All the tools: How to deal with stress, embrace challenges and boost your inner peace
No matter how much mindfulness we practise, staying calm can be easier said than done. We share expert advice on how to deal with stress, embrace challenge, and boost your inner peace so you can handle whatever (pretty much) life throws at you
WWriter Anita Chaudhuri talks to a performance coach, a mindfulness teacher and a neuroscientist and finds real calm is a practice, rather than a state of being.
This time last year, I completed the eightweek mindfulness training, as pioneered by American microbiologist and all-round super-guru Jon Kabat-Zinn. By the end of the course, I was positively zen-like. I couldn’t wait to get out there and live life as the non-excitable new me. I didn’t quite go out and buy myself a shiny new halo, but that’s only because I was too busy boasting about my transformation to anyone who could be bothered to listen. Fast-forward to the present. Did I manage to experience a whole year in that blissed-out, unruffled state? Er, not exactly. And that’s actually a good thing, say the experts. It seems a little bit of stress and adrenaline, now and then, can help us to become more resilient, better able to cope with the unexpected and more willing to take risks.
The one thing I discovered on my mindfulness journey is even the best strategies in the world can’t completely inoculate us from those gut-churning moments when crisis hits. If you arrive home to find your house has been burgled, or you’re handed your notice at work, or a child gets ill, no meditation technique exists to make the pain magically disappear. But the good news is that, with practice, you can learn to deal with difficult situations more effectively when they arise.
Jeremy Stockwell is a performance coach who’s worked with people from a variety of backgrounds, from politicians to pop stars.
“I think you can learn how to be calm in any situation, even a crisis,” he says. Jeremy observes that, in a crisis, our natural response is to resist or deny what’s happening. The urge is to escape and
‘You are the sky. Everything else – it’s just the weather’ PEMA CHÖDRÖN
make the source of the upset disappear as quickly as possible.
“I think the same rules apply to a major personal dilemma as to everyday living; breathe and ‘receive’ everything – from information from your body to inspiration from your higher self. A lot of people are not grounded. What you’re looking for is a sense of being connected, not from the chest, but from deep down in the belly. If you just sit quietly and ‘receive’ what’s going on, you will feel calmer.”
If the crisis involves someone else, a loved one, for example, he points out you can easily get confused between an empathetic and a sympathetic response to the issue. “Sympathetic is, ‘Oh look, someone over there is drowning, I’ll throw myself into the water and drown, too.’ Empathetic is, ‘Ah, I see you’re drowning, how am I going to deal with this?’ You only come to that calmness of mind if you stop for a moment and breathe.”
AND RELAX... NOT!
Ah breathing, I’m glad he mentioned that. In 2016, I had to undergo a gruelling round of health tests. For some reason, whenever I have my blood pressure, pulse or heart rate monitored, I go into fight-or-flight mode, sending the results sky-high, which ironically leads to more tests. Eventually, I was diagnosed with ‘white coat’ syndrome. “Try to relax,” the clinicians advised, but no amount of mindful breathing, body scanning, lion breath or navelpoint focus had the slightest impact on slowing my racing pulse. My singing teacher taught me a different way of breath control, which is fine if you’re practising, but I could hardly break out into an aria from Carmen in the cardiology outpatients clinic, could I? It came as a rude awakening to me that some of our responses to difficult situations are involuntary and not within our control.
Ed Halliwell, mindfulness teacher and author, says that in striving so hard to be calm, you can set yourself up for more difficulty. “If you say to someone who’s perhaps not in a calm state, ‘Calm down!’, the chances are this will just agitate them further because it’s saying, ‘Please be what you’re not at the moment,’ and that tension between where they actually are, and where they’d like to be, can create even more stress.”
He defines calm as “the capacity to manage difficulties, rather than feeling
zen-like and unaffected by what’s going on”.
And he reckons trying to be relaxed at a particular moment is a fool’s errand.
“Emotions are not things you can put on a to-do list and cross off, for example, ‘By 11am, I will be calm’. A lot of people want that. I know I do. That’s probably why mindfulness and meditation courses are so popular right now.’
ROLL WITH THE PUNCHES
Ed calls for a different approach. “Life is difficult. The best way is to practise calm,
‘CRISES ARE TRANSITIONS AND YOU HAVE TO MAKE
PLENTY OF THESE CROSSINGS IN LIFE’
as opposed to trying to be calm. Accept that life is difficult, and that these curveballs will come. The word crisis actually means crossing; crises are transitions and you have to make plenty of these crossings in life. There will inevitably be changes to things you’d like to be secure, like a job or relationship. In a way, understanding that these are part of life can help you to navigate through them, rather than trying to ward them off and get all your ducks in a row. That’s impossible, and so is immediately trying to get out of a hard situation that doesn’t feel good.”
He recommends practising these subtle mindset shifts ahead of time, rather than in the midst of a difficult situation. “If you can prepare yourself for these times when you’re in a good or okay space, then you’re developing your resources for when difficulties do strike, which they will. Be prepared.”
There are some strategies that definitely work during a tough episode. Ian Robertson, neuroscientist and author of The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make You Stronger And Sharper, is an advocate of focusing your attention on a very small window of time to the exclusion of all other thoughts.
“It’s much harder to think coolly in a crisis, almost by definition. So the critical thing is to control your attention. How do you do this? Setting a small doable goal for yourself is a great help. People going through major crises report how they just focused their minds on the next thing, without thinking about the following hour or day. If need be, just concentrate on getting through the following 30 seconds, or minute, or five minutes. It’s a question of putting everything into achieving something concrete in that one carved-up piece of time. That is a great way to keep control of what you are feeling.”
Ian says there’s another vital benefit to structuring time.
“It puts you in ‘approach’, rather than ‘avoidant’ mode, meaning you’re actually doing something. Even if the goal is only, ‘Now I’m going to make myself a cup of tea,’ the brain is in forward-momentum mode. That is the opposite of what usually happens during a crisis, which is total paralysis and avoidance. So keep the searchlight of your attention very narrowly focused on the next thing.”
It’s an approach some people will recognise from 12-step programmes such as AA, with the mantra ‘one day at a time’.
MANAGE YOUR MIND
“But sometimes it has to be more granular than simply taking things one day a time,” says Ian.
“It might need to be controlling your breathing for just 10 seconds. By doing that, you can regulate your levels of
‘THE CRITICAL THING [IN A CRISIS] IS TO CONTROL YOUR ATTENTION. SETTING A SMALL DOABLE GOAL IS A GREAT HELP’
noradrenaline [a hormone released by the adrenal medulla that is used to raise blood pressure] by working on your breath.”
During times of real trouble, managing our minds becomes crucial. There’s such a temptation to turn what you’re dealing with into a mental horror movie, rather than viewing events dispassionately. For example, ‘What if I never find work again and I lose my home, and end up on the streets as a bag lady?’ is a common mode of catastrophising in the face of job uncertainty. Ed reminds us we have evolved as human beings to have a negativity bias. “Our minds are much more attuned to threats; to the lion in the bushes. It’s of greater importance to us to stay alert to these, than to life’s pleasures. However, when our minds start giving us a script that goes, ‘This is awful and it’s going to get worse; I’ll never get through this,’ that makes us feel less calm.”
Instead, he suggests remembering these are just thoughts and feelings, and that they may well not be proportionate to what’s happening. “Bear in mind most of us are not in a war zone situation, or under mortal threat. In many situations, we project a future that is nowhere near as bad as what we’re imagining.”
BE GOOD TO YOURSELF
There are occasions, though, when life really does give you the bumpiest of rides and it’s important not to minimise what you’re going through, if that is the case.
“Sometimes, things are just really difficult, and you have to acknowledge that. That’s when self-compassion and kindness are very useful,” says Ed. “Rather than beating yourself up over the hardship you’re facing, you may thrive a little better by being kind to yourself. Know that, as a human being, you are limited. If you, or the people around you, become ill, there is no quick fix. If you stay present to the sensations and thoughts in the moment, then there’s a better chance you will get through the storm – not in terms of making it all go away, but by helping you to make the best decisions to steer through it.”
The more you practise actual calm, says Ed, the better you’ll get at adopting it as an approach when faced with problems. ‘That’s what I would suggest real calm really is; it’s finding a new way to deal with the difficulties that come your way. You can learn to become friendlier to yourself, more competent at managing challenging situations, and to live in the present. It’s ironic, really, that you grow calmer by not trying so hard to be calm.’
‘In many situations, we project a future that is nowhere near as bad as what