Calm

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In the popular culture people often make jokes about going to their “happy place” when something is upsetting or boring. While that is not the way to handle an upsetting or boring situation — you should always be in the present, and aware of what is going on for your own well-being — there is a need for having calm in your life. We have assaulted our ability to have a quiet moment of retrospection or any quiet thought on all fronts. But finding your calm is good for you.

When I say calm I don’t mean that you must be in a state of having no emotion all the time, or that you must seek out solitude and silence. But rather you must be able to calm yourself, the inner lizard brain or the middle predator brain that is trying to move as fast as your heart beats. Silence can lend itself to this but is not a requirement. Music can help as well.

Life can be full of worry and doubt, stress and aggravation. For brevity’s sake we’ll file all of this under “worries”: health problems or anxieties, money concerns, social anxiety. That’s what they are, worries. Worry is a strong state and something I am prone to. Another aggravation to your calm can be sensory stimulation. Constant, overwhelming noises, never-ending visual stimuli that harm your inner calm, and so on. These we’ll call “aggravations.” I promise this isn’t some new age bullshit, I’m just categorizing things that can cause a person to become stressed out or generally upset.

This is a pretty basic concept that doesn’t even need psychology to explain. Witness an animal exposed to a constantly annoying sound or touch. Even the calmest dog in the world will eventually bite someone who keeps pestering him. This is because every creature cognizant of its surroundings has a patience limit for annoyance. Stress in general is like this and it makes for a generally annoyed populace. People are miserable.

Everyone has a different threshold, a different limit they can take, and this has nothing to do with strength or weakness but I will argue that it has something to do with ability to find their inner calm. When you are aggravated or worried your brain is constantly struggling to keep up with the competing demands of your conscious mind and your aggravations and worries. You get stressed, your blood pressure rises. This can lead to illness and immune system problems. But you can’t stop thinking about what is upsetting you.

There’s no simple fix other than to let it go. Even if you can’t really let it go for good you must put it away in a box in your mind to be dealt with later. Focus on your calm. Remove yourself from aggravating stimuli, first and foremost, if at all possible. When your brain pops up a worry, there are two possible answers to how to handle it: Can you address it?

If the answer is yes then of course, by all means, get to working on it as soon as possible. But if the answer is no, which in all likelihood it is, then you must tell yourself to calm down. Some people take offense to the term “calm down” but you shouldn’t take such offense from yourself.

“There is nothing I can do about this and thinking about it isn’t making it any better.” That’s it, face that truth and make yourself think about something else. Tell yourself you will think about that worry some other time if you can’t let it go. But like guilt and regret, worry is something that all people should move to work beyond. Unless you have done something that hurts another person and have not made amends, you have no room in your mental train for guilt. You cannot change the past.

The Serenity prayer, often said by people in various groups for addicts, goes like this:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Serenity is the state of being serene, calm, tranquil, but serene is also defined as calm, peaceful, or tranquil; unruffled. The unruffled bit plays into the aggravations I listed above. For me personally, sometimes, when there’s a lot of sounds at once I become rather ruffled. If someone is talking to me and there is a device emitting sound — television, music, et cetera — and someone else is also talking, in a small space… it aggravates me very quickly and my temper becomes short. This is one of my myriad flaws.

It isn’t really a problem when I am in public and there is a lot of space. At a pool hall for example, with a loud jukebox, even if it plays something I don’t like, and the sound of people playing pool and having conversations… I’m totally fine. It isn’t just the sounds and proximity. It’s the combination of everything together.

Sometimes people turn to drugs, legal or otherwise, to try and gain some serenity. They drink (too much), smoke, abuse prescriptions, or do something totally illegal. Sometimes people turn to bad habits like gambling or pornography — not physically addictive but definitely impacting the reward center in the brain. Others over or under eat. In most of these examples the supposed cure is something the ruffled can control. Sure, they can’t win at gambling all the time. But they can decide what bet to make. They can decide how much beer to drink.

Or so they think.

This is a trap that doesn’t address the problem. It is like putting a band-aid on a wound that needs stitches. You may have covered it up but you didn’t address it. If you can change something, change it. If you can address a worry or guilt, do so. Even if you can’t really fix it, or you can’t completely fix it right now, you can make progress. That’s better than nothing. No matter how little difference you make that is more difference than turning to drugs makes.

If you cannot change something, if you cannot address it — for example, you were horrible to a person and didn’t get to apologize before they died, or you lost your job, or any other situation that you aren’t in control of — then all you can do is accept it. It is perfectly acceptable to accept that you cannot change the past. (As to the job, you may not get that job back but you can, eventually, find another job as long as you’re still breathing.)

Once you’ve told yourself “I’ll think about this later” the worry will still persist. Occupy your mind elsewhere. “We’re not thinking about this right now.” This is a hard habit to get into, but eventually you can build the strength to postpone your worries. “I can’t fix this today, so I will not fret about it.”

One you’ve mastered that it will be much easier to find your calm.

Driving home can be my calm, despite the irritating habits of other drivers. One of the most calming things for me to do is drive in silence and not think about anything other than driving, to put myself into that. Another, I narrate ideas — either posts, or fiction writing, or ideas for an eventual Cigars and Legs podcast. If I think it’s worth keeping I’ll turn on my voice recorder, but sometimes I just talk out ideas out loud. Nobody can hear me. Other times, I’ll talk to a loved one on the phone. But the point is — I’m calm and not thinking about any bullshit worries. The drive in is much similar: I often talk to my wife (hands free of course) and don’t even think about work until I walk through the door.

But another great way to find calm: I do something productive. When I’m doing something productive, like writing, I have to focus on that. I cannot think about my worries right now — I’m writing. I cannot think about my worries right now — I’m reading this book. I find that television is not as good at calming me down as reading. Perhaps because of the visual and auditory stimuli, perhaps because it allows parts of my brain to rest. I can’t worry right now — I’m trying to build something. I can’t worry right now — I’ve got to keep track of my reps or how long I’ve been at this.

Cooking is another source of calm. Unless you have thrown everything in a crock pot there is no time to dwell on misery while you cook. You will burn something. This might not be so calming were I a chef. Though, I did once work as a cook in college. That job was not calming at all.

Work is going to be stressful or boring. That’s why they have to pay you to show up. Relationships with other people are stressful because you can’t control their behavior and they might not do what you want. Finances can be stressful if you don’t have enough cash to live the life you want. Health anxiety can be debilitating. But either you can fix it or you can’t, and sitting around worrying about either situation won’t do you any good.

Once you are able to calm your fears and worries you will become ten times more productive and able to slay much larger dragons in your life. Your willpower is a finite resource that can be drained and worries drain it, while calm refills it. It can be hard to start if your will to act is atrophied, but the alternative is worse.