Finding Calm In A Chaotic World: A Guide To The Practice Of Equanimity, Peace, and Presence.
Updated: Oct 26, 2021
It’s all about finding the calm in the chaos. - Donna Karen
Finding calm may seem illusory and difficult. In fact, finding calm in our world is somewhat of an oddity.
Much of our time is spent following the endless cascade of thoughts and emotions leaving us unbalanced, full of worry, guilt, and resentment. We lament the past, fear the future, and are unable to live fully in the present. Social media is a constant and unnerving distraction. In times of crisis or challenge, we find it difficult to cope and utilize all our many and varied resources to find workable solutions.
The decision to find calm within the chaos is a momentous one that can have powerful ripple effects on our lives and the lives of those around us.
Alert: If you have or are suffering from emotional traumas, addictions or have a history of mental health issues, please consult with your physician or mental health provider as to which of the practices suggested below are appropriate for you.
Managing Your Life
Managing life’s ups and downs can often be daunting. Everyday hassles, family issues, job stresses, medical and health issues, loss of a loved one, etc. are all serious circumstances you may be facing. Add global pandemics, political turmoil, crises such as global fires, and environmental collapse, and you have a formula for feeling overwhelmed, stressed out, angry and hopeless. A family member recently told me “The world is burning.”
Is it possible during life’s uncertainties to remain clear headed and emotionally stable, while also living with generosity and compassion? Embracing calmness may be the answer.
Can you imagine yourself getting through the day with a sense of calm regardless of what’s happening? Of having peace of mind when enduring the stresses of life? Whether there are big things or little things stressing you out, having a sense of calm can help you tackle the inevitable storms of daily living.
What I’m suggesting is that your emotional reactions to events, the anger, the resentment, the fear, can be reduced, and, with practice, calm can become a natural part of your life. It is possible that equanimity and peace can come to govern how you react to circumstances. By cultivating the right mix of attitudes and techniques you can meet crises big and small in a calm and creative way.
What is calmness?
By calmness I mean the feeling of being composed and even-tempered, of having a presence of mind, of being centered in the here and now, especially while under difficult and even emergency circumstances. Calmness is associated with inner strength and conviction while eschewing violence and confrontation. Calmness is not passivity; it is not inaction. True calmness is found within activity itself. The goal Is to be fully active without unnecessary tension, worry, and anxiety.
When my sons were taking martial arts lessons as kids, they were taught to size up a situation, evaluate what needed to be done and cultivate the skills needed to respond. Remaining calm in the face of challenge was one of those skills.
I admit that I don’t always maintain a state of calm. My family would be the first to let you know how I periodically lose it. But I think I have been able to sustain a sense of calm in many circumstances. Sometimes I’ve found calm in very stressful situations, even to my own surprise.
Calm helped me in my professional life. While running a college counseling center, things didn’t always go well: students could present with severe, even life-threatening personal crises, there were the periodic threats of budget and staff cuts. In the face of this I would tell staff “Don’t Panic. Stay calm. We can deal with this.” Most often, it worked.
Keep in mind that perfection is not the goal. There will be many moments when regardless of your best efforts calm will elude you. This is normal and to be expected. The best approach is to reflect on what happened, observe your reactions, breathe deeply and start again. Persistence and resilience can carry your through the difficult times.
Three Steps to Calmness
Let’s look at a comprehensive three step program of attitudes, behaviors, and methods that promotes the essentials of living a life of peace, equanimity, and calm. It’s not always easy to make significant life changes. But the three-step program may enable you to customize and apply the approaches that fit you best.
Step 1 centers on attitudes that can set the stage for finding calm in a chaotic world. Step 2 discusses specific external behaviors that can foster a calm lifestyle. Step 3 focuses on some very powerful internal methods that establish a body/mind integration allowing calm to flourish.
I’ve embedded links in each of the following steps that you can use to further your explorations into the topics discussed.
Finding Calm Step 1: Attitudes and Perspectives
We cannot change anything until we accept it. Condemnation doesn't liberate, it oppresses. - Carl Jung.
Accept your feelings - Calmness requires an acceptance of whatever is challenging you. It especially means confronting your own fears, anxieties, and of feeling unsafe. When you react from these feelings it’s more than likely you will lash out in anger or become passive and retreat. Calmness requires that you make peace with your feelings and the behaviors of others. Ironically, it is this acceptance that enables focus, clarity, and generosity to flourish.
Denying or indulging our feelings of fear and anxiety makes it difficult to meet each situation with presence, peace, and equanimity.
Accept change - Life is in constant change. The seasons come and go. There are good times and bad. Sometimes you feel like a winner, sometimes like a loser. Newborns come into your life while others pass away. Even your feelings and thoughts come and go. Life is like a stream steadily flowing. It never stands still.
It seems natural for us to cling to things. We become attached to the way things are, to relationships, furniture, TV shows, ideas, etc. When loved ones die, we especially feel pain and loss. Clinging to the past makes us prone to anger, sadness, and inflexibility in the present. The simple recognition that change is inevitable can transform how you live and how you meet the challenges of life.
We cannot escape change. Life isn't always fair. Bad things happen to good people. It rains on the just and the unjust. Stubbornly clinging to what was or the way you want things to be creates inflexibility and suffering. Recognizing the inevitability of change can assist you in meeting each moment with calmness and presence of mind.
Live in the present – I’m sure you have experienced your mind jumping from thought to thought. You might find yourself dwelling on some intrusive memory from the past or on something that may or may not happen in the future. Rather than being focused on the present, you get caught up in the never-ending stream of thoughts that are an endless distraction from the here and now.
The more you live in the past or in the undefined future, the more defensive, insecure, and prone to depression and anxiety you can become. Being here right now means focusing on what’s going on around you, of what’s happening at the meeting, in the family or wherever you are. Presence is not about the distracting chatter in your mind limiting full engagement with life. Presence is about letting go of the tendency to become entangled in the endless judgements, self-evaluations, worries, and life dramas. It helps you get out of your head and be you right here, right now.
Know your brain – Having a sense of how the brain works, especially under stress, can help mitigate the basic fight or flight reactions of your nervous system. In simple terms, when you perceive threat the amygdala releases chemicals into the body like adrenaline and cortisol. The body goes into an instinctive posture. Your heart rate increases, breathing becomes more rapid, digestion diminishes, and blood rushes to your muscles. Importantly, the prefrontal cortex begins to shut down, complex decision-making weakens, and you are prepared to do battle or flee the premises. You are anything but calm, cool, and collected.
Remaining calm when experiencing the body’s stress response can be difficult. But it is possible to learn to override these stress reactions and reduce the fight or flight reflex. This override opens the possibility of acting differently in challenging situations. You can learn to meet challenges in a more conscious manner, by staying present, experiencing your fear emotions less reactively, and learning new more constructive and helpful behaviors.
Alert: I’m in no way suggesting that you not feel the pain of loss or of change in your life or that you deny your feelings of anger and disappointment. Pain is often natural and appropriate. I am suggesting that with a perspective that accepts your deepest fears and acknowledges the coming and going of life, you can better weather the inevitable storms with steadfast calmness.
Finding Calm Step 2: Health Promoting Behaviors
The outer path
The more we see health as a practice rather than as a problem to fix, the more we encourage the body’s natural potential to be healthy - Aarti Patel
The outer path consists of activities or behaviors outside of ourselves that lay a foundation for resetting our reactions to internal or external events that trigger agitated thoughts and feelings.
The foods you eat – Food can have a calming affect that should not be overlooked. Emphasizing foods that increase serotonin, foster calmness, and reduce inflammation is important. Consider eating an assortment of berries, nuts, beans, walnuts, and green vegetables (spinach, collard greens, and Swiss chard) which contain high levels of antioxidants that can ease agitation. Greens contain high levels of magnesium that can increase your sense of calm. Oatmeal, as a complex carb boosts serotonin levels that can lift your mood. Citrus fruits with high vitamin C have been found to foster calmness. Omega-3 fatty acids decrease anxiety. Try and include salmon, tuna (watch the mercury), and sardines in your diet weekly.
The movements you make – Regular movement can foster a deep sense of calm. Movement, whether in the form of exercise or sports increases the production of those feel-good endorphins that make you feel calm and positive. Consistent activity increases self-confidence, improves sleep, and lowers anxiety and depression. Helpful movement can include walking, swimming, resistance training, dancing, yoga, gardening, etc. Consult your doctor before embarking on an exercise or sport program. It’s important to find something you like to do so you will keep at it. Look for a group or a partner to help with motivation. Shoot for 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week.
The sleep you take – Good sleep is essential for sustaining calmness and feelings of happiness. Regular sustained sleep increases a sense of well-being throughout the day, fosters calmness and composure, promotes better brain function, and reduces sleepiness and fatigue. Diets high in calcium and magnesium can be very helpful in promoting sound sleep, as are consistent exercise patterns. It’s important to take seriously the sleep apnea symptoms you may be experiencing. Sleep apnea not only disturbs sleep but can have serious health consequences. See a doctor and get evaluated.
The people you embrace – Having good social connections with people is essential for happiness and a sense of contentment. The happiest people are those with the strongest social ties. Socializing is one of the most beneficial activities you can pursue to develop a sense of calm and satisfaction. Spending time with family, friends, coworkers, and even strangers can have a ripple effect of calm in your life. Take some time to pursue a social strategy that connects you with people. Go on a trip, teach a child how to ride a bike or swim, volunteer at a non-profit, join a club. The point is to intensify and increase your social connections. As important as individual activity is, social engagement is a key element for well-being.
The nature you need – Spending time in nature can make you healthier, happier, calmer, and less stressed. Nature can lift your mood, relieve tension, increase feelings of connectedness, and promote greater sense of kindness and generosity. Being in nature has been found to increase creativity. You don’t have to spend huge amounts of time in nature to gain the positive effects nature provides. Taking a walk in the park, feeding the birds, even having a view of nature from your window can initiate feelings of contentment and calm. Regular time spent in or near nature for about 90 minutes a week will make a tremendous difference. Small 15-minute nature breaks over a week can add to your sense of well-being. Find a green space and spend time there.
The religion you accept – Participating in religious practices and adhering to spiritual beliefs has been associated with longevity, decreased anxiety and depression, better coping skills, higher quality and contentment with life, and enhanced recovery from illness. Religious belief can add a greater sense of control to your life. Religion and overall mental and physical well-being have been closely linked. The practice of forgiveness, compassion, and gratefulness is thought to decrease stress and increase resiliency. Participating in religious rituals can intensify social connectedness that enhances personal and group well-being. Take some time to consider your beliefs and level of participation in a religious group or institution.
Finding Calm Step 3: Living in the Present
The inner path
The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, not to worry about the future, or not to anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.
The inner path consists of actions that directly influence our minds and foster a deepening calm and the capacity to live fully in the moment.
Calming and relaxation practices take time to master. Practice makes perfect. Give them a few weeks to see if they are right for you. You may find some techniques a better fit than others.
Keep in mind that some people, especially those with a preexisting emotional issue, may find these techniques difficult and experience discomfort. If at any time you become uncomfortable, it’s ok to just stop what you are doing.
Breathing Into Calm – Using breathing techniques can be one of the simplest and most effective ways of de-stressing and calming down. Deep breathing raises the brain’s oxygen levels, awakens the parasympathetic nervous system, and promotes relaxation. Breathing can help you feel more connected to your body as well as quieting the mind. You can use breathing in conjunction with meditation or as an alternative to it if you don’t feel meditation is for you.
You can start using breathing exercises before you go to bed, during a break or even when you are sitting at your desk. Eventually, you will advance to using your breath in challenging situations to promote calmness and effective decision making on the spot. When you are stressed by circumstances it's likely your breathing becomes shallow, your brain’s fear reaction is activated, and bodily tension rises.
Proper breathing will deactivate the fear reaction and promote a relaxation response during conflict. Deep breathing can reduce tension during heated circumstances by enhancing focus, reducing stress hormones, slowing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and improving judgement. Utilizing breathing techniques can be an important aspect of conflict resolution at home and at work. The four-count breathing tactic can be very effective on helping you center.
Relaxation Training – Learning to relax through the practice of relaxation techniques helps you to attain a state of calm while reducing anxiety, tension, stress, and anger. There are many forms of relaxation training to choose from. Autogenic Training uses visual imagery and body awareness. Progressive Muscle Relaxation focuses on slowly tensing and then relaxing muscle groups. Visualization uses mental imagery that helps create a peaceful and calming place.
A state of relaxation helps your body and mind to respond differently than they normally do. You are essentially integrating body and mind in a way that fosters calm and focused reactions to potential anxiety and fear. You may find that when your body and mind are more habitually relaxed that you will respond to life’s challenges in a more positive manner. Relaxation promotes more congenial feelings while reducing perceptions of threat and hostility.
Mindfulness – Living in the here and now, being present in a state of active intentional awareness is what is known as mindfulness. It’s a way of living from moment to moment. You observe the coming and going of your thoughts without judgement. In this way, you realize that you are not your thoughts. Thoughts come and go. With practice you can be with your thoughts as they are, without holding on to them or pushing them away. In this way, a sense of calm and equanimity can emerge.
Normally, our thoughts control us. We react to them whether they be of anger, worry, or resentment. With mindfulness, you observe your thoughts arising and dissolving. You can sense them coming and going. With practice you can lessen your involvement with your thoughts. You become an observer of the mind without clinging to it. If you don’t cling to your thoughts, they tend to dissolve, and you are free of their influence. You are more able to fully awaken to the moment, to what’s happening right now. This can be described as a state of open, intentional activity leading to equanimity, creativity, and emotional balance.
In times of crisis and turmoil, mindfulness can help you remain focused, clear headed, and open to solutions. You become less involved with your self and more able to actively listen and hear what someone else is saying. You can more pragmatically respond to whatever the situation demands. It assists in retaining the capacity to make rational decisions without being overwhelmed. You can experience strong emotions in an even-tempered way.
Practicing Mindfulness -
Meditation – Learning to perform regular mindfulness meditation is one of the best ways to deepen your inner balance in the face of change. As little as 12 minutes a day can bring about significant changes in your life. Regular practice is at the core of mindful awareness.
Practical Mindfulness - An essential aspect of mindfulness practice is to bridge the gap between practice and its application to daily living, especially in difficult circumstances.
You can practice mindfulness while waking up, eating, relaxing, working out, driving, etc.
Applying mindfulness to stressful situations enables you to reset your mind, intention, and reduce the adrenaline fueling your fight or flight reaction.
I’ve outlined three steps above that, if employed consistently and with earnest, can potentially change how you live. The three steps are a roadmap for change.
Let me review briefly:
Step 1 – Attitudes and Perspectives
Accept your feelings, accept change, live in the present, and know your brain. Each one of these acts as an integrated whole, separate but one. They are, simply, how you view the world around you. They are a way of entering the flow of life. Rather than resisting the world, you flow with it in a state of calm.
Step 2 – Health Promoting Behaviors
Health promoting behaviors consist of lifestyle choices that can reset your health and foster emotional stability. A natural diet, consistent movement, proper sleep, positive relationships, embracing nature, and spirituality can all lead to mental and physical health that promote calm and balance.
Step 3 – Mind-altering Methods
Breathing, relaxation training, and mindfulness are the cornerstones of leading a life that is not dominated by tension and fear. Living in the present with composure allows you to face the challenges and difficulties of life in a new way.
Alert: Changing thoughts and behaviors takes time and effort. There are no easy fixes. With perseverance old habits can be overcome and replaced with constructive and helpful new behaviors. Learning to react with calm to circumstances can change how you live, love, and grow. Be easy on yourself. Be patient. When need be, discuss these changes with trusted family/friends, your health provider, minister/priest or therapist. Be especially careful if you have preexisting emotional and medical conditions.
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Disclaimer: the information included in this article is not meant to diagnose or treat any medical or emotional condition. This article is for educational purposes only. Please consult your medical/health provider or spiritual advisor about any of your concerns.
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