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Jun 27 2016
by Melis Ozkan

How to Maintain a Stable Calmness in High-Stress and Daily Situations

By Melis Ozkan - Jun 27 2016

You’re sitting at a desk, clenching your jaw and shoulders without even noticing because the test you have in front of you makes the world seem like a tunnel where the only way out is doing well on this thing. Or maybe your heart is beating so loud that the person next to you can hear its fast beat while you wait for your turn to speak in class. Either way, here’s a little advice from someone who’s been in that hole but has also pulled herself out.

The Fundamentals:

In times where breathing is difficult and your palms get sweaty from anticipation or pressure, there are a few things that you can do to end your discomfort. Before even beginning to impart any wisdom of how to remain calm, it is essential to understand a school of thought that holds a hopeful, positive, and constructive view of the self-determining capabilities of humans: humanistic psychology and philosophy. Believing that people have the capability to fulfill their dreams while meeting their full potential is a very important mindset. In fact, the first step to being grounded or achieving a stable calmness is believing that it is possible for you to execute. Destructive comments like “I just can’t relax” or “I don’t think I would be able to do this” are intangible roadblocks which do harm because of their long-term effect on brain chemistry and formation of self-defeating habits.

Instead, reinforcing thoughts like “I have the capability to relax” and “The issues I struggle with are resolvable and changeable” help to modify a distressed outlook into one where you hold control over your thoughts and emotions. Stability is control. Control over your thoughts or at least a sense of regulation is the key to feeling comfortable enough to tell your amygdala (fear center of the brain) that it should not be too activated. Simply put, it’s more about believing that you can be calm than doing physical things to eliminate distress. Having said this, there are still some things that may help alleviate a sense of dread and uncomfort.

Some Techniques:

1. Get started on meditation!

No, you don’t have to be a monk. In fact, you do not need to know anything about meditation. It’s very easy to start because of all the wonderful resources available. For example, I use an app called “Breathe” to meditate. In this app, there are pre-recorded tracks that can help you in situations where you just need to be grounded or when you need to be able to feel empathy. Beyond this, just sitting quietly and not judging the thoughts that pass when you are in this mentally quiet state helps to be more content with your current situation.There is also this inexplicable calm that takes over your daily life. For example, after I began meditating, my AP tests junior year did not make me nervous – in fact, I did extremely well on them because I could think without the burden of having emotional instability. Sophomore year, I had experienced the worst panic attack I have ever had which hindered me from being able to comprehend what I was reading. Dread washed over me. Dread has no place where a nonjudgmental mind stands. Meditation helps to take you to a place where there is peace.   

2. Actually breathe!

Sometimes, in a high-stress situation, our muscles inevitably clench and we hold our breath. Humans are naturally born knowing how to breathe deeply, but we lose it as we grow older and external stimuli affect our patterns. No worries, doing things like yoga which concentrate on breathing can help you regulate your own breathing when not in the studio.

If yoga classes are not be accessible and for more immediate results, I’ve found that taking five to ten deep breaths quietly helps significantly. These calming and clearing breaths are most effective if taken in through the nose, but doing what is most comfortable for you is best.

3. Get out some of your energy!

Exercise is a word that makes some roll their eyes until they can see the front of their brains, but here are some physical movements that will provide relief.

Jumping Jacks. As simple and funny as the movements may seem, it helps burn off that energy in the calves, thighs, and even arms. Once you’ve done ten to twenty, you’ll feel much calmer and refreshed.

Dance when no one is watching. This is an opportunity to get out any odd or elegant movements without any judgement. Move how you want to, with or without music. It seems silly to dance around, but it can help loosen muscles, spend nervous energy, and boost good neurotransmitters like dopamine in your brain.

Go to the gym or take a class. Good old lifting or taking a Zumba class is a good option if you have some free time to schedule into your busy days. Unlike the other exercises which can be done during a stressful or anxiety-filled moment, regular exercise is generally good for your health and can help regulate your symptoms long term.

Where can you do these exercises? Anywhere. If you need some privacy, an empty bathroom, classroom, bedroom, or filed are all options. If you do not need privacy, well, the world is your oyster and cellular respiration is your game.

High Stress Situations: Tests and Managing Workload

Prevention of anxiety is always good. Time management and putting in work every day is key to avoiding anxiety from unpreparedness. Writing down all of the assignments you must complete not only keeps you from forgetting your assignments, but it also creates a motivation factor to check off the tasks. I suggest starting to study for tests about three days before the actual test so that once the day comes, you have the confidence to beat down any last-minute jitters.

During the actual day of the test, it could be opportune to meditate, do some jumping jacks, and then take a few deep breaths before starting the test. Shutting out all other background noise in the form of assignments or papers that must be completed and what the plans for the weekend are also help in creating a peaceful mind. Remember, you probably know what you are doing, it’s just this annoying stress and anxiety that might make you falter.

Daily Situations: Talking to Professors and Speaking in Class

Accepting your wild heart rate is the first step to feeling comfortable in situations where you must speak in class or with a professor. Just thinking about an event that makes you nervous in a way that is a normal situation may help put the situation into another perspective.

The real advice I have is that you should fake confidence until you do actually become confident. Just like how smiling on purpose for a few seconds changes the mood of the smiler, acting more confident will make you feel more confident. Speak louder and have good posture because those around you will never guess that you may be internally hiding in a corner.

Do you want to know more about confidence and breathing? Here's a gem!

The Gist

It’s all about keeping a positive attitude and testing out different techniques until you find a combination and balance that works for you. There is no single cure to anxiety, stress, or nervousness without a positive and open mindset in which you believe that you have the power to achieve a stable, calm disposition.Many things work together. Lastly, confidence is key, and if you don’t have it, then fake it.

Disclaimer: Generalized Anxiety Disorder or other anxiety disorders may also need therapy and medication in addition to a positive mindset. 

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Melis Ozkan - University of Chicago

I can talk about biology like it's gossip so please don't get me started on how the smooth endoplasmic reticulum just doesn't get the attention it deserves. Oh, I also enjoy slamming my clumsy fingers into keyboards in an attempt to make the world a little happier. :)

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