7 Habits That Shift Your Crazy-Busy Life Into Sweet Serenity

Ways to foster a calm brain so you can meet life's challenges with grace

Posted Jan 07, 2016

Deborah L. Davis
Turn horses into unicorns.
Source: Deborah L. Davis

You’ve seen those people who seem to effortlessly enjoy life. Their lives are as busy and messy as yours and mine, but they calmly accept the good, the bad, and the ugly. They don’t sweat the small stuff. They don’t get caught up in family drama. They don’t take insults personally.  They don’t cry over spilled milk or make mountains out of molehills. They don’t stretch themselves too thin. Their feathers rarely get ruffled by changing plans, missed boats, or surprise obstacles. And even when they are confronted with terrible mistakes, unfortunate accidents, and horrible tragedies, they adjust with relative ease. Yes, they are the folks who find the silver linings and make lemonade out of lemons.

How do they do it? Are they brain-dead?

More like “brain-calm”. And for those of us who are annoyed by anything that moves, we have a lot to learn from these admirable, enviable people. But what is it that they are actually doing? Because it looks like nothing. What are their secrets?

Deborah L. Davis
Seek a path to tranquility.
Source: Deborah L. Davis

Elaborating on last month’s post about restoring calm in your brain after an upset, this post looks more closely at what you can do to foster an overall sense of calm, grace, contentment, and tranquility, even as you face every day life with all its trials and tribulations.

And if you've made New Year’s Resolutions, these seven habits can enhance your ability to succeed by boosting your brain’s health, attention, focus, persistence, and mood, thereby getting your brain, its willpower, and your best intentions on board.

Here are seven “brain-calming” habits to acquire.

Soothe your brain.

Mind-body practices like yoga and meditation promote relaxation and nurture your core brain so that it doesn’t become unnecessarily reactive or habitually over-reactive. Laughter is also great medicine, as is human touch or communing with an animal. Getting outside and surrounding yourself with nature is also a balm for the brain as it boosts mood and improves outlook. If you feel stuck with an over-reactive brain, techniques like EMDR and EFT can restore calm by treating trauma and pervasive anxiety.

Nourish your brain.

Healthy living habits nourish your entire brain, which requires and consumes a lot of energy. If you want a calmer, optimally functioning brain, it’s imperative that you

  • get adequate and timely sleep (eliminate screen time before bedtime!),
  • eat quality nutrition every 3 to 4 waking hours,
  • address nutritional deficiencies and sensitivities,
  • expose your skin to sunlight (or a light therapy lamp),
  • move your body everyday, especially outdoors, in nature.

Socialize your brain.

Connect with those who support you. When you’re happy, share your joy. When you’re stressed, share your struggles so friends can empathize with you, affirm you, and help you, all of which can calm your brain. Others’ commiseration, affection, and understanding can comfort you and help you avoid certain brain stressors, such as painful feelings of isolation and depression.

Nurture kindness in your brain.

Be in the habit of practicing gratitude, compassion, and random acts of kindness. Gratitude, compassion, and kindness (given and received) nurture your entire brain and reinforce your calming parasympathetic nervous system. Physiological stress is reduced when you make a point of being grateful, such as listing and reviewing what you’re grateful for, saying grace, and simply saying, “Thanks” when someone offers you help, a compliment, or a gift. In general, whenever you brighten someone’s day, yours is brightened too.

Deborah L. Davis
Rest your brain by surrounding yourself with nature.
Source: Deborah L. Davis

Give your brain a break.

Reduce stress by holding realistic expectations for yourself and others. Take time away from work to play and relax. View failure as an important part of ultimate success. Don’t expect to please all of the people all of the time. Dream big but don’t demand that all your dreams come true by next week. Choose your priorities. And yes, get outdoors as this has a particularly restorative effect on your brain.

Appreciate your brain.

Different people have different levels of reactivity, and even the perpetually tranquil have moments every day when their reactive brains are triggered to some extent. In fact, at times, you needn’t resist or calm your brain’s reactivity. That’s because your reactive brain serves you well in a number of ways.

  • It launches you into flight, fight, or freeze, which can keep you safe from real harm or threat. 
  • Reactivity can also be nuanced, ramping up your physiology a notch when you have a test, a presentation, a performance, an interview, or a deadline, to ensure that attention, focus, coordination and memory are operating optimally.
  • Your reactive brain also prepares you for facing new and exciting adventures, like your first day of school, going on a date, packing for vacation, or attending your own wedding. The butterflies in your stomach? That’s a mild stress response keeping you alert and ready for all the good stuff coming your way.
  • Your reactive brain is also involved when you’re in a state of “flow,” where you’re completely absorbed in a task that requires skill and persistence, and you’re experiencing the joys of peak performance.

You couldn’t flee, flow, or have fantastic fun if you were completely calm, as you’d be too “zoned out”. And yet if you were completely stressed, you’d be literally out of your mind. So thank your brain for allowing you to strike that lovely, helpful balance between stress and calm-- that state of “alert-calm”. And discern when to appreciate your reactivity, as it’s working for you, and when you’d do well to seek calm.

Encourage your brain.

Last month’s post ended with a list of positive affirmations and mantras that can help you wend your way through trying times. By filling your mind with these sayings, you create a habit of positive thinking, which can help you restore and maintain calm. Some examples:

  • “The secret to success is persistence in the face of failure.”
  • “Criticism often says more about the critic than me.”
  • “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”
  • "I have all the time I need to do what's really important."
  • “I believe in myself and the path I’m on.”

Find, repeat, and display the mantras and affirmations that work for you.

Each of these seven brain-based habits can improve your ability to stay calm and keep your brain from getting over-reactive. These habits also reinforce your ability to restore calm after an upset, and enhance your adjustment in the face of adversity. 

Deborah L. Davis
No step is too small, as calm breeds more calm.
Source: Deborah L. Davis

But when life sucks or you’re in a tizzy, how can you begin to acquire these brain-calming habits? Indeed, without a certain amount of calm, you're likely to resist them-- hence the importance of recognizing (and appreciating) when you are in a more calm state of mind. That’s when to seize the opportunity to practice these habits. And every effort you make, large or small, will reinforce your brain’s ability to greet the demands, twists, and turns of life with equanimity.

Happy New Year!

Recommended reading: 

A Calm Brain: Unlocking Your Natural Relaxation System, by Gayatri Devi, M.D.