6 deep breaths should be enough to calm you before something like a presentation or exam but doing this practice every day for ten minutes can have lasting effects.
  • Alternate nostril breathing – sit in a comfortable position and use the thumb on your dominant hand to press against one nostril and inhale, at the top of your inhalation release your thumb and use your ring finger to press against the other nostril and exhale. Repeat for 2 minutes, switching sides.
  • Equal breathing- a yogic form of breathing is where you inhale and exhale for the same amount of time. You can start by inhaling for the count of 4 and exhaling for the count of 4, being mindful of the fullness and emptiness of breath.

Self distance from stress

When we are in the middle of a stressful situation, a confrontation with a colleague or a disagreement with a friend, we often internalise our feelings and become outraged. 

Research has shown that if you can move your cognitive state to be a ‘fly on the wall’ your stress levels are likely to be lower and you're more likely to remain calm.

Think positive

Is the glass half-full or half-empty? Constantly focusing on the worse possible outcome can be very stressful, reversing the mindset to look at the positive can produce a calming effect.

For example, injuring your leg during exercise could be viewed as a small disaster. However, looking at the injury as an opportunity to slow down and rest more, perhaps giving you time to read or simply being grateful you didn’t damage more than your leg, turns it into a positive.

Thinking positively can't always change the situation, but it could change the outcome and help you remain calm throughout the process.

Chew gum

A slightly more unusual suggestion but two pieces of research have both found that chewing gum can have a positive effect on stress.

It is thought that chewing gum could improve blood flow to the brain and therefore reduce anxiety or it could simply be that by chewing you are distracting yourself from the current stressor and instead, keeping calm.

Engage with the sublime

The term especially refers to a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement, or imitation and is often used to describe a natural event. It’s amazing how all worries disappear when you see an amazing sunset or are in awe of a duck and her ducklings on the water.

Immersing yourself in nature has long been known to have a calming effect. Research shows that being in nature reduces feelings of isolation, promotes calm, and can lift your mood.

Recent studies have also found that our relationship with nature – how much we notice, think about and appreciate our natural surroundings – is a critical factor in supporting good mental health and preventing distress.

Eat well

Consuming nutritious meals can make you feel good. Eating the right foods can release feel-good hormones. For example, Brazil nuts contain selenium, fatty fish is high in omega 3’s, and turmeric is high in curcumin all of which can have a calming effect.

A study has shown that Wheatgrass juice can improve cognitive function, which could be key when trying to control cognitive response to certain situations.

Eating a balanced and healthy diet can help your body and mind to function at their best. You can’t control what life will throw at you, but you can learn to cope with difficult situations and deal with them and remain calm.

Practising some of the above strategies the next time you're stressed can help you to feel calm and in control. You don’t need to be a magician to control your mind just a bit of practice and patience.

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