“Never in the history of calming down has anyone ever calmed down by being told to calm down”
States a popular meme doing the rounds on social media. Whilst I would primarily agree with this statement, I think it is worth taking a closer look.
There are two problems about being told to calm down.
- The sentence doesn’t tell you how to do it. If I gave you three balls and told you to juggle, then providing you haven’t practised at juggling, you will find three balls would quickly end up on the floor. Repeating myself or saying “Just juggle the balls” wouldn’t give you any more useful information. It lacks the required steps that are simple and easy to follow.
- Being told how we should behave is irksome at the best of times. Being told to be calm, when it seems important that we need to take some kind of action, is likely going to break any level of connection we have with that person in that given moment, because by our understanding of events, they don’t seem to understand the importance of our situation.
Stress makes you stupid.
There are times when a little stress is useful. Stress can help us to learn and grow, and we can even learn to enjoy the moments when we get through the other side of stress and enjoy the calmness that not being stressed anymore provides. By and large though the type of stress that causes panic turns us into buffoons, not to mention the damaging effects sustained stress has upon the body. In short, being stressed turns off much of our modern brain responsible for solving problems and lets the older mamallian and reptillian brain do the thinking.
Stress causes behaviour like this:
Fight – clench our fists and jaw, get angry, say things we regret, make rash decisions, try to make others feel as angry/hurt as we do, that way we can fight it out
Flight – talk yourself out of situations, use distraction techniques, do a runner, avoid eye contact, hide, stay quiet
Freeze – Get rooted to the spot, become rigid, hope nobody sees you, do nothing for a long period of time
Total collapse -Panic/anxiety attack that drops you to the ground, fainting, chronic illness if long term
None of these options yield reliable or useful results in most modern day situations. Nor are they methods that benefit the well-being of other people or the world. They merely serve to protect the individual, which is not good when you are in a relationship or team scenario. Our stress behaviours may at times have yielded results that keep us safe or get us through tough situations in our life, but in general they produce results and behaviours in us that we would really rather avoid and find better ways around.
I can see clearly now the rain has gone. I can see all obstacles in my way.
Staying calm on the other hand is like a super power, it allows us to:
- See things more clearly – Actually see the world around us in more detail
- Notice more choices available – think more rationally and weigh up options fairly
- Notice what isn’t the problem – able to step outside the problem and enjoy life more easily
- Control our body, breath and voice – we can breathe, move and speak in the manner we choose
- Act with kindness – make decisions for others and the globe and not just our own safety
How to calm down
In moments of panic we unconsciously let the sympathetic nervous system which is responsible for the ‘fight and flight response’, take the wheel and steer. It controls a great many things such as the growth or hair and nails, our immune system and our blood pressure, all of which we have little conscious knowledge over how to reliably control.
Fortunately for us it also takes over two really important parts of ourselves that we can definitely regain our control over. And when we do, we can bring back our calm.
“Look at me and breathe.” Age old words, with good intentions. Our breathing and our eyes are the gateway to returning ourselves back to a state of calm.
How we breathe dictates how we feel. Watch someone have a panic attack and you will notice their breathing is very different to a baby taking a nap. Most of the time we let our body take care of our breathing for us. However, when our body is tricked into thinking we are in deep trouble it prepares itself by taking fast deep breaths in to oxygenate the muscles to prepare us for the incoming threat.
How to breathe for calm
- Breathe out first, as long and slowly as you can and empty your body of breath
- Breathe in normally and only enough so as to fill up your tummy
Emptying our body slowly of breath tells it that we don’t need the oxygen to fight, flight or freeze. Our muscles and blood don’t need to be geared for panic. Experiment with different breathing techniques and find one or two that work well for you and practice them. Become an out breather rather than an in breather, it will change your life.
Two things might happen with our eyes in a panic situation:
- We blur them and essentially switch them off, this way we can go into our head and make vivid pictures and videos of worst case scenarios more easily. We give ourselves just enough vision so that we don’t bump into things, however visually we aren’t paying attention to the world around us.
- We zoom in onto what we fear the most. This is called foveal vision and we end up only seeing the perceived threat and we aren’t paying attention to the world around us.
How to see for calm
- Look up nice and high and into the distance and let your eyes settle on something normal or pleasant.
- Let your vision expand to notice all the many things you can see, take in colour, movement, depth and detail.
- Now keeping that level of visual clarity look around whilst still paying attention to how much of the world you can now see.
By looking in this deliberate way, you are preventing your mind from making internal pictures and videos, and you are preventing your eyes on zooming into the problem. You are telling your body that there is no threat to look out for and that the world around you is a safe and normal environment.
The Metaphors of Panic
The language of panic has many metaphors, famously there is the ‘chimp’ from Professor Steve Peters book the chimp paradox. Others will talk about the ‘panic monster’, or the ‘meerkat mind’, the ‘smoke alarm’ the ‘stress bucket’ the ‘comfort, stretch, panic zone’ ‘traffic lights’ ‘seeing red’. Even the term ‘panic attack’ is suggestive of a malevolent ambush. In much the same way descriptions for depression involve ‘the black dog’ the ‘rain cloud’ ‘the fog’ etc
All of these metaphors are helpful in that we can use them to explore abstract concepts that we experience and relate to our experiences both for ourselves and to describe to others.
However believing that the metaphor is a significant part of our identity, or that it is fixed can lead to complications if we want emotional or behavioural change.
Our language shapes the way we think. We experience the feelings of our thoughts. Metaphors are powerful as they shape the way we understand concepts, however they are simply models for how we perceive ourselves. In reality they have as much flesh and substance as the boogeyman does.
They are not real no matter how accurate or vivid they may seem. There is no dog. There is no fog. There is no chimp. There is only you and you are a wonderful and complex being that is far more powerful than just a smoke detector a bucket for stress or a dog that follows you around.
Does the metaphor you, or someone you know, offer enough flexibility to be able to let go of it from time to time? Do they have metaphors equally as powerful that let them notice when they feel absolutely wonderful? Does that metaphor have as much of a home and as much importance as the one that represents their less than pleasant feelings?
Working with and changing metaphors is not necessarily as easy as taking control of the breathing and the eyes, and requires at times some subtle work, however it is very important to consider.
Putting it all together
So putting the metaphors aside for now and focusing on breathing and eyes.
“Calm down” =
- Breathe out slowly and empty breath, breathe in just enough to fill the tummy
- Look up, focus on something pleasant, let your vision take in the full room
- Keep focusing on these steps
Is it as simple as that? Yes it can be. Practice it when you’re already calm so you know how to do it, and you know what experience you’re looking for when you’re in the heat of the moment.
How to help a friend calm down. – The 3 things technique
One last technique. So you notice a friend has taken themselves to an emotional space they would rather not be in. Provided you have the right level of connection and trust with the person here is a technique you can use without ever saying the words “calm down”. It is important to have your friends permission and trust before you guide them through this (or any) exercise.
- Pick three things you can see and tell me what you can see.
- Good. Now pick three things you can hear and tell me what you can hear
- Good. Now pick three things you can feel and tell me what you can feel.
- Good. Now close your eyes. 3 things you can see with eyes closed.
- Good. 3 things you can hear with eyes closes, inside or outside of your body
- 3 things you can feel whilst your eyes are closed.
Repeat this process for as long as it is useful in returning your friends attention to the fact that the threat is not real. If the threat is real and you’re being chased by a crocodile then stop doing this technique and run for your lives. Now is the ideal time to panic.
About the Author
Tom Powell is a Coach and Fear and Phobia Therapist. He works with people to help them to find their calm so that they can take ownership of situations and of their path through life. Tom lives and works in Bristol, providing talking therapy sessions, coaching sessions, and works specifically with the mental performance of Rock Climbers.