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

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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

we’re imag­in­ing’

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