“The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it.”
Sydney J. Harris
The stress is rising. You’re starting to feel frustrated with situation you’re in. Or angry. Or maybe sad and like you just want to pack up and go home. But at the same time you also know that you need to calm your nerves and stay cool. To be able to think clearly. To not overreact, make the wrong decision or to not say the wrong thing in a moment of anger, overwhelm or confusion.
I’m sure you – just like me – have been in situations like these many times. So this week I’d like to share 17 habits and strategies that have helped me to keep calm and to keep moving forward.
1. Just breathe.
This is pretty much always step one for me. Just take a few deep breaths and focus fully on them to calm down a bit. If you have the time in the situation you’re in then I recommend sitting down for 1-2 minutes to do this. Only focus on the air slowly going and out and nothing else.
2. Then think of the consequences.
If you’re in a situation where you need to reply to what someone just said then follow up your few deep breaths with thinking about the consequences if you reply with overly tough words or if you back down instead of calmly standing your ground. If you have an email or a phone message you need to reply to then consider taking more time to cool down – anywhere between 10 minutes to the next day – to get yourself into the right headspace before you reply.
3. Remember: It’s not always about you.
If someone attacks you with harsh words in a conversation or via email or phone then remind yourself that this may not even be about you. He might be going overboard or overreacting because he’s having a bad day with a sick child or just a lot of things going wrong. Or she may lash out because she’s unhappy with her job, marriage or haven’t had a good night’s sleep in a while.
This reminder helps me to not take everything so personally and to think for a minute and calm down instead of being reactive and escalating the situation.
4. Take it just one small – or tiny – step at a time.
If you feel overwhelmed and stressed out then don’t make the classic mistake of thinking you have to do everything at once to solve this situation. Just focus on making a start. On one small step or even just a tiny one you can take to move forward. I find that when I approach a situation like this then I rarely get stuck in analysis paralysis and my mind calms down when I know I only have to do one small thing at a time.
5. Question your perspective.
If you feel that you’re starting to get really frustrated, angry or sad about a situation then question your perspective before it goes any further.
- How would I think and feel it if I were in his or her shoes? This one can help you to go from negative emotions to empathy and understanding. And that tends to help to both calm down and to find a solution for the both of you.
- Will this matter in 5 years? Or even in 5 weeks? This one grounds me and helps me to stop sweating all the small stuff and to not make mountains out molehills in everyday life. And it helps me to once again focus my time and energy on what truly matters in my life.
6. What would someone else do?
Another way to change your perspective in a tough situation is to get outside of your own head a bit. Do that by asking yourself: what would X do in this situation? Some good people or characters that you could use for the X and this question are:
- Winnie the Pooh.
- Mom or dad.
- Your calm and wise friend.
Find a person in your life or someone from a book, movie etc. that you truly like and ask yourself what he or she would do to find a new perspective.
7. Cycle fully focused work with 100% rest.
This could be a solution if you’re stressed today. But it is more importantly a long term solution to reduce stress levels and to consistently put yourself in a better headspace to handle the inevitable setbacks and crises that will happen at work. You need to clear boundaries for this to work though.
Here are three such boundaries I use in my own life.
- A start time and stop time for my work day. And that’s 8 o clock in the morning and 7 o clock in the evening.
- A break every 45 minutes. Usually, after about 45 minutes of work I take a 10-15 minute break. If I have trouble with following that guideline and work too much then I use the alarm function on my smart phone to stick to my work/rest cycle.
- No work on weekends. I stay away from the work computer except for doing one quick check of my inbox. And I only reply to emails there that are urgent. The rest can wait until Monday. If you use a work phone then leave it at your job. Or at least keep it off and only check the messages 1-2 times per weekend.
8. Remember to keep things extremely simple.
Here’s a reminder that I’ve used more time than I can count: “Keep things extremely simple”. It used to be at the top of my white board for over a year to remind me to not overcomplicate and to think of situations and solutions in the simplest way I could. Overthinking is a big contributor to stress and to spending too much time and energy on things that aren’t really that complicated.
I quite often sandwich this reminder between first focusing on my breathing and then following it up with focusing on one small or tiny step forward.
9. Ask instead of guessing.
Trying to mindread someone can quickly amplify stress, anxiety and frustration. Because it’s pretty much impossible to do. Plus, it can easily lead to a much worse scenario in your mind than what is actually going on in the other person’s head. So communicate and ask what you want to ask.
10. Be 10 minutes early.
Not much help when you’re already in stressful situation. But a good reminder for tomorrow and next week. Plan a bit ahead so that you can – as often as possible – let transportation time between meetings and destinations during your day become a small window where you can fully relax and rejuvenate so that you’ll be able to do fully focused work or be truly engaged when you arrive.
11. Reduce your to-do list.
A big or seemingly endless to-do list can cause a ton of overwhelm and stress. To calm down simply ask yourself: what would I work on if I only had 2 hours for work today? Then work on that task one step at a time. This one helps me to quickly find my focus and to get started with doing one of truly most important things when I’m stressed.
And it helps me to be selective with what I put on my to-do list for the day and week in the first place.
12. Go for a 5-15 minute laugh break.
When you feel overwhelmed and it’s hard to think then you can take this somewhat odd but effective kind of break. For maybe 5-15 minutes focus on having fun, smiling and laughing. Laughing and finding some fun breaks stress and tension. It helps your mind to relax.
You can do this by just spending a bit of time with someone at work, in school or at home that you know you’ll have fun with. But I also recommend having a small mental or physical folder of things that you know will make you laugh. For me it’s for example episodes of the Simpsons or comics from The Oatmeal and Poorly Drawn Lines. After that break you can return to your work or the situation that you’re trying to figure out with a lighter mind.
13. Take some time for yourself in nature.
A more conventional alternative to laugh breaks is to take a break where you go out in nature and spend some time in silence there to recharge yourself. I usually take these breaks by going out for a slow walk in our nearby forest where I take in all the sounds, sights and smells for a little while.
14. Ask for help.
You don’t always have to go it alone in these situations. You can ask a friend, family member or even someone you may not know that well for a bit of help. You might not always get it but you may be surprised at how helpful people can be if you just ask.
15. Just take care of today.
It’s hard to keep your nerves and thoughts calm if you look at all the things you may have to get to done to solve a situation or to overcome a challenge. That’s why I’ve already shared a few tips that help you to concentrate on a much smaller part of the situation. Such as when you focus on just one small or tiny step or when you ask yourself the question about what you’d work on if you only had 2 hours for work today.
Here’s another one of those tips and habits that help me. What you do is simply to tell yourself: just take care of today. Concentrate only on that. Forget about all the tomorrows for now. Narrow your focus and take care of only today. Tomorrow will come in time and you can take care of it then.
16. Had a setback? Then be your own best friend.
Don’t let a temporary setback drag you down into a thought spiral of defeatism and negativity. Instead, ask yourself this to keep going on a healthier track even if you don’t feel so good at the moment:
How would my best friend or my parent support me and help me in this situation? Then do things and talk to yourself like he or she would.
17. Listen to yourself.
If you feel you’re having more trouble than usual with staying calm and keeping your nerves in check in several situations and you’re really frustrated in general and drained of energy then listen to yourself. Step back before you run right into a brick wall and do or say something you really wouldn’t usually do. Schedule more time to just take care of yourself. Spend one evening – or a few – in bed and just watch your favorite TV-shows or movies.
Take a trip over the weekend and just focus on relaxing and doing what you think is fun or fulfilling. Spend more time out in nature for a few days or a week.