How to (Really) Keep Calm and Carry On

Sometimes, your stress just needs a time out. Observing your stress stops you from engaging with it and creating even more stress.

When we get severely stressed out, for all kinds of reasons, we can get into a mode where nearly everything pushes our buttons – other people, our own thoughts, what we imagine might happen, or what we think might be true. At such times, it’s like the only thing we want is to run away, escape, and lash out at anything that disturbs us.

Now responding to this situation can be tricky indeed, because our “Stressed Self”, as I’ll call it, reacts to all kinds of things. If we treat this side of ourselves as something rational, that has rational concerns that need to be addressed, we’ll end up getting drawn into trying to solve every one of its irrational ways of thinking about things. And we’ll try to do it so quickly that it will be impossible to do a thorough job of it. We might end up getting worried, cautious, or even start caving in to the demands of our Stressed Self.

So what’s the alternative?

Don’t react. Instead of trying to fix what you’re stressed about, just observe your stress while going about things as if you were a separate entity. If you imagined your stressed side as a separate person, they might curse at you, yell, tear out their hair, scream in terror, or punch a wall. But you don’t have to react to it. Be a witness to your stress rather than a victim of it. This way, even while a part of yourself is bouncing off the walls, you can remain calm. Peaceful.

There really is some truth to this.

Of course, this state can be difficult to maintain because you have to expend energy to imagine your stressed side as something separate.  But I’ve observed that if you remain solid, steady, and peaceful for long enough, your stressed side will begin to calm down. Just don’t speak to it. Don’t engage it. Or, if you do, stop as soon as you realize what you’re doing.

What is “engaging with it”? Let’s say your stressed side wants to pound its fists angrily on the table. If you think “Stop it!”, that’s engaging, and it will get more enraged at you than before. If you let it imagine pounding the table while you, physically, go about your business, thinking nothing to try and control it, then your stressed side will be much more likely to calm down. In other words, “engaging” is when you respond to your stress and try to MAKE IT calm down by force of will or reasoning with it. Experiment with both methods of trying to calm down and you’ll see what I mean. (Or maybe find something I didn’t!)

Exercise: Remaining Calm

Time to de-stress. For this exercise you will try for yourself to observe stress and let it calm down on its own. Please give this a try if you get stressed a lot, or happen to be stressed right now!

  1. Imagine a side of yourself who is “stressed”. In your mind’s eye, see him or her expressing all of the stress inside you – screaming, acting violent, breathing hard, yelling at you, whatever it might do.
  2. Don’t do anything to try and stop it. Just observe yourself expressing your stress. It may be hard to watch, and highly uncomfortable, but just stay strong.
  3. Your stressed self might try interacting (in your imagination) with other people. Don’t let it. Isolate it, or re-imagine it in a room with only silent people who don’t react to it. When I did this, I had the image of a Griffin in my head, one who silently preened its wings and watched my stressed self without doing a thing.
  4. Be patient, and only act when YOU want to, not when your stress wants you to. That way, you can remain peaceful.

As I’m writing this, I’m still sustaining this exercise. My stressed side is a little less stressed, but still sparks up at various things. Once I see this to some kind of more thorough conclusion, I’ll update this post. But for now, the above technique seems to be helping my composure A LOT.

Until next time (whenever that might be!),

-Oliver

Related Articles

The Courage to Face Any Thought
Respect Your Moodiness
Creative Visualization (the technique I used to address my stressed state and figure this out)

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