Some of us go through life like ducks—unruffled on the surface yet paddling furiously underneath. Others are easily triggered at seemingly inane things: slow walkers, loud chewers, people who call instead of text. The definition of calm, being tranquil or at peace, can be an elusive concept for those who are anything but. If you’re naturally high-strung or operate in a demanding or performance-driven environment, the very idea of finding and being calm can be agitating.
Cortisol, one of the body’s most important steroid hormones, is our in-built alarm system that’s triggered by stress. It helps to activate a flight or fight response, which sends a cascade of reactions through our bodies to protect us. However, prolonged exposure to stress and threats to our safety, both real or perceived, can wreak havoc on our bodies.
According to Dr Robin Berzin, founder and CEO of Parsley Health in New York, it can seem like your nervous system doesn’t know the difference between a work deadline and a deadly predator. “You’re not running from a lion, you’re running from your inbox,” she says.
Failing to use our stress hormones constructively means this automatic influx of cortisol, adrenaline and all things anti-calm work against us, explains Stephanie Leong, somatic depth therapist and founder of Soma Psyche Alchemy. Habitually stressing about career and relationships “without sufficient resources such as time, finances or support” mean that we often wind up “suppressing feelings from these stress hormones and as a result, this state of hyperarousal remains inside us”. If your cortisol response is hyper-activated, resulting in feeling constantly ‘wired and tired’, it’s time to find a new baseline.
Act, don’t react
Whether you have the patience of a saint or are able to go from zero to 100 at the slightest inconvenience, getting calm means actively managing your anxiety. “An important part of being able to deal with the stress that comes our way is to ensure that our baseline or day-to-day anxiety is under control,” shares psychiatrist Dr Kamini Rajaratnam of Better Life Psychological Clinic. Instead of ‘leaning in’ or ‘girlbossing too close to the sun’ as TikTokers would say, Rajaratnam recommends not trying to do it all.
The call for psychological rest may seem counterintuitive, but it creates space for you to breathe and rationally respond with clarity. “It’s alright to take a few days off work to recalibrate and give yourself time to heal,” says Rajaratnam.
“If taking time off work isn’t feasible, then try carving out time for yourself to do things that relax you when you are done with work or on weekends. Stress management is an important skill and learning which techniques work for you can take a bit of trial and error.”
Defusing your triggers
Calmness is also about owning your spectrum of emotions. For Eugenia Yee, a psychologist at National University Hospital’s Department of Psychological Medicine, being calm doesn’t mean doing away with “painful emotions like anger, anxiety or sadness”. Instead, “a more realistic way of embodying calm is to remain in control of our actions. It is being able to access the wise part of our minds—the part that guides us to make room for difficult feelings and to choose to act effectively with the cards we are dealt with.”
“We access our calm through small but impactful ways—validate our thoughts and feelings by being mindful of them and acknowledging how they make sense in the given situation without passing judgement,” Yee encourages. “It is human to experience difficult emotions and it is OK to slow down; we do not always have to act immediately on our emotions.”
Why is rage so much easier to come by when we’re stressed as opposed to when we’re calm? Yee explains: “Anger protects us from other emotions that are more uncomfortable to bear, like sadness such as when we lose a loved one, fear or when we are in a situation that is unsafe, shame, disappointment or when we don’t meet our expectations.”
Telling a reactive person to ‘stay calm’ can be as useful as shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre.
Instead, says Yee, it’s about validating the feelings that are causing you to feel hurt, upset or angry, acknowledging that you’re going through a hard time and reminding yourself of the values you wish to stand for. De-escalateand reset your internal systems with encouraging words such as “I can control my anger. I can reset, breathe and keep cool”, says Yee.
Countering overstimulation with mindfulness
Of course, one can’t delve into calm without practising some form of mindfulness. When situations cause our stress levels to spike it’s vital to find a circuit breaker for emerging feelings, Rajaratnam advises. Finding a healthy outlet that encourages you to feel your feelings is crucial.
From journalling to listening to music, speaking with a trusted friend or therapist, “increasing self-care during this period really helps, although this is still a luxury for a lot of us”. An “excellent way of quickly injecting calm in our day to day life”, Rajaratnam shares, is by “bringing your awareness to your senses in the present moment, wherever you are”.
While it’s best to practise it daily, it can also be accessed in times of acute stress. With practice and intentional effort, mindfulness can be your portal to calm. Like a muscle that springs into action, it requires commitment before it becomes second nature. Best of all, this life-giving practice is free, requires zero tools and can be accessed anytime, anywhere. Psychologically creating breathing space whenever you need it is infinitely more sustainable than escaping to a retreat when you’re past your breaking point.
“Simply bringing your attention to an object in your room, studying its qualities, or even an activity, like mindful eating where you observe the taste, smell and texture of your food, or mindful walking where you focus your attention on the sights and sounds around you as you go for a stroll, can immediately help to centre and rebalance your energy,” says Rajaratnam, who explains that even giving yourself five minutes to savour your morning coffee, inhaling its aroma, feeling the warmth of the cup and “noticing these pleasant sensations” is mindfulness in action.
The big deal about the breath
For Leong, regulating one’s nervous system means responding from a “place of empowered presence and mindful intention” instead of uncontrolled reactions. “When our autonomic nervous system is balanced, we are able to assess objectively and have reasonable control over our response to stressful situations. In turn, we develop the capacity to exercise control over our impulses and emotions, so we can choose how we want to respond.”
In high-stress situations, self-awareness is key, Leong emphasises. She explains how we can rechannel our attention to focus on the breath and sensations in each moment. “The breath reconnects us with calmness and awareness of our body in that moment. Simply by noticing what we feel fosters emotional regulation, which nourishes and restores the body and mind.”
Unlocking your body’s centres of calm
Traditional Chinese medicine physician, Jun Negoro of the Kanpobliss app, recommends finding and massaging the Shen Men or Spirit Gate acupoint, which is located on the crease of the wrist, in line with the space between the ring and little finger.
“It lies on the heart meridian to calm the mind and help with emotional issues such as insomnia, overthinking and anxiety,” shares Negoro, who advises taking deep breaths and pressing down with firm pressure on the point for three to five minutes regularly. “Stress and blocked emotions are the most common causes of stagnant liver qi, causing a sluggish flow of energy throughout the body. Find calm by massaging the liver meridian with hands or a gua sha tool. Start from the feet up, towards the inner thighs, up the lower abdomen and ending at the rib area.”
The next time you’re tempted to spiral into fear, anger or catastrophising outcomes that may or may not occur, Leong’s advice is to immediately snap to the current moment through“present-centred awareness practice”. When we are no longer stuck in our moment of fear, anger and high stress, present-centred awareness will help to us return to, and respond from, a place of here and now.
Visualising calm: a 2-minute mediation
Space2B founder Christina Nikolovski guides us in a soothing visualisation exercise: “Here’s a simple practice. Inhale. Exhale. Imagine right now that everything in your life is working perfectly. How would you feel? Bring that feeling into your body. Make it as real as you can.
“Welcome, and allow the felt sense of pleasure, joy and well-being to expand fully throughout your entire body. Feel euphoria everywhere and the felt sense of just being. Think now of some of the things you like about yourself. Think of the qualities such as compassion, patience, love, that you would like to bring into your life in a greater way or express more frequently. Think of several things in your life right now that are working really well. Thank yourself for creating all of these good things.
“Welcome feelings of gratitude and joy into the body and mind. You do this by taking time to recall that which you’re thankful for. Allow feelings of gratitude and joy to spread throughout your body. Feel an inner smile or your heart growing warm. Allow feelings of gratitude to expand and radiate throughout your body and into the space all around you.”
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