“I’m Struggling to Stay Calm”

Some tools in this stressful time.

Posted Jun 16, 2020

Pete, Flickr, Public Domain
Source: Pete, Flickr, Public Domain

COVID’s economic stresses and medical fears, the increased racial tensions, atop an ever faster, more demanding modern life would tax even a cud-chewing cow. Indeed, even some of my calm clients and friends are having a hard time keeping it together.

This composite letter describes a typical situation:

Dear Dr. Nemko: I’ve always envied my friends who seem preternaturally calm. Whether it’s a personal health concern or a societal issue like race, they seem to stay reasoned, rational, and reflective. I doubt that their blood pressure goes up at all even in the face of being yelled at. But for me, it is really hard to stay grounded. Any advice?

My response: In some cases, anger shouldn't be squelched. But assuming you would generally like to stay calmer, might any of these be of value:

  • Think back to the times you lost your cool. In retrospect, are you glad you did? Of course, in the heat of the moment, that insight may not stop you from going from zero to 60 in one second, but it may help you face the world with redoubled recognition that calm rationality usually yields the most good.
  • Your first visceral response to an anxiety or anger-causing event is no more stoppable than not blinking when a gust blows in your face. So, don’t beat yourself over that visceral reaction. But after that first second, you do have more control. The "first aid" is to take a deep breath. That buys you time and slows your heart rate and blood pressure, making you less likely to say or do something you’ll regret.
  • Face the likely worst case. Let’s say you fear losing your job and home because of the COVID shutdown. Perhaps you’d realize that there are advantages to moving in with your parents—getting that mortgage and home upkeep off your back, and that you didn’t really like your job enough and that losing it would force you to make a career choice you’ll be happier with. And that’s the worst case. Probably your realistic worst case isn’t that bad. And more likely, what will occur is moderate-case or even best case.
  • Baby steps. What’s the best way to eat an elephant? A bite at a time. In these roiling times, the outcome of which is unclear, it’s easy to get overwhelmed into numbed inertia. Might it help to take the easiest or most important baby step to deal with your situation?  Even better, might you try to make that your new habit: When stressed out, whether by current events, or things closer to home, before spiraling down into overwhelm, might you want to get in the habit of taking one deep breath and identifying the first baby step forward?
  • Get support. Sometimes, talking it out with a trusted friend can help, perhaps in identifying solutions, but sometimes just in being heard.
  • Recognize that you’re far from the only one who is having trouble staying calm. Your struggling to stay grounded doesn’t make you bad. It just makes you normal, alas.