Why We Shouldn’t Sweat the Small Stuff
The unflappable mom, the level-headed friend, the colleague who sails through tough projects, no sweat. How do they keep calm while you carry on like a maniac? Get the scientific secrets to staying cool.
The situation: You’ve prepared for a presentation for weeks, but you end up blanking on key points. Back at your desk, you’re about to break
down in tears as you replay the episode in your head over and over again.
How to stay calm: Focus on the present. After all, “it’s never the stress-inducing event that you’re freaking out about,” says Steven Berglas, Ph.D., a life coach in Los Angeles. “It’s what you’re afraid might happen because of it,” whether that’s being reprimanded by your boss or laughed at by your colleagues. But that’s not real at the moment; what’s real is that you can take control of the situation. Quell the angst with an impromptu meditation session. Rick Hanson, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in San Francisco and the author of Hardwiring Happiness ($26, amazon.com), suggests quietly taking a moment to breathe in and two slow moments to breathe out. “Inhaling speeds up the heart rate,” he says, “and exhaling slows it down.” At the same time, say to yourself what you feel (I am upset), then let that label disappear from view. “Naming your emotions as you’re feeling them reduces the activation of your emotional brain and engages your reasoning brain,” says Hanson. Now you can focus on fixing the problem, which could be as simple as sending out a recap memo on your presentation that includes a summary and the points that you missed.
The situation: Your husband is running late (though he swore he would be on time). Now you’re going to be late for your appointment, and your toddler just wiped his nose on your skirt.
How to stay calm: Problem-solve. If even-keeled people rarely appear stressed, it’s because they’re too busy looking for answers. A tardy spouse and a soiled skirt aren’t catastrophes to be cursed at but circumstances to be fixed. Dorlen suggests asking yourself, immediately after the offending incident happens, How am I going to solve this? “Once you phrase the question in your mind, you have awakened the reasoning portion of your brain and put yourself in a position to find an answer,” says Dorlen. “You’re no longer the victim of your emotions.” Next, pretend that you’re a coach with a game plan, such as pulling on a clean skirt, taking your child with you, and texting your husband to meet you at your appointment. Now take action.
The situation: Somehow, your offer to bring back coffee for an office mate has turned into an order for six complicated lattes. As you rattle
off the list to the barista, you notice that she is rolling her eyes.
How to stay calm: Speak positively. To understand why this is important, it helps to know a little brain anatomy. The brain is made up of cognitive and emotional parts, and the emotional part is composed of various circuits, says Andrew Newberg, M.D., the director of research in integrative medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, in Philadelphia, and a coauthor of Words Can Change Your Brain ($16, amazon.com). These circuits include the reward system, which reinforces positive experiences, and the sympathetic nervous system, which connects the brain to the body and issues a fight-or-flight response when you feel stressed. Positive words (which we grew up associating with something pleasant, such as caring teachers) activate the reward system. Negative words (which we associate with something unpleasant, like playground bullies) spike angry or sad thoughts. So if you’re not willing to let it go, say, with a good-natured laugh, “I know this long order is annoying. I wish I had a shorter list, too,” as opposed to “Hey, you’re rude!” The words will calm you, and they will also put the other person in a more generous frame of mind. “Our emotional states reflect those around us,” says Newberg. If you speak pleasant words in a calm tone, chances are, the other person will reply with pleasant words in a calm tone. Starting the exchange in a peaceful way increases the chance that you’ll be sipping on your espresso sooner rather than later.