The High Cost of Calm

Why relaxing is so much work.

5/5/2021 8:31:00 PM

Sometimes it can be surprisingly hard to relax. Here are 25 ideas to help you stay calm when life feels out of control.

Why relaxing is so much work.

Say the word and it helps conjure itself:calm. The “ah” sound dawdles, insists on taking its time. We ride for a second on the exhale. If only the release lasted longer than a syllable.Perhaps, once, calm came on its own and settled in when worry or obligation retreated. But in a hyperstimulating world where intrusion is the default, interruptions are benignly labeled “notifications,” and watches don’t rest silently on wrists but buzz with the demands of others, the

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nervous systemis constantly pitched into arousal mode. Calm no longer arrives unbidden. It has to be actively sought.And that is the very definition of a high-wire act. After all, doesn’t calm reside in the absence of effort? Given the nature of modern human awareness, the relief of stress now constitutes a stressor itself. The standard prescriptions—master your breathing, meditate on your mantra, clear your head—can themselves spark anxiety, especially if you’ve attempted them before with no success.

Yet science suggests there is a path through this conundrum. Calm is both a psychological state and a physiological one, and so it can be found by resetting thecollaborationbetween body and mind. The dividing line will vary from person to person, but somewhere between the two, a new balance can be calibrated.

The human nervous system requires a deceptively simple ingredient for calm—a sense of safety. It’s not just a fundamental part of Maslow’s famous hierarchy of human needs; feeling safe undergirds growth. Lacking that sense of security, our bodies are poised for defense, vigilant for threats whether real or imagined. Every system goes on high alert, reinforced by every substance coursing through our veins.

Some such arousal is necessary. It keeps us going. Our minds evolved to keep us alive, and worry is the mind’s way of telling the body that we may be in danger, from within or without. It’s a feature that served ancient humans especially well when threats to life and limb regularly emerged in the natural environment. Today, though, those feelings often become activated in response to threats that do not merit them. And the cost of constant vigilance is high, not merely exhausting for us but actually corrosive in ways ranging from stiffening veins to hollowing out

memory.We need no reminders that the past year has thrown each of us into a state of unremitting vigilance against an invisible virus capable of killing seemingly at random. The pandemic has been a driver of systemic exhaustion, and each meeting Zoomed, mask donned, and hand scrubbed has been a reminder of the constant threat.

Elusive as it may be, though, calm remains necessary for well-being. Devoting energy to calming practices isn’t merely aspirational, it’s essential. Only when the nervous system is released from defensive mode can inner resources be redeployed to enage in repair, recovery,

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imagination, and exploration and to enable social engagement—all vital elements of well-being.Finding calm is a skill that can be learned. It can be pursued from the top down or the bottom up. From the bottom up, for example, deep breathing can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, counteracting the nerve signals that put the brain on alert; it may be the fastest and most universally effective approach.

Tuning out, and detaching from news updates, people’s demands on our time, and anything else that seems as if it could add to our burden, might work for a time, but sooner or later apathy is likely only to prompt feelings ofguiltthat add another layer to our anxiety.

Having a reliable practice to call on to quell distress and restore calm allows us to respond to life’s real challenges by maintaining focus,intelligence, and intention. A single approach won’t work for everyone, but fortunately, there are multiple paths to reining in racing thoughts and physical reactivity. Ideally, one develops a portfolio of go-to practices.

Below, Psychology Today experts propose some of the most effective techniques—including, yes, deep breathing—for you, your loved ones, and your children.Lisa Shin, used with permission.Staying Calm When Everything Goes WrongThese cognitive-emotional skills can help you cope.

By Alice Boyes, Ph.D.1. Don't jump to conclusions before you have full information.I once got a message that multiple attempts were being made to access my bank account. This freaked me out, but it turned out it was a financial app I use pulling information from the account, which I had authorized but forgotten about. In the moment, though, I had to recognize the possibility that foul play was involved—and tolerate that anxiety until the bank’s customer service line opened the next day. The lesson: Don’t panic prematurely.

2. Distinguish between a bump in the road and the end of the road.In the pursuit of any long-term goal, it’s normal to experience setbacks that require some extra work or exact a temporary emotional toll but don’t significantly change where you end up. Your

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retirementaccount, for example, may bounce around through market rallies and slumps, but by the time you stop working, the average return is likely to line up pretty closely to your original expectations. Or you may get a ticket because you didn’t notice a sign prohibiting parking in a certain spot. It’s a mistake, it’s aggravating, and it has a cost, but it doesn’t have to ruin your week. The lesson: You might experience detours that are

in the moment but shouldn’t prevent you from succeeding in the long run.3. Ask yourself what you need to learn, if anything.In some emotionally challenging situations, there is a lesson to learn so that you don’t repeat the error. But often there just isn’t. In the parking ticket example, you might’ve concluded that you needed to increase your vigilance about street signs. But that shouldn’t really be a priority if you’re only likely to screw up once a decade. Extreme vigilance can ramp up stress but deliver minimal returns. The lesson: If there’s an obvious takeaway from a bad experience, embrace it, but recognizing that rare slipups may not be worth the effort of prevention can help limit anxiety.

4. Consider a debrief.Venting endlessly about something that has gone wrong is unlikely to help you: Often it can be psychologically beneficial just to briefly voice a complaint, especially if you tend to feel better when you stand up for yourself, regardless of whether the complaining has any real impact. After a stressful incident, it can be helpful to share it with people you trust to be supportive. Receiving

empathyfrom someone you care about can be just the release you need to keep you from excessive rumination. But then try to look ahead; it will be better for you—and for whomever you’re unloading on. The lesson: Become attuned to the amount of rehashing that’s helpful by gauging whether your rumination rises or falls after you share.

Read more: Psychology Today »

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