In life things keep coming at us that can easily upset our emotional world and take us out of balance. Although we consider it natural to react, it actually derail us from our well being and stability.
Our natural tendency is to be reactive in whatever comes our way or to those around us. By being reactive to our environmental stimulus we lose track of ourselves and lose touch with reality.
How our brain works
Psychologist and neuroscientists have been studying humans for a while now. They are figuring out not only how we act but also the internal changes in our brain and biochemistry.
A simplified model of how our brain works is the following:
Our hypothalamus is constantly trying to pattern match whatever is coming from our senses (external or internal). It sends a signal to the amygdala (the emotional part of the brain) and to our neocortex (our analytical thinking part of the brain). Our amygdala is in charge of our flight, fight or freeze response. The amygdala reacts faster than our neocortex. In other words we first feel and then we think. (The Chimp Paradox book describes this process in metaphorical way)
When something terrible happens in our life or to someone around us, the hippocampus signals our amygdala and arouses it, which sends us into panic mode. The minute our amygdala is aroused we are no longer thinking straight, our bodies are filled with cortisol (stress hormone) and our hippocampus can no longer communicate to our amygdala.
Cortisol by the way affects many functions of our body such as suppressing the immune system, affecting metabolism, sleep, memory and many more.
How our brain works in plain English
When something happens to us that we consider as threatening we become stupid, really stupid! Our decisions are clouded by emotion and emotion isn’t rational. This mechanism in our brain has kept us from harm and although we need to be sensitive to our gut feelings we shouldn’t allow our emotions to run our lives.
When we are emotional we become like a sailing boat with our sails wide open in storm and without a rod to guide us (inspired by Kahlil Gibran). The result, we are a shipwreck stranded on the sharp rocks of life.
How to stay calm under any situation
You might be thinking, well the amygdala is faster and it will respond to whatever is happening first so what saying do I have to this process? Well you do because it is all in the pattern matching that goes wrong.
When our attitude towards everything is to react and not take a step back and allow ourselves to reflect on what is going on. We end up with nothing but problems, agony and despair.
The key to learning how to stay calm is to train yourself to do so. At first, it can be difficult because our brain has been wired for many years to identify certain situations as threatening. It will respond in an emotional way.
In order to help ourselves we have to calm down our aroused amygdala. We have to work backwards. You will without doubt get emotional at first. Low arousal will allow us to reprogram our response to the pattern we matched. When we are clam and we think of a situation our amygdala and hippocampus communicate and no longer find a situation as threatening. Our amygdala calms down the same way a child calms down after a tantrum.
The 3 step process to find your peace
Find a way to calm yourself down whether it is breathing on 4:4 count or 4:8 count, a bath, aromatherapy, massage, hypnotherapy, meditation, mindfulness, you name it! Get your mind off the topic do something else that will relax your nervous system.
Regular practice of meditation and mindfulness helps us wire our brain in a different way. We learn by practice, practice and practice. That practice kicks in when it’s needed in life. Athletes don’t just show up to the Olympics, they train for years until they can compete. Practising is our training, life is our stadium.
You might be thinking but these things need time and devotion and dedication. Well aren’t you worth the effort? I think you do! Things like breathing can be effective within 30-60 seconds.
Allow yourself some time to reflect before you jump in and get tangled up like a cat in a ball of wool.
Understand that you are being irrational and emotional. Start playing with the idea of seeing things through different perspectives. You are activating your neocortex and calming down your amygdala.
The result is you stop being stupid, you have a clear head and you can think rationally. Identify what your emotional response is actually telling you and why you find this particular event to be so overwhelming.
Put your thinking cap on
Your emotions will lead your thinking patterns to be black or white, there are no grey shades in between. That is the problem with strong emotion and no reasoning. After you calm down you want to start engaging your thinking brain a little bit more. Reflection is the middle ground. Now you need a few questions to engage your brain even more.
- What if this is for a good reason.
- How else can I see this differently.
- Let’s pretend and see it from a different angle.
- Is there something I could have done earlier to prevent this?
Usually problems have hidden messages and if you do look for them you will find them. Even if it can be considered a cognitive bias by some, it will get you out of your emotions and out of your problem.
Why it is important to be calm
The emotional mechanism can kick in not only with life events but also with our own internal processing, PTSD, worrying, habits of self destruct, anger, fear and many more.
Being calm keeps you rational and gives you better choices.
The aim of the game is not to be inhuman or to live in apathy but to have control over irrational emotions that can wreck our well being, our relationship with other people and lead us to take stupid decisions.
The more you practice to stay calm under situations the more capable you will become through time. Personally I prefer to use meditation and mindfulness to train myself to be calm.
Stop reacting and start acting.
Photo by Artem Bali