How to keep your mind calm

Four Ways to Calm Your Mind in Stressful Times

Life throws chaos at us on a regular basis—whether it’s our finances, our relationships, or our health. In the work world, around 50 percent of people are burned out in industries like health care, banking, and nonprofits, and employers spend $300 billion per year on workplace-related stress.

This essay is adapted from Emma Seppälä's talk "Building Resilience in Times of Chaos."

In response, we just keep on pushing through, surviving on adrenaline. We overschedule ourselves; we drink another coffee; we respond to one more email. If we stay amped up all the time, we think, we’ll eventually be able to get things done.

But all that does is burn us out, drain our productivity, and lead to exhaustion.

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There’s another way—a calmer way. Cultivating a more restful, relaxed state of mind doesn’t mean we’ll drown under all our responsibilities. Instead, research suggests it will bring us greater attention, energy, and creativity to tackle them. And science also points to simple ways we can tap into that calm state of mind to be more resilient in our chaotic lives.

A stressed mind vs. a calm mind

Stress was never meant to be a 24/7 experience. As Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky explains, you’re really only supposed to feel stressed in the five minutes right before you die. When you are being chased in the savanna by a wild animal, your stress response is supposed to save your life—it mobilizes your attention, muscles, and immune system to get you quickly out of danger. When animals escape, they come right out of fight-or-flight mode and into “rest-and-digest” mode, where the parasympathetic nervous system is working to replenish their resources. 

That stress response is supposed to be short-lived because it wears down your body, your health, and your energy. It also impacts things like your emotional intelligence and your decision making. When you’re tightly wound up, you are more likely to react to situations than to respond with reason.

You also perceive the world differently. Stress makes us narrowly focused, preventing us from seeing the bigger picture. When we’re calmer, our attention becomes broader. In fact, we literally see more things. In one study, participants went through a three-month meditation training. They then engaged in something called the attentional blink task, in which you watch images appear rapidly one after another. Usually when people do this exercise, their attention doesn’t pick up all of the target images. But after that mindfulness training, participants were able to pick up more of the target images than pre-retreat—suggesting that their state of mind had become more attentive.

Being able to attend more means that you notice more things about other people and you’re able to communicate with them in more powerful ways. High stress and anxiety (or any kind of negative emotion) make us self-focused, for an evolutionary reason: When our ancestors were stressed, it was because they were in a survival situation. It was good to be focused on yourself so you could save your life.

When we’re stressed, we’re less likely to notice if a colleague looks burned out or sad and more likely to get irritated if they don’t perform as we expect. However, when you’re in a calmer and happier place, that’s probably the day when you will have more empathy: You’ll notice your colleague and take the time to reach out and ask if there’s anything you can do to support them.

When you’re calm, you also manage your energy because you’re not burning yourself up constantly, spending your days with your sympathetic nervous system in overdrive. Calm helps you focus on what you need to do and get it done much more quickly.

Calmness can also impact your creativity. Research suggests that our most creative ideas come in moments when we’re not actively focused or stressed. We are most creative when our brain is in alpha wave mode, which is a relaxed state of mind—like when you’re in the shower or taking a walk in nature. Indeed, people who go on an immersive nature retreat for four days come back with 50 percent increased creativity.

If you want to get the most out of yourself in terms of your productivity, creativity, and innovation—making progress at work or just solving the basic problems of life that you’re faced with—calm is the key.

How to cultivate a calm state of mind

We know how to become stressed. Most of us are really good at activating our adrenal system and getting wound up. The question becomes, then, how do you wind down? Research suggests several practices that not only feel good but also put us into a calmer, more relaxed state—a state from which we can cope better with whatever life throws at us. 

1. Breathing. 
Jake, who appears in my book The Happiness Track, was a U.S. Marine officer in charge of a Humvee on a convoy across Afghanistan, when his vehicle drove over an improvised explosive device. After the explosion, he looked down and saw that his legs were severely fractured below the knee. In that moment of shock, terror, and pain, he remembered a breathing exercise that he had read about for extreme wartime situations.

It allowed him to do his duty, which was to check on everyone else in the vehicle. It gave him the presence of mind to give orders to call for help, and to then tourniquet his own legs and prop them up before he fell unconscious—which saved his life.

Our breathing is a powerful way for us to regulate our emotions, and it is something we take for granted. Through your breath, you can activate your parasympathetic nervous system—the calming response in your body.

That’s why we turned to breathing to help veterans—50 percent of whom don’t see any improvement in their trauma symptoms from therapy or medication. The veterans were skeptical, but we began teaching them different breathing exercises. Within a couple of days, some of them started sleeping without medication; after the week-long program, many of them didn’t qualify as having post-traumatic stress anymore, and that persisted up to a year later.

Using your breath, you can change how you feel. In another study, researchers observed people feeling different emotions and found that there was a different pattern of breath for each one. Then, they gave other people the different breathing patterns to perform and asked them, “How do you feel?” It turned out that doing those breathing exercises actually evoked the emotions.

One of the most calming breathing exercises you can do is to breathe in (e.g., to a count of four), hold, and then breathe out for up to twice as long (e.g., to a count of six or eight). You can gently constrict your throat, making a sound like the ocean, which is used in deep relaxation breathing. As you’re doing this, especially thanks to those long exhales, you’re activating the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing your heart rate and blood pressure.

2. Self-compassion. Often we are our worst critic. We think that being self-critical will help us be more self-aware and make us work harder, but that’s a myth. In fact, according to a good deal of research, self-criticism destroys our resilience. We’re less able to learn from our mistakes when we beat ourselves up. Self-critical people tend to have greater anxiety and depression, and an inability to bounce back from struggles.

Imagine someone running a marathon for the very first time in their life, and they trip and fall. Someone on the sidelines says, “You’re a loser, you’re so not a runner. What are you doing here? Go home.” That person is our internal, self-critical voice. Self-compassion is somebody on the other side, who says, “Everybody falls, this is normal. You are so awesome, you’re totally killing this.”

Self-compassion is the ability to be mindful of your emotions—aware of the emotions that are going on inside whenever you fail at something. It doesn’t mean you identify with them; you can just observe and notice them, without feeding the fire. Self-compassion also involves understanding that everyone makes mistakes and that it’s part of being human. And it is the ability to speak to yourself the way you would speak to a friend who just failed, warmly and kindly.

When we adopt this attitude, research suggests, we are calmer—we have less feelings of stress as well as lower cortisol levels. We’re also more resilient: We’re less afraid of failure, and more motivated to improve ourselves.

3. Connection. How often are we actually present for another person 100 percent? When was the last time somebody was 100 percent present with you, even your spouse?

There’s a loneliness epidemic in the United States and across the world. We know that those feelings of loneliness are extremely destructive to our body and mind, leading to worse health and even earlier death. And the stress and lack of calm in today’s world may contribute to this loneliness because of the way that it tends to make us self-focused.

Our greatest human need, after food and shelter, is to connect with other people in a positive way. From the moment we’re born until our last day, we have a deep and profound longing to belong to one another. And when we fulfill that need, it brings us more calm: The oxytocin and natural opioids that we release when we connect may exert a calming influence on our bodies, and the knowledge that we have the support of others can soothe our minds. When we face adversity, research suggests that our relationships and community have an important role to play in our resilience.

So how do we create a state of mind where we feel more connected?

The good news is that by taking care of yourself and your own well-being with practices like breathing and self-compassion, you are able to turn more attention outward to feel more connected, as well. Positive emotions like calm naturally make us feel closer to other people. You can try specific practices that research has found to boost your sense of connection, as well.

4. Compassion for others. Imagine a day when things aren’t going well for you—you spilled your coffee on yourself, and it’s raining. And then a friend calls who’s having a true emergency in their life, and you jump up and go help them immediately. What happens to your state of mind in that moment?

All of a sudden you have high energy; you’re completely at their service. That is what practicing altruism, service, and compassion does to your life.

It increases your well-being tremendously, as many of us have experienced when we perform little acts of kindness. When we feel compassion, our heart rate goes down and our parasympathetic nervous system is more activated.

Kindness and compassion can also help protect us from adversity. In one of my favorite studies, researchers found that people who had been through traumatic life situations had a shorter lifespan. But among these participants, there was a small group of people who just seemed to keep on living. What was going on with these people?

When the researchers dug a little deeper, they found that they were all engaged in helping friends and family in their life—from assisting with transportation or shopping to housework and child care. Service is one of the most profound ways to nourish the community around you, but also to nourish, inspire, and energize yourself. It’s like that children’s book—when you fill someone’s bucket, it also fills yours.

Cultivating calm isn’t about avoiding every kind of stressful emotion. In fact, when we make time to breathe, connect, and care, some of the negative feelings we’ve been running from might catch up with us. But that’s the time for self-compassion; it’s okay to feel bad. Resilience doesn’t mean that we’ll be happy all the time, but it does mean we have the energy, the mindset, and the support from others to help us weather the storm.

The talk this essay is based on is part of the Positive Links Speaker Series by the University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations. The Center is dedicated to building a better world by pioneering the science of thriving organizations.

14 Ways to Quiet Your Mind Explained


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Cleveland Clinic: "Exercise: Mind-Body Exercises & Heart Health," "3 Reasons Adult Coloring Can Actually Relax Your Brain."

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National Sleep Foundation: "Relaxation Exercises for Falling Asleep."

Psychological Reports: "Benefits, Problems, and Characteristics of Home Aquarium Owners."

Anthrozoös: "Effect of aquariums on electroconvulsive therapy patients. "

Marriage & Family Review: "Health, Aquariums, and the Non-Institutionalized Elderly."

BBC: "Aquariums 'deliver significant health benefits.' "

Journal of Environmental Psychology: "Blue space: The importance of water for preference, affect, and restorativeness ratings of natural and built scenes." "The Cognitive Benefits of Being by Water."

Environment and Behavior: "Marine Biota and Psychological Well-Being: A Preliminary Examination of Dose-Response Effects in an Aquarium Setting."

Anxiety and Depression Association of America: "Exercise for Stress and Anxiety."

Mental Health Foundation: "Physical activity and mental health," "Altruism and wellbeing."

American Council on Exercise: "8 Reasons HIIT Workouts are So Effective."

PLOS ONE: "Twelve Weeks of Sprint Interval Training Improves Indices of Cardiometabolic Health Similar to Traditional Endurance Training despite a Five-Fold Lower Exercise Volume and Time Commitment. "

American Journal of Public Health: "The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature."

The Dana Foundation: "The Amygdala: The Body’s Alarm Circuit."

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Berkeley Wellness: "The Benefits of Giving."

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Journal of Attention Disorders: "Children With Attention Deficits Concentrate Better After Walk in the Park. "

University of Minnesota, Taking Charge of your Health & Wellbeing: "How Does Nature Impact Our Wellbeing?" "Spend Time in Nature to Reduce Stress and Anxiety."

AnxietyCanada: "How to do Progressive Muscle Relaxation."

Hormone Health Network: "What is Oxytocin?"

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Learning from the Best: Keeping Calm Like the 14th Dalai Lama

Humanity has a habit of looking to spiritual leaders when times are tough, hoping to find a panacea for anxiety and fear through them. But not everyone has enough authority to support and inspire other people. Perhaps the Dalai Lama is one of those who are trusted on all continents.

Nobel Peace Prize winner, former head of the Tibetan government in exile, Buddhist, the Dalai Lama is a supporter of the dialogue of cultures, religions and politics for the sake of world peace. Meetings with him gather a huge number of people who want to be imbued with the teacher's inner light. The Dalai Lama has been popularizing the art of being happy for many years among those who are ready to show empathy for others, work on the transformation and rethinking of their suffering and overcome obstacles.

According to the Dalai Lama, for every person, regardless of gender, race, religion or language, the main things in life are two things: the pursuit of happiness and the avoidance of suffering. This is the essence of being. If a person seeks well-being, he must be clearly aware that it depends on the nature of his existence.

One of the markers of a happy being is peace of mind, the path to which is impossible without work on oneself and, of course, meditation. But the one who passes it will be able to resist even the most difficult life tests.


"Calmness and equanimity of mind should not be confused with apathy and insensitivity or absolute detachment and emptiness, because they are based on love and compassion, which means that they are characterized by considerable sensitivity and emotionality."


“Unless you are disciplined enough to keep your mind calm, no material possessions or external circumstances can bring you joy and happiness. On the other hand, if you possess such a quality as equanimity of mind, then the lack of external circumstances that seemed necessary to you for a fulfilling life will not be an obstacle to a happy life.


“Peace of mind, a responsive and clear mind can have a beneficial effect on mental and physical health. And vice versa - irritation, fear, anxiety and anger destroy our body.


“All obscurations of the mind, all negative experiences are originally distorted phenomena of consciousness, because they are based on a false perception of reality. No matter how strong they are, negative emotions have no firm footing.”


“Hatred and anger arise in a frustrated and dissatisfied mind. Therefore, you can secure yourself in advance by developing inner satisfaction, kindness, and compassion. This will give you peace of mind that will prevent anger from arising. If anger has taken possession of you, you should think carefully about it, try to find out what are the reasons for its appearance. Then, in the course of further reflection, try to understand whether anger in this case is an adequate reaction, whether it is constructive or destructive. Try also to show restraint and inner discipline, use antidotes for anger: thoughts of patience and tolerance.


“In everyday life, patience and tolerance bring great benefits. The development of these qualities allows us to achieve peace of mind and maintain this state in the future. Thus, a person with patience and tolerance is able to maintain calm and presence of mind even in the most severe stressful conditions.


“According to my experience, the main characteristic of true happiness is peace—inner peace. By that, I don't mean anything "out of the ordinary". I'm not talking about the absence of sensations. On the contrary, the calmness that I am describing is rooted in caring for others and includes a high degree of sensitivity and perception, although I cannot claim to be very successful in this myself. I connect my feeling of peace rather with the effort to cultivate in myself concern for others.


“In the system of Tibetan medicine, mental and emotional disorders are considered the cause of many diseases of the body, including cancer. Moreover, calmness, peace and concern for others are considered very important for the cure of the patient. Here, too, we can see a deep longing for peace. Why? Because peace and tranquility presuppose life and development, while cruelty presupposes only misfortune and death.”


“The less calm we are, the more likely we are to react negatively, speak harsh words, and even more likely to say or do something that we later regret bitterly, even if our feelings at the time of the quarrel were deeply hurt."


“We also find that when we act out of concern for others, the peace and quiet that arises in our hearts brings peace to all with whom we are connected. We bring peace to the family, peace to friends, the workplace, the community, and so on. So why shouldn't everyone want to develop this quality in themselves? Can there be anything higher than that which brings peace and happiness to all? For me, the fact that we humans are able to offer praises of love and compassion is already the most precious of gifts.”


“If we want to maintain peace and tranquility in our mind, and thereby happiness, then we, along with a more reasonable and impartial view of our own negative thoughts and feelings, must cultivate in ourselves a firm habit of restraining them. Negative thoughts and emotions are what push us to act unethically. Moreover, painful emotions are also the source of our own inner suffering - because they are the basis for frustration, anxiety, insecurity, anxiety, and even a complete loss of self-esteem, without which there is no self-confidence - and the inability to contain them means that we will continue to be in a state of constant mental and emotional discomfort. Inner peace will become unattainable. Instead of happiness, there will be a feeling of defenselessness. And from here it’s not far to causeless fears and depression.”

Read also: Learning from the best: Philosophizing like Friedrich Nietzsche

Living in a metropolis: how to keep your mind calm. 7 approaches for every day of the week

You probably noticed that when we are on vacation or in a state of relaxation, we are visited by creative ideas, solutions, concepts. It is easy to feel it in Bali or on the sea coast, in the mountains or in a forest clearing. And each such thought causes a surge of joy, enhances a positive state, gives an influx of energy. At such moments, I try to write down these thoughts, then I create a visualization, and if I'm lucky, then immediately mind mapping.

When a trip or vacation ends, we return to the world of tasks, plans, obligations. A rich information field stimulates us to think even more actively. The flow is growing, and with it the speed of thought. Our internal dialogue sometimes continues even in those moments when we want to concentrate on something else. It can be communication with friends, relatives, children. Or visiting the theater, opening day, event. This happens at business meetings, meetings, negotiations. And questions are often asked: "Are you here? What were you thinking about?

In my past 25 years of diverse practice with people, I have observed and explored different situations. And I started with research and development of my own states. Growing up in the family of a neurologist, I easily chose the same specialization at an early age and had a deep respect for higher nervous activity. Over time, I got involved in business, issues of personal realization, themes of balance and harmony, which naturally led me to yoga, and most importantly, to teachers.

It was knowledge, teachers and like-minded people that contributed to the development of my more integral understanding of the functions of the brain, interaction with the physical body.

Reiki, Vajra Yoga, Transcendental Meditation, Coaching, Kundalini Yoga, Breathing Practices, Qigong - I have carefully researched this and much more. I like to be an observer, making a journey into the world of my own states and awareness.

Highlight the essentials of each day and activity

  • Try to start the day with meditation, a state of mindfulness
  • Create an intention for every day
  • Get up 20-30 minutes earlier so as not to tire yourself out later
  • Take breaks in your work schedule

So, you have already formulated your intention ?

  • I want to calm down
  • I want to stop the internal dialogue
  • I want to spend this meeting in a state of awareness
  • I want to focus on creating a project

7 short practices for daily use

No special conditions or training required.

1. Catch your thought

Thoughts follow one another in a continuous stream. Sit with a straight back, close your eyes and try to catch the thought at the moment it arises. Just notice the appearance of the thought. No need to evaluate it, count it or react to it. Just capture the appearance. Continue for 5-7 minutes, keep even breathing.

Do it lightly, don't try too hard.

2. Perform short breathing practices

  • with lengthening the exhalation: sit or stand with a straight back, inhale for 2 counts, exhale for 4, then inhale for 2 counts - exhale for 5, inhale for 2 counts - exhale for 6 and so on. Take 8-10 breaths.
  • ujjai breath — with a slight contraction of the larynx, slowly let the air in with a slight whistle, inhale and exhale in 4 counts, take 6-8 breaths. We carefully notice how the breath slows down and the mind calms down.

3. Practice slow left/right walking.

You can walk for 5-10 minutes right around the room or along the corridor with an attentive transition from one foot to another: mentally say: “Left-right”, consciously stepping from foot to foot.

Heel to toe transition - slow smooth walking for 5-10 minutes with a significant slowdown with each new step. You practically barely move! You can do this to the sounds of nature, and replace walking with any movement: get up slowly, take a glass, pour water ... observe the state. You will feel how the body acquires a state of balance and the mind becomes slow and plastic.

4. Contemplate objects

Choose any subject or object of your choice and start studying it, fixing on the details, mark them. For example, start looking at the tree outside the window: what shape the leaves are, how they grow, how they attach to the branches, what color they are, how they move under the influence of the wind. Continue for 5-7 minutes. Next time, choose a different object.

5. Practice Zentangle Drawing

Anti-stress drawing allows you to simply pause and become aware of yourself in the current moment. I like Emma Farrarons Mindfulness coloring book. It is the process of coloring with pencils, filling the page with color and looking at the picture that allows you to enter the state of meditation. You can draw various spirals, flowers, leaves, waves:

Zentangle is an abstract miniature of patterns on a sheet or tile. Enough to start with a pencil or pen and a sheet of paper 9 by 9 cm. Put 4 dots in the corners of the sheet and connect them. Even if the lines are not straight enough, this is not the main thing. Then, at your discretion, divide the square into areas and fill each with an abstract pattern. Don't draw! Create your own unique pattern or ornament. Let there be stripes, circles, dots. This is your creativity. You can also depict nature.

6. Perform Tadasana - mountain pose.

A seemingly simple asana requires attention. We put our feet shoulder-width apart, feet parallel on the outside. Shifting weight from heel to toe and vice versa. Then we build a pose from the bottom up: we tighten the legs, tighten the kneecaps, tighten the hips, twist the coccyx, tighten the stomach, align the position of the pelvis, tighten the buttocks, stretch the top of the head up, stretch the spine, turn the shoulders back in a circular motion, stretch our arms along the body down. Mentally scan the position of the body from the bottom up. Maintain even breathing. After 3-4 breaths, we relax, observe the state of the body and mind, notice changes.

7. Listen to binaural music with various effects

Binaural music creates the effect of three-dimensional space. It's all about the recording technique: special devices are used that resemble the shape of a head. The sound in both ears arrives with a difference of a fraction of a second. We listen to music with headphones and enjoy the attached visualization. Choose effects according to your condition: to stimulate concentration or increase creativity, to improve memory or relaxation. Maintain awareness and observe the state of mind. Enjoy the sounds of the universe!

All these practices allow you to transform the state of mind and body within a few minutes without tension. And at the end of the day there is an opportunity to relax and calm down. Savasana is a great way to get back to your real self.

My rug at home is always ready!! And when I travel, I take it with me.

Last time in Miami, when my flight was delayed for 6 hours, I spread my mat by the window and took the shavasana position, relaxed my body and mind, recovered right before the flight and happily continued my journey. I am sure that yoga and meditation halls will soon appear at airports and other places. In any case, there is such an intention.

As for our topic, let's continue practicing with pleasure, watching the transformation. Over time, you will organically enter a state of awareness, if this does not work out yet. And whatever happens around, the main thing is how we react to it!

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