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Published on January 20, 2021

How to Quickly Calm Your Mind and Refocus When You’re Stressed

How to Quickly Calm Your Mind and Refocus When You’re Stressed

Do you sometimes feel that the demands of life are squeezing you so tightly that it is hard to breath and regain a calm mind? Problems are cropping up faster than weeds in a garden, and your to-do list is growing exponentially faster than your “it’s done” list.

All of this can lead to a tsunami of tension. Staying focused, calm, and engaged is a struggle.

Many people hear this and just shrug their shoulders. “That’s just life. There is no other way to respond when stress boils over,” they conclude.

But there are solutions and effective approaches for dealing with even the toughest stress. It just requires you to learn, and then practice, some basic skills.

These are the same skills used by Air Force PJs – and if they work to help these guys stay calm, they will definitely work for you and me.

But you are probably asking “What’s an Air Force PJ?”

They are part the Special Ops forces, the elite of the elite. Their job is to rescue other military members who are trapped behind enemy lines, thoroughly cut off from support and at risk of being captured or killed.

So how do special operators manage to deal with the mental stress of their mission and calmly get the job done?

They use an approach that is called Stress Inoculation Training or SIT[1].

Let’s take a look at what this is and how you can use it, as well.

Staying Calm Under Pressure

Stress Inoculation Training (SIT)…that phrase is nearly self-explanatory. Just like a medical inoculation that is used to guard against a medical threat (e.g., malaria, the flu, hepatitis), stress inoculation is intended to guard against the impact of intense or prolonged mental pressure.

The main components of SIT include the following:

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  • ONE: Identify the expected circumstances under which you will become distressed and also pinpoint your typical reaction to those stressful situations.
  • TWO: Learn specific relaxation techniques that calm your mind and emotions.
  • THREE: Develop a short list of statements that trigger a calming response.
  • FOUR: Expose yourself to increasingly stressful situations where these techniques are practiced.

Practice the following four step process and you’ll be feeling like a tension busting pro in no time.

1. Know Thyself

The best auto mechanics know each system of a car inside and out. Because of this wealth of knowledge, they are able to diagnose and repair a car with expert skills.

The best cardiac surgeons also have a through and intimate understanding of the heart and vascular system. These insights allow surgeons to bring remarkable changes to a person’s health.

If you wish to learn how to achieve a calm mind when under stress, it is important that you also develop a thorough knowledge of what makes you stressed.

The way to gain these insights is by keeping track of what situations are most stressful for you and what makes them a challenge. Do you begin to immediately assume the worse? Do you imagine catastrophic endings or believe that you will be humiliated? Do you imagine that the setbacks you may suffer will result in permanent failure?

Write down the five most common stressors that hold you back. Also write down your typical thoughts or reactions to these stressful situations.

If you want to take this first step just a little further, do the following: think about ways that in the past you have succeeded in pushing through the stressful situations you just listed.

There are bound to be times that you have successfully dealt with stress in the past. Identify what you did to succeed in those situations. Did you take a step back and put things in perspective? Perhaps you took a few minutes and spoke with a friend? Maybe all it took to calm your mind was taking a few deep breaths.

2. Learn Relaxation Techniques

There are many helpful relaxation techniques from which to choose. We will look at three techniques that most people find useful and easy to employ on a moment’s notice.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

The first of these is called is diaphragmatic breathing. This is breathing where the focus is on using your diaphragm (that sheet of muscle under your lungs).

Diaphragmatic breathing is sometimes referred to as belly breathing (versus chest breathing). That’s because when you concentrate on expanding your lungs by contracting your diaphragm, it causes your stomach to move slightly outward.

The reason diaphragmatic breathing is important is that it stimulates the vagus nerve. This, in turn, sends signals to the brain that induces a sense of calm.

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The vagus nerve acts like a brake pedal on the nervous system. When stimulated, it tells the brain to slow things down. The anxiety and stress that were building up then begin to reduce.

There are many ways to stimulate the vagus nerve. For example, some meditation practices include reciting a mantra in a way that resembles humming. This stimulates the vagus nerve and increases a relaxed response.

Grounding

This approach is focused on getting someone who is lost in a downward stress spiral to return to the “here and now.” By shifting one’s focus to the present, stress about imagined threats begins to fade, and tensions dissipate.

Grounding is frequently used to help people who struggle with stress arising from a variety of sources including panic attacks, trauma, work pressures, and more.

There are dozens of grounding techniques[2] to select from to fit your preference and circumstances. We will look at just one approach, a very common technique that most people find helpful and easy to use at a moment’s notice.

For this to be effective, you need to momentarily focus on the sensory input from your immediate surroundings: colors, sounds, smells, and textures. For instance, if you are in a business meeting and feeling overwhelmed, then you can intentionally draw your attention to the color of the notepad laying on the table in front of you; the hum of the A/C; the smell of the coffee in that mug by your hand, and; the texture of the chair on which you sit.

This requires only a few moments. It takes your attention away from the stress, and refocuses on the present in order to get you back to a calm mind.

If you add one or two deep breaths, all the better.

Guided Imagery

If you have ever lost yourself in a daydream, then you have a good idea of how guided imagery works. It focuses your mind on a vivid scene that brings about a sense of calm and confidence.

To master this skill one need only spend a little time practicing. The first step is to think of a place where you have experienced feeling calm and in control. That may be when you were gazing out over the Grand Canyon, lying on a white sand beach, working out in a yoga class, or reading a book next to a fire.

The next step is to close your eyes and begin to vividly fill in that mental picture with as much detail as possible. Once again, you will want to use as many sensory inputs as possible.

For instance, if you imagined yourself sitting on the front porch of a mountain cabin, you would include the smell of pine trees, the feel of the breeze against your face, the sound of the wind through the trees, the color of the light cast over the porch, etc.

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The more vividly you imagine this place, the stronger will be its impact on reducing stress.

3. Select Calming Statements

In this step you remind yourself to put your current stressors in perspective. This is important because stress has a snowball effect. The longer it goes on unopposed, the more momentum it gathers, destroying your calm mind. Small concerns begin to appear larger than they have any right to be.

Before things ever get to that point, you need to take control, and you can do this by repeating some well-chosen statements that bring peace and clarity to mind.

Examples of these statements include:

  • I’ve handled difficult situations like this before, I can do so now as well.
  • Is the worse outcome really likely to happen, and if it did would it be the sort of disaster I have in mind?
  • I’m stressed but still strong. I’ve got the skills to handle this situation. I just need to take a short break, step back for a minute, then come back and tackle it.
  • I’m feeling stressed and need to stop for a second to take some deep breaths. I’ll just use the guided imagery I’ve practiced and things will feel more focused.
  • I can feel the muscles in my neck knotting up, and I know that this stress is just going to get worse. I need to get grounded, take deep breath, and prioritize where I will put my energy.

Self-statements serve several functions. They help put things in perspective, and they remind you to use the stress busting skills you have in your mental toolbox (deep breathing, guided imagery, etc.).

To get the most out of self-statements, be sure to write them down ahead of time. Make a long list of such statements, then review them a little later on and notice which statements are most helpful.

Select four of five of these and keep them on your phone, or a piece of paper. That way they are easily referred to the next time stress begins to build and you need to get back to a calm mind.

4. Do Hard Things

The more you take on difficult challenges in life the more you develop mental toughness, or “grit”[3]. This allows you to face stressful situations with greater confidence knowing that you have prevailed in other grueling circumstances.

For example, when faced with a killer deadline at work, it can be helpful to remember that half marathon you ran, and how you continued to push yourself when it seemed that your legs had turned into cement posts. Even so, you persisted and crossed the finish line.

Remember how good it felt when you completed the race? Dwell on that for a moment because that same feeling is what you will have when you don’t succumb to stress and you complete the project within the deadline.

Now, use that same grit to face the stressors that press down on you today. You will get through this moment of testing. You’ve proven that you have the “right stuff” to overcome the challenges.

By pushing yourself in other areas of life, you not only develop “grit” but change your self-perception. You begin to see yourself as the man or woman who perseveres and gets things done.

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I remember during a deployment to Iraq when a Special Ops guy asked me to work with one of his soldiers who had gone sideways. I had several stipulations. His response was “Right, Captain. Too easy. Done.”

He had faced much greater challenges than the stipulations I had made for granting his request. This soldier was unfazed with the challenges put before him, even though he had numerous other responsibilities that bore down on him.

From his perspective this really was too easy, and he confidently moved forward in getting things done so I could then work with his soldier.

Doing hard things will develop this same mindset in you.

That sort of confidence does wonders to calm your senses when under stress.

What sort of ‘hard stuff’ should you do in order to build more grit? The sky is the limit:

  • Prepare to compete in a Spartan race or a Go Ruck challenge
  • Go to the gym regularly and push yourself to increase your personal best in some area of fitness
  • Get into white water kayaking, backpacking, or adventure racing
  • Travel to places that sound exciting but that you have avoided due to anxiety
  • Take on tasks at work that you’ve avoided because you have feared putting yourself to the test

The main thing is to push yourself to do what is difficult. The specifics don’t matter. What you are looking to do is become toughened to facing challenge.

If you succeed at the task you set for yourself great. If you fail, this too can be used to your advantage. You’ll learn that even in failure you are able to pick yourself up and push forward.

When you are confident of your ability to persist in the face of adversity the stress will feel lighter, and it will be easier to maintain a calm mind.

Final Thoughts

Staying calm in the face of extreme stress is within your grasp. The skills needed to succeed are simple, but they do require that you intentionally work on building them as part of your tool kit for dealing with tension.

Your success in this regard will lead to a greater sense of confidence and freedom. Stressors will no longer be intimidating, but instead seen as simple challenges that you are capable of surmounting on your way to reaching a calm mind.

More on Managing Stress

Featured photo credit: Andriyko Podilnyk via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Forrest Talley

Forrest is a Clinical Psychologist who has been helping adults, teens and children for over 30 years.

How to Quickly Calm Your Mind and Refocus When You’re Stressed

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Published on March 2, 2021

How To Not Stress: 10 Stress Management Techniques

How To Not Stress: 10 Stress Management Techniques

It is not easy to decipher how to not stress, as stress is a part of life. Stress is the wear and tear of our mental and physical being as we continue to find soothing ways to cope with the constant change in our surroundings.

People often think of stress as related to work, chores at home, illnesses, and trying to beat rush hour traffic—which is not wrong—but it is more. Several factors trigger stress, but stress is the body’s internal reaction to fight or take flight in the presence of adversity.

In simple biological terms, stress is the state of increased arousal necessary for the human body to defend itself from a clear and present danger. Whenever we feel anxious, angered, tired, frightened, happy, excited, sad, or afraid, we are undergoing stress.

From minor challenges to major issues, stress is an acceptable and unavoidable pressure of human life. Stress is normal until we are incapable of controlling and coping with the overwhelming effect that stress becomes a problem.

Three in every four adults American suffer from stress—that is about 77 percent of the population.[1] Stress is triggered by anything from the economy, jobs, home front, kids, illnesses, and so on.

Types of Stress

In learning how not to stress, you must understand the types of stress and how you encourage it in your life. The causes of stress (stressors) are varied and multiple, but I am grouping them into two sectors.

External Stressors

These are external triggers that affect your immediate ability to stay focused or composed. They are:

  • Physical environment – confined spaces, light, noise, heat, brightness, and even darkness
  • Organizational – rules, regulation, deadlines, office gossips, pressure from work, etc
  • Social interaction – bullying, bossiness, disregard, harassment, aggressiveness (general human behavior towards you)
  • Life crises – death, relocation, new baby, marriage, losing your job, divorce, etc
  • Daily hassles – late in catching the bus, misplacing your car/house keys, mechanical breakdown, etc

Internal Stressors

These are stressors that emanate from our thoughts, mindset, and attitude. For example:

  • Your lifestyle – not getting enough sleep, busy schedules, caffeine or alcohol
  • Negative thoughts – pessimism, self-criticism, overthinking, feeling incapable.
  • Mind traps – being too personal about issues, unrealistic expectations, exaggerated or rigid mindset, etc
  • Personality traits – workaholic, OCD, perfectionist, etc

These factors contribute heavily to mental and physical stress leading to fear, anger, unforgiveness, and depression.

Stress and You

To consider stress as an ailment of modernity and technology is misinforming. Yes, our fast-paced lives and lifestyle are stressful, straining, and under relentless pressure. But we have actually created these triggers on our own. This is due to a desire for intense competitiveness and to match up with our peers. Stress is different for every individual, even if they are in the same situation.

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For example, a couple going through a bitter divorce will see the man enjoying himself while the lady suffers from bouts of emotional ups and downs. What is distressing to you may be nothing to another.

Take this example: a man works effectively in the comfort of his home yet finds working in a team or office stressful and overwhelming.

It is necessary to know that most of the stresses we experience are self-generated and self-induced. How we perceive (life)—whether a situation is threatening, sad, or happy—depends on how we see ourselves. The ability to recognize the stresses we create is the first step toward preventing stress.

Symptoms of Stress

Excessive, prolonging, and denying the existent of stress in our lives is detrimental and affects our entirety—and if left unresolved, results in a feeling of fear, anger, frustration, and depression.

Stress contributes to simple illnesses like headaches, skin diseases, ulcers, insomnia, and digestive problems. In severe cases, stress can lead to suicidal thoughts and death. The following are the symptoms of stress grouped into four categories.

Physical Symptoms

  • Fatigue
  • Change in sleep pattern without any obvious reason
  • Unstable digestive system resulting in diarrhea and inability to hold down food
  • Low sexual libido
  • Headaches and body pain
  • Dizziness, unnecessary sweating, and feeling faint
  • Palpitations, breathlessness, quickened heartbeats, or missed heartbeats

Mental Symptoms

  • Inability to focus
  • Memory lapses
  • Indecisiveness
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Fear/panic attack

Behavioral Symptoms

  • Eating disorder and appetite
  • Increase smoking and alcohol intake
  • Restlessness, fidgeting, and nail-biting

Emotional Symptoms

  • Depression
  • Easily irritated
  • Anger, rage, cry easily
  • Deterioration in hygiene habit and appearance

The primary triggers of stress are lack of financial stability, job security, family responsibility, personal relationship, health issues, and safety. Now that we have successfully categorized stress, it is time to recognize the one you are suffering from and choose a simple technique to manage it.

Remember, stress can be controlled, allowing you to live a fulfilling life.

10 Stress Management Techniques

The most common stress management techniques are eating right, exercise, yoga, and meditation. However, some stress is beyond these four techniques, so we will try to list out as many as possible to help you beat that stressful situation.

A set of simple yet effective techniques to help individuals identify, understand, and effectively deal with the stress in their lives to minimize the impact.

1. Change the Perspective

How many times have you replayed a negative situation and outcome in your head that never happens? We are all human, and as crazy as it sounds, negativity is appealing and more creative than positive things. However, stress is tied to negativity and our inability to break free from them.

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Changing your perspective is not as simple as ABC. However, you can start by analyzing the feeling, removing all exaggerated parts, pick out the truth (be honest here) and discard the rest. Phew, that wasn’t so hard, was it?

Now, take the truth and work on it from a positive angle. You will immediately feel less stressed, disoriented, and angered. It will take some time, but never judge an issue from an exaggerated point of view.

2. Create a Journal

A problem shared is half solved. While we cannot all go about blabbing our predicaments to others, an effective way of sharing and solving is journaling. There is really nothing difficult about journaling—it is just you writing the day’s events and how they made you feel.

Stress takes clarity, focus, and awareness of our immediate environment from us. Well, journaling restores them back to you. When you write down your feelings, you can identify, understand and deal with them better than replaying them in your head. It allows you to separate your feelings, accurately define emotion connect with your internal aura for better clarity.

3. Mindful Breathing

Stress takes peace and stability away from your life. Breathing is held in high regard by Buddhists, Hindus, and Taoists who believe breathing is a system of reintroducing peace into a troubled soul.

Mindful breathing is breathing that comes from the pit of your belly. It is, deep consistent, and stress relieving breathes which calm you down.

Mindful breathing can be done anyway in two easy steps:

  • Gentle inhale air to fill your lungs and stomach while slowly counting to 3 or five through your nose
  • Hold for a second or two and gradually exhale while counting 1 through 5

Repeat this as many times as possible until you feel your power returning to you. As you exhale, imagine that you are breathing out the stressors and tension.

4. Positive and Guided Daydreaming

We all daydream—some are good, and others run wild with our imagination. Using guided images and thoughts, you can avert a stress situation from escalating.

For example, you just had a heated argument with your spouse on the phone, and you are at work. Two things can happen: have your mood down all day, or you can identify the stress and calm dissipate it with happier images—daydreaming.

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Close your eyes and imagine a happy memory. Use good thoughts to counteract negative ones ad build your confidence from deep within. Also, forgive the situation and yourself, else you will keep playing the thought in your mind.

5. Go Back to Your To-Do List

If you cannot complete the chores, let it be. Remember that trying to squeeze in more than you can handle is actually killing you gradually. Even superman rests once in a while, so you should, too.

Reducing or prioritizing your workload could be the solution to the constant headaches, backaches, and shoulders. If you are a mom, learn to delegate duties to your kids or allocate time to work for yourself.

6. Yoga It

Yoga is an Indian form of meditation that combines simple poses, deep breathing, and relaxation techniques to ward off stress and stressors. Yoga is an effective stress relief technique because it deals with the physical, emotional, and mental organs that stress hacks into. The immediate benefits of yoga are felt immediately, but the long-term impact is also beautiful.

To get started, you can follow simple yoga programs online or enroll in a class to help you to master the poses at your own pace. Yoga enables you to breathe easily, improves the clarity of thoughts and mind, relaxes the body and mental health. However, if the twist and turns of yoga are not for you, then you will enjoy the next technique.

7. Add Exercise to Your Routine

Our body is like a car engine, if you do not maintain it, it will crash when you need it most. Regular exercise builds a strong body, no doubt. However, it also builds a strong mind to deal with stresses that affect us daily. You do not have to HIIT or do any strenuous exercise, choose something simple and for 7 to 15 minutes every day.

Joining a gym or community fitness center is outstanding, but you can choose to walk, run, jog, swim or go dancing. The idea is to keep your body moving for fun. Furthermore, if you are the outdoorsy type, indulge in your passion and watch the stress melt away.

8. Massage and Detox Therapy

When your insides are unclean, it can lead to stress. Equally, tired and over-working can double the stress effect leading to illness and mental breakdown.

There are many reasons to go for a massage, and stress is one of them. Massages are an ideal tool for maintaining physical and emotional health. While detoxification is a way to relieve the stress on your internal organs, both will make you feel light and relaxed.

9. Imbibe in the Power of Positive Affirmations

The power of positive talk has proven to increases positive emotion, compassion, and confidence in the speaker. How we treat ourselves determines the outcome. If you begin the day with negativity, you are likely to attract negativity and problems to yourself.

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However, if you take your time to affirm positive thoughts in your life, you will succeed. Affirmations are more than mere words; they are meant to awaken the optimistic and daring part of your being.

So, when you feel that negative emotions are building up or images are flashing before your eyes, take a moment and remind yourself of your capabilities and believe it, too. What you perceive is what you are.

10. Getting Enough Sleep

Let’s be honest, it is almost impossible to get 8 hours of sleep as recommended, but you can get a good night’s sleep instead. Many people sleep for 8 hours or more but are restless in their sleep and wake up feeling exhausted, drained, and stressed.

Sleep is a fundamental way for the body to recuperate for the day’s activities. However, your sleeping condition should be prioritized for relaxing sleep. To do this, ensure your mattress is comfortable and your bedroom is at the right temperature.

If you cannot get 8 hours at night, try to nap in the afternoons and watch your diet before bed. Finally, create a sleep routine. You do not have to “do-or-die” it, but gradually ease your way into better sleep.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, stress is the baggage you refuse to let go of. The more you pile on, the deeper you are sinking into a place of darkness.

Let go of the excess load now. Start by following these stress management techniques on how not to stress. Do you have one or two methods you are currently using to relieve stress? Feel free to add them to the list.

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Featured photo credit: whoislimos via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] American Psychological Association: Stress in America™ 2020

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