Finding Your Calm

Stress can actually be good for us. It can help us focus, increase productivity and contribute to a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, self-esteem and general well-being. That is, if the stress levels we are experiencing are at just the right levels: high enough to be motivational and low enough not to be debilitating.

At some point in their lives everyone has felt it – whether at work, at school, at home, in our relationships. Whether it be the physical sensations of anxiety, the racing thoughts, the tense muscles, the inability to relax and enjoy what we normally like, the dread of facing another day, feeling trapped, isolated, rundown, burnt out.

Too much stress like too much of anything, is not a good thing. In fact too much stress, again like too much of most things, can actually be psychologically and physiologically harmful. Too much stress leads to burnout, and burnout if left unchecked, could be a risk factor for developing further physical and mental health difficulties. It can lead to feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased disconnection from work or increased cynicism and negativity, and reduced professional efficacy.

Two of our Occupational Therapists have spoken about important ways we can help our minds and our bodies to stay calm in the face of stressful moments.

Emily Courtier, Regional Lead Occupational Therapist at Cygnet Health Care (London and South East)

As humans, it’s important that we can recognise dangers and respond to them to keep ourselves safe. It’s an essential part of survival. However, it’s vital for our health and well-being that we are able to bring ourselves back to a place of “calm” after these responses too.

When we are in a calm state, we can access the areas of the brain that help us to think logically, make decisions and communicate more effectively. From a place of calm, we can have the opportunity to become more emotionally detached from a problem, reflect and focus on a solution.

We can compose ourselves better, which not only gives a more positive impression of our personality but helps create a sense of calm and safety for those around us too.

Strengthening our ability to find calm can help us cope “in the moment” with a challenging or stressful situation. We can also build “moments of calm” into our routines to boost our mood and well-being and improve our ability to draw upon the skill in a time of distress.

Grounding techniques are a great way to regain some calm when emotions have taken over our thoughts and physical responses. This means bringing our focus to the here and now to interrupt the body’s response and returning our headspace to a place of safety.

Some examples include:

  • Movement – moving our bodies is a powerful way to ground ourselves. This may be through gentle exercise (stretching, yoga etc.), completing a household task such as folding the laundry or cleaning, getting out of the house to run an errand or walk the dog, or taking part in a more active type of exercise.
  • Visualisation – imagining putting all our thoughts and feelings into a container and disposing of it a creative way; this could be a gentle image of them being written or leaves and floating away, or crammed into a box and thrown out of the window! Imagine running/driving/ swimming far away from your problems or imagine your thoughts and feelings playing out of a radio which you walk over to and slowly turn the volume down on.
  • Distraction – recite song lyrics out loud or in your head, recall your latest shopping list, think of every movie you’ve watched this year, talk through the process of completing a task you’re really familiar with like it’s a how-to guide e.g. making a cup of tea or mowing the lawn, do a puzzle or game, or repeat positive affirmations such as “this feeling is strong, but I am stronger”.
  • Body and breathing exercises – try the “box breathing” technique or complete a body scan. They are lots of great guided meditations on Spotify and YouTube to talk you through this.
  • Use your senses – focus on the different things you can see, hear, smell, feel and taste. List them in your head- the 5-4-3-2-1 method is particularly popular. You might like to consider enhancing the distraction e.g. holding ice cubes, putting your hands in cold water, using a cooling or tingling lotion, eating a sour sweet, listening to music, or smelling something strong. The more you learn about your sensory preferences on what helps you feel more “calm” versus “alert” the better you can apply these strategies.

Courtney Greene, Regional Lead Occupational Therapist at Cygnet Health Care

Being able to remain calm in the face of stress is a necessary super power in 2023- a fast paced and ever evolving society. The effect of stress on the body has the ability to make us very unwell with both psychological and physical symptoms. When we are stressed, and in a high state of arousal, it becomes difficult for us to make decisions, concentrate and engage on a rational level. By staying calm, an optimal state of arousal, we are able to make healthier decisions, handle difficult situations a lot easier and care for ourselves and others better. The good news is, the ability to stay calm is not something you are born with and instead it’s a skill that we can learn through skills building, therapy, and using techniques such as mindfulness and meditation.

Many life factors (both personal and environmental) can disrupt your ‘calm’. Work stress, financial pressure, studying, balancing family life and even navigating traffic or daily public transport during rush-hour can be difficult on a daily basis. We can experience stress and pressure from many directions – partners, parents, siblings, children, family, bosses, colleagues, teachers, mentors and society in general.

In order to remain ‘steady’ and ‘balanced’ during times of increased stress, we need to make small changes and practice these on a regular basis in order to maintain our desired level of ‘calm’.

What can I do?

  • IMMEDIATELY (In a minute)
    • Hand breathing: Hold up your non-dominant hand in front of you, and with your dominant hand trace around each finger one at a time., Breathe in as you trace up the finger, and breathe out as you trace down the other side. Complete this on all 5 fingers, and start again if still required!
    • Use a calming mantra: Practice deep breathing while repeating your mantra such as ‘breathing in calm, breathing out tension’ or ‘this too shall pass’
    • Self soothe with the 5 senses: Think about what you can see (photos, videos), smell (perfumes, essential oils), touch (stress ball, fidget toys, hug), taste (tea, mint, sweet, cholate), listen (music, someone’s voice, podcast, comedy) to that makes you feel calmer.
    • Journal: get your stressful thoughts out of your head and onto a piece of paper
  • GOING FORWARD (In an hour, day, week)
    • Schedule comfort breaks: (meals, a cup of tea, a snack)
    • Schedule ‘sanity time’ in your diary: a time where you can reflect ‘regroup’ and plan
    • Get moving: When you are stressed, you produce a stress hormone. It is important to use up these stress hormones in some way so that they can be dispersed in a healthy way, and not just stay in your body causing stressful physical symptoms. You could break up your work day by having a quick, brisk walk at lunch, or plan a trip to the gym first thing in the morning, or last thing in the evening. Use a YouTube video at home and follow an online exercise class- there are many options, so no excuses!
    • Cut out bad foods: What you eat can have a big impact on how you feel. Nutritionists advise against eating foods that are highly processed (containing man made oils, sugars) as they create an inflammatory reaction in your body which contributes to stress. Consider keeping a food diary to track what you eat and how you feel afterwards, in order to look for links between food and your mood.
    • Limit caffeine intake: Drinking caffeine releases ‘adrenaline’ which is the source of your flight or fight response. This can give you an instant boost, but maintaining that requires more coffee which may result in you spending the day in an agitated state and feeling ‘on edge’ at night. Caffeine also realises the stress hormone cortisol, which can have detrimental effects on your body and physical health. Why not try buy some caffeine free alternatives next time you are at the shop.
    • Disconnect: Stop making yourself so freely available. The amount of technology that we use on a daily basis results in us living in a state of constant stimulation, and in reach at all times. To build awareness of your smartphone or internet use, consider checking your daily screen time, and setting yourself goals to reduce this, or schedule time to ‘disconnect.’
    • Practice gratitude: Appreciate what you have and take time to contemplate what you are grateful for. This helps improve your mood as it reduces the stress hormone ‘cortisol.’ Why not start your day with writing down 1 thing you are grateful for. Discuss this at the breakfast table or in your morning team meeting. If you need some help or prompts, download a gratitude journal off the internet to give you some ideas.
    • Use your support system: Speak about stressors to those who you trust. Get things off your chest, remember- a worry shared is a worry halved. This can include a friend, a trusted colleague, a mental health professional, or even your pet cat- get it off your chest. When we speak about how we feel, it help us gain more perspective and often, we realise that the situation did not require as much stress from us and we allowed it to!
    • Sleep: It is important to establish healthy sleep routine. Try and follow the same routine every night. Limit screen time before bed, instead swop it for a book. If you do have any caffeine, set yourself a cut-off point during the day and switch too decaf closer to bed time. You can use guided meditations for sleep, and essential oils/ sleep sprays to help you enter a state of relaxation, which may help you fall asleep.

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