“Stop telling me to be calm!”
And anyway, why’s it so important? You’ve had the experience of people – me included – telling you that being calm is important, right? Often, telling us to be calm produces the exact opposite effect.
For example, remember being told, ‘don’t jump on the bed’? What did you do? We jump on the bed and then we may lie about it so not to get into trouble. And for adults, just like kids,the same can also be true. It provokes the opposite reaction to what we intended. One of the most common phrases that seems to evoke the complete opposite reaction is when someone tells us to “Calm down” or “Relax!” We may become flooded with more arousal or even anger than before they said these words.
So, we know that just saying ‘calm down, doesn’t work
If we think about why, then we might be able to figure out what we can do to help instead. ‘Calm down’ might be a red flag because it fails to recognise our feelings, and invalidates the emotions we may be experiencing, like fear, anxiety, or anger. Hearing ‘Calm down’ may actually be received as a message that we are not being taken seriously. And the problem is that once this reaction of feeling dismissed is triggered, we have a window in which we can soothe ourselves, or risk an escalation of the situation, making it even more difficult to find calm. We know that the neurochemical that triggers the initial bout of stress hormone is used up in about 90 secs. So, yes, the situation may cause your flare up for those 90 secs. After that, continuing to think angry thoughts like, ‘how dare they!’ only triggers more stress hormone.
So how do you step away from the thought that your experience is being dismissed, or that you are being belittled?
First, you can try distraction. This is where your phone can be handy – not to rant about it on social media, but to access your photo library to look at pictures of things that make you happy. Venting your rage won’t make you feel better – it only escalates your rage. Second, use belly-breathing techniques: When you feel your anger or anxiety revving up, simply hit the brakes with some focused belly-breathing. Set a timer for 60 seconds and breathe in and out through your nose, counting each breath. Take good full breaths — not too fast and not too slow. Just breathe at a normal pace, whatever that is for you, inflating and deflating your belly in each breath. Close your eyes or look down at the floor while breathing.
Now try it
How many breaths did you manage in 60 seconds?
There is no right answer, but once you know how many breaths you take in 60 seconds, you won’t even need a timer. You can use this technique any time you feel you need to slow down a bit or when you want to feel less shaky and anxious. The beauty of this is that it only takes 60 seconds to change what is happening in your body and shift from revving up to slowing down.
This is why my new book is called ‘Finding Calm‘. Calm is something you learn to do, you choose to do, rather than an instruction or invalidation.
This blog was republished from the author’s website with permission.
Dr Sarb Johal is a clinical psychologist, consultant and commentator who brings a psychological lens to the light, the dark and the intriguing aspects of the human experience. His videos, blogs and podcasts turn complex psychological theory into simple tools for solving everyday problems, helping people and organisations navigate tough times with greater wellbeing and equilibrium. He lives in Wellington.
You can find copies of Sarb’s books in the Wellington City Libraries collection.
Finding calm : managing fear and anxiety in an uncertain world : advice that works from a leading New Zealand psychologist / Johal, S. S.
“We live in a troubled world – so many changes, so many uncertainties. This book gives a range of practical skills to help anyone come to terms with feelings of anxiety and learn to thrive.”–Publisher information.” (Catalogue)
Available also as an e-book
Steady : a guide to better mental health through and beyond the coronavirus pandemic / Johal, S. S.
“How do you deal with uncertainty and anxiety when your world is upended by the coronavirus pandemic? Dr Sarb Johal, an expert in emergency management and disaster psychology, had to answer that question for an entire country as he helped develop the world-leading response that saw Covid-19 stamped out by the ‘team of five million’ in his home country of New Zealand … Steady is for anyone wanting to strengthen their capacity to ride the possible coming waves of Covid-19 – as well as life’s general ups and downs – with more calm, ease and a sense of groundedness”–Publisher information.” (Catalogue)
Available in both e-book and audiobook format