People were stressed before the pandemic for different reasons than they are ten months in. Now, people are stressed even more. Some of the reasons remain the same, but everything is cranked up a degree. If you are lucky enough to have kept your job, now the work/life balance issues are more acute than ever. If you were having trouble maintaining relationships, it can’t have become any easier having to mask up everywhere you go. If you were having trouble sleeping before, today’s anxiety is all the more likely to keep your circadian rhythms disrupted.
The pre-step when situations change for the worse is to work on your emotional awareness. Bringing emotions into active consciousness can help you pause, and give that prefrontal cortex (your rational brain) a little more time to respond.
Developing your emotional awareness puts you immediately into a calmer, thinking frame of mind. From there you can be open to what life is teaching you. Here are three of the best ways I know to effectively maintain calm day in and day out, both when you are thriving and when you are just surviving.
1. Say Yes to Everything That Happens
It’s easy to feel like a failure when things shift, or goals prove harder than they at first seemed to be to achieve. We sometimes try to blindly continue without reconsidering our expectations. Instead, pause and consider your options, reframe that initial expectation in the context of your new situation.
Why is it really so important? What would an adjustment mean?
Author, Kamal Ravikant, went to a Buddhist monastery for a silent retreat. After he finished, the teacher said the monks were available to speak with anyone who wanted to. Ravikant thought for a while, then went up to one of the monks and asked, “How do you find peace?”
The monk laughed and said, “Oh, an easy one, huh?”
Ravikant laughed too but then was surprised by the monk’s follow-up.
“I say yes. To everything that happens, I say yes.”
Ravikant shares his interpretation of the monk’s advice:
“Most of our pain, most of our suffering, comes from resistance to what is. Life is. And when we resist what life is, we suffer. When you can say yes to life, surrender to life and say: ‘Okay, what should I be now?’ That’s where power comes from.”
It’s not merely power, but the power to remain fluid, to remain in a state of acceptance or apatheia, that is a resonant path to deep calm.
2. Expectations Can Cause More Ruin Than Reality
I ran for the cross-country team in high school, and I was okay. I lettered my freshman year, but my training often consisted of a slice of pizza and a Twinkie for lunch. Not exactly the stuff of champions.
I kept up with running sporadically through my 20’s, finding it a mental and emotional release. Usually, the activity of the running wasn’t easy, but the way you felt after even just a two or three-mile run was fantastic.
I took to running again in my early 30’s. My first race after around six weeks of training was a short length of 4.7 miles along Missionary Ridge in Chattanooga. I averaged an 8:45 mile and I threw up in the grass right after I finished.
That felt very slow. My friend ran a 7:30 mile. He was a little younger, but he hadn't even been running much.
I knew I could do better. My competitive pride was sparked.
So I signed up for a 10k (6.4 mile) race on Racoon Mountain with six weeks to prepare. I followed a program. I ate right, remained consistent and disciplined, and upped my mileage every week.
I expected to have a major breakthrough now that I was much further along in getting back into running. I finished that race with an 8:30 average mile. Frustrated by how much effort I had put into training for such a small return on improvement, I gradually faded from running for two years.
Was a six-week period really enough time to expect dramatic improvement in results? An expectation adjustment was in order. Easy enough to say now.
Also, who cares what my time was?
I did end up running the 2011 Chickamauga Marathon. I had no idea what to expect, but it was also nothing I ever thought I would even aspire to.
The marathon enthusiasts said I would become addicted to marathons once I had broken through to my first. That was not the case. One was enough.
Come to find out, it really didn’t matter what my average time was, not after mile 19. For the last seven miles when the real pain and suffering set in, it became only about finishing.
My time was an average 9:46 mile. The main thing was that I finished. I had run my marathon.
If we adjust our expectations, even slightly in a calm and realistic way, we may very well keep ourselves on the path. The classic fable of the rabbit and the tortoise hits the expectation ideal right on the nose. The tortoise grinds at his slow but realistic and sustainable pace and wins.
3. The PIIP Method
If you think about it, whether we’re traveling, exercising, meditating, or reveling at the overwhelming majesty of nature, it’s all about creating the conditions for a perspective shift. And what is a shift in perspective, but a shift in expectations?
Finding calm is about discovering — in the final analysis — that your endeavors are not the big deal you ascribe to them, not really. It’s about discovering these things outside of yourself that lead you to a calmer perspective inside yourself.
If you fix a problem when it’s small, you can often make minor adjustments to address it. It’s when you don’t hear about the issue — the delay, the bug, or the unforeseen problem — that stress snowballs and becomes more difficult to deal with and discuss. It’s the difference between a small tweak being sufficient and having to call on all hands to fix it.
Stay positive but realistic. A time-tested strategy for developing skills in anticipating sources of stress and bringing things into consciousness is the PIIP Method (Put It in Perspective). The PIIP method is used with soldiers for basic reason that it is proven to be effective.
One of the major perspective shifts we find ourselves needing to unwind is the self-worth we ascribe to what we do. You are more than your outcomes.
- Remember, what you resist persists. Be open to what life is teaching.
- If anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing imperfectly. It’s better some days to maintain your pace rather than speeding up beyond realistic expectations only to come crashing down in stress and anxiety.
- When our lives are ruled by personal expectations, it can make every day a struggle. Think of yourself as an explorer going through life, rather than someone with a path dictated by expectations. Whether you succeed or fail, a more realistic and resilient expectation should simply be to learn as you go.
- Finally, remember that so much about discovering deep sources of calm is to keep things in perspective. Calm helps us “be.” How we choose to be — especially when we’re not always doing — is the essential question.
You’re not always going to respond like a monk, or like the great Roman Emperor and Stoic Marcus Aurelius, but you can get better at responding in a thinking framework and not an emotional one.