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Inner Peace in the Midst of Outer Chaos

Here are a dozen practices that can keep you calm, cool, and collected.

Let’s start with the basics. To manage stress and be able to respond effectively to unexpected or unpleasant events, you need to take care of the only tool you have—your body. The best way to do this is by practicing these four key activities:

  1. Eat right
  2. Build movement and exercise into your daily schedule
  3. Get plenty of sleep
  4. Breathe

These can be hard to accomplish when we’re stressed, but practicing these basic health-promoting behaviors can really change your attitude, your mood, and your physical health!

Stop trying to be a mind reader (and don’t expect others to read your mind, either). This will just generate fears about what others are thinking that make us feel a lot worse than we’d feel if we had the satisfaction of asking a person what they are feeling and thinking.

Accept the things you cannot control or alter. First, recognize that you don’t have to control everything in your life or in the lives of those you care about. It’s just not achievable and will leave you feeling that you just didn’t do “enough.” Don’t feed the part of you that makes you feel worse about yourself!

Invest in your social support network—the value your “A team” plays in your life cannot be overstated. Connections to others support our emotional, psychological, physical, and spiritual wellbeing. Being a part of a network of supportive friends and family strongly correlates with our sense of mattering. And when we feel that we matter to others, our feelings of happiness, safety, and security increase. Needing to ask for help does not denote failure, it actually indicates success. You’re seeking out and utilizing resources that support your well-being. Remember the gameshow, “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”? Even though “phoning a friend” when you’re down won’t actually make you a “millionaire,” it can make you feel like a “million bucks” when you need a friendly ear or supportive shoulder!

Do something nice for someone else every single day. Doing good deeds for others absolutely is a “tonic” for your own personal health. Altruism is an evolutionary behavior that illustrates our commitment not just to our personal survival, but survival of the species and humankind. Altruists tend to live longer lives, enjoy better health, and feel better overall. One study showed that engaging in an altruistic act results in a change in our biological make-up. What could be cooler than helping ourselves by helping others?

Go “cold turkey” from social media or at least enforce limits on your exposure. The same goes for news about highly inflammatory or controversial topics that merely stir you up. Social media or divisive news shows can fuel a lot of negative feelings from anxiety to envy to fear to rage. There’s no good reason that we should subject ourselves to masochistic behaviors when the world presents more than enough challenges for us already. When we experience distressing emotions—even when we’re sitting in our favorite chair and enjoying our favorite comfort food—our bodies ratchet up into the same physical state as if we were standing there face-to-face with the “enemy.” When we’re feeling anger and charged-up anxiety, our brains do a poorer job at making good decisions in the moment or planning for the future. We also experience a decrease in our short-term memory and angry feelings also obstruct our ability to store new memories. When people are facing actual threats to survival or mortal enemies, these reflexive reactions can be helpful and even save our lives. However, when we’re just conjuring up unpleasant scenarios or mental enemies, we’re stressing out our bodies unnecessarily. Blood pressure, heart rate, blood glucose level, thyroid function, cellular health, bone density, headaches, and even eye sight are all negatively affected by stress and anxiety. Don’t let your emotions go unchecked or you’ll be risking your physical well-being.

Journal, blog, or vlog away your stress. Putting your feelings into words can be cathartic and when we’re struggling with worries, finding an outlet to express these can give us relief from the burden they represent. There’s an expression that “a burden shared is a burden halved,” but if it’s not convenience or appropriate to share your feelings with a friend, it can be equally healing to “let them go” by expressing them through writing, movement, or art. When we put things “out there,” we often are able to make sense of and organize our thoughts in such a way that we can more easily challenge negative thinking or let go of negative feelings.

Smile. Simply smile. Laugh. Laugh hard. When we smile, magical things happen in our brains that make us feel better all over. The act of smiling opens the starting gate for neuropeptides that help us deal with stress. This invites dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins to be released and the endorphins make us feel better physically and serotonin helps combat depression. And when I smile at you, chances are almost 100% that you’re going to smile back at me. Our brains reward us for pro-social behavior.

A sense of humor is excellent protection against stress and negativity. Learning to laugh at yourself is the crowning achievement that really puts you into a position to control the way you handle life when things don’t turn out as you had planned. Laughter has similar benefits to smiling—endorphins are released and these can mitigate pain. Our bodies were designed to keep us safe laughter actually increases the number of cells in our body that produce antibodies and strengthens our T-cells that support our immune system. When we spend time watching silly videos, movies that make us laugh, or stream episodes of I Love Lucy or whatever makes us laugh, we are disengaging from distress, regulating stress, increasing our positive emotional state, reducing pain, and positively influencing our connection with others. Just thinking about having a laugh actually reduces stress! So, right now, take a moment and think about something you can do later that will give you a laugh ... many of you are already feeling less stressed right now.

How do we build laughter into our daily lives? Subscribe to funny YouTube channels, check out some of your favorite comedians and see if you can catch their acts online, share humorous stories with folks with whom you created them—call up a friend to laugh about a funny incident you shared when you were younger, tell someone a funny story about a mistake or funny thing you did, remind your kids of funny things that happened when they were young, or amuse your kids’ significant others with amusing stories of their partners when they were young! Tell jokes—even “groaners” will lead you and your audience to laugh at their re-telling, absurdity, or silliness. Play card games, board games, online games, party games, whatever you enjoy. Watch America’s Funniest Home Videos, TikTok videos, silly “dog shame” videos, whatever tickles your funny bone. Bad answers in Jackbox games or silly “finds” in online scavenger hunts are perfect for generating genuine laughter. On the next Zoom call with your friends and family, invite everyone to tell a joke—no matter how bad it might be—and you’ll likely spend some time enjoying some genuine laughter that will leave you feeling less stressed and healthier than you did before you made the call.

Become “OK” with not being “perfect.” When we’re able to be OK with being “just OK,” we give ourselves permission to breathe and relax into whatever we’re doing. Striving for excellence is absolutely a good thing, but even more important is being satisfied with knowing that you have done the best that you could do.

Practice gratitude and mindfulness every single day. Gratitude gets us in a space where we focus on the things going right in our life or the things that have been beneficial to us. And where we turn our attention, those things multiply in our lives. When we focus on what we feel is lacking in our lives, we train our brains to focus on negative thoughts. Mindfulness is about slowing ourselves down and as the popular slang expression goes, “taking a beat.”

What kind of Worrier are You?

There are basically three types of worriers. There are those who are stuck in the past who and spend their time worrying about what’s already happened. Then there are those who are focused too far into the future and they spend their time worrying about things that haven’t yet happened. And the third type? These are the people who worry about everything! The problem with most of our worries is they distract our minds and energies from the one dimension that we can truly influence: The Present.

Ground yourself in the present—it’s a practice that is truly worth the effort it takes to master. When we focus on the “now,” it relieves us from having to worry about the past or the future. Sure, planning for the future is important, but spending too much time worrying about what we cannot control just depletes the resources we need to deal with the present moment.

Mindfulness keeps you grounded in the present, so put in the practice necessary to master this skill. Growing up we may remember complaining about the “unfairness” of life or being told that “life isn’t fair.” When worries or anxiety bubble up, using mindfulness tricks can help us move past these negative feelings. Mindfulness is about slowing down, immersing yourself in the moment, and clearing your mind like shaking an Etch-A-Sketch. Taking two to five minutes to “just be,” you can refresh your mental screen and feel more prepared for dealing with the next task you’ve got on your plate. When you let your brain relax, you may find some thoughts or worries creep in. If they do, just acknowledge their presence in a nonjudgmental way and let them go rather than turning them over in your mind. Mindfulness is about practicing healthy awareness of your feelings, thoughts, sensations, or memories. Don’t grasp onto them, let them roll by. One way to do this is to imagine any thoughts clouding your mind as clouds in the sky—imagine them as clouds that are just passing overhead and let them go. Mindfulness is about healthy awareness of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and memories—just being present and in the moment.

Make time for yourself. Just like we need our social support networks, we also need time for ourselves if we’re sharing our home. While it is rewarding to provide shelter and comfort for others, it is essential that you build in some “private space” or “psychological distancing” even if you’re “social distancing” from those who don’t live in your home. We all need time to reflect, to pursue our personal interests, and to look for and construct meaning from the events and experiences of our lives.