The Simplest Way to Create More Calm in Your Life

Man Relaxing on Beach

“I vow to let go of all worries and anxiety in order to be light and free.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

This particular week, I flunked. I’d be lucky if you gave me a D grade in assessing my calmness.

Generally, nobody can question my commitment to leading a life of less stress. I try hard. I try very hard.

You might even be impressed with my healthy diet, my abundance of sleep, and my regular exercise. You couldn’t fault the careful thought and planning that go into my days and weeks. Hell, I can even claim meditation, mindfulness, and self-awareness as long-time, well-practiced skills.

But some weeks you take your eye off the ball, don’t you.

And I can’t blame any common stressors that predictably make life tougher: no illness or injury, no family or relationship conflict, no extra pressure at work or excessive financial strain.

That particular week I failed because I didn’t stop. I didn’t let go. Too much rushing, too much on my mind, too much scheduled.

And of course I was on edge, with that irksome and uneasy agitation that plagues you when stress gets the better of you.

It feels unshakeable, lurks about robbing you of simple pleasures, sapping any joy from your day. Left unchecked it will escalate. We all know that stress may pass with little consequence, but let it go and go, and it mutates, into depression, anxiety, or destructive behaviors, ruining work, relationships or your health.

Despite working hard over the years to build my repertoire of tricks and techniques to restore calm, on this occasion it was more luck than effort that turned things around for me.

The surprising antidote arrived on the Saturday afternoon.

Unplanned, Unexpected Calm (and How It Happens)

“Tilt your head forward so that you’re looking down,” Claire instructed, and boy, did it feel weird. “Yes, it will feel strange, as though you’re swimming downward,” she went on.

Ugh. What was I doing here? And why?

Well, I had signed up my husband and I for a swimming instruction session—determined to choose a shared experience that he’d enjoy for his birthday rather than buying more stuff.

But here I was near the end of a hectic week, with a very full head, stacks of unattended emails, and loads of washing to do. The swimming thing had seemed like a good idea at the time and I knew he’d love it, but maybe I could have skipped it, got some jobs done, and joined him afterward for dinner.

Then it happened.

Claire again: “Swim a short distance that you can manage without a breath, go as slow as you can, and try to minimize any splash. How does it feel, what do you notice?”

I noticed I was beginning to feel better!

She had my attention now, and with each instruction, she dragged me out of my head (with all of its worries and preoccupations) and into my body, full of new muscle, body-position and watery sensations.

I let go and resigned myself to the present moment. And why not? The emails and washing were out of reach and my work worries would still be there when I got back to my desk. Anyway, in order to follow Claire’s instructions, I had to tune in!

I had to listen and interpret her words with my body and my movements.

Claire is a Total Immersion swimming coach, and this method of swimming is all about slowing down at first to improve the accuracy of your stroke: to get balance and movement right, in order that you maximize propulsion and minimize drag. It’s very mindful. It requires that you commit to the present moment and focus inward.

Calm was upon me, hooray.

Take a romantic view, and envisage the sensory experience of the cool and quiet of the water, the slow and rhythmic movements of the body. Or the simple science of it: the activity required me to engage my pre-frontal cortex, thus redressing the dominance of the stress-fuelled, and stress-fuelling, limbic system.

Your Way is the Best Way

The swim session reminded me of a lesson I’ve learned before, my pursuit of mindfulness and meditation. Many years ago after the traumatic loss of a loved one, I survived on yoga and walks on the beach.

Even earlier in life, during anxious exam periods, I had a taste of it when I got some physical and mental relief from dancing around my room and singing along to Thelma Houston and The Pressure Cookers’ “I Got the Music in Me.”

Some of my friends are also devotees of yoga and meditation, but many of them aren’t. They have their own way of getting out of their heads and into their bodies. Out of the angry memory trap of yesterday’s argument with the boss, or out of the anxiety-ridden imaginings of tomorrow’s tense family gathering.

They find their way into the present moment and into their bodies via all sorts of sometimes forgotten, yet always relished activities, like surfing, guitar-playing, gardening, painting, baking.

They rediscover and commit to these cherished activities, and learn as I did again in my swimming lesson, that they rebuild your depleted stores of calm and stop the ravages of stress.

What is your calm-restoring activity? When was the last time you did it? Or is it time to take up something new?

(It ought to go without saying that escapist distractions, like the game you play on your phone on the way home, don’t cut—they do nothing to bring you into the present, or into your body!)

I’m certain you want more calm in your life, and I could give you a long, long list of ways to achieve it. But the simplest and best way to begin is to find your own way and commit to it. But beware.

The trick to getting started on the path to more calm.

Finding your way, your chosen activity, is not hard. Making it happen is harder. You must stop. You must stop and let go. Certainly, when I get it wrong, that’s where I go wrong—I don’t stop.

You won’t find the time for it; you must make the time for it. Thank goodness I booked that swim session weeks before.

You must stop and give yourself permission to let go of your troubles, even just for a short while.

It won’t solve your problems, but it will, in the very least, ground you and let you feel better. And it will likely leave you better equipped to deal with your challenges.

By all means develop your meditation skills and practice. But the simplest way to get more calm right away is to choose your calm-restoring activity, and make a time for it. That’s the trick.

Calm will happen.

When you struggle to get out of your head and let go of all that’s in there nagging at you, your activity is the way to go. And this easy indirect way of letting go is, happily, habit forming.

You will get better and better at stopping. Better and better at returning to the present moment. Better and better at restoring calm.

Thich Nhat Hanh said: I vow to let go of all worries and anxiety in order to be light and free.

Hear, hear. I am renewing my vow to let go of all worries and anxiety in order to be light and free. I will do my best. And to that end, and especially when I struggle, I will make time to swim, or do yoga, or whatever it may be that will bring more calm.

How about you?

Man relaxing on beach image via Shutterstock

About Jacqueline Stone

Jacqueline Stone is a therapist and facilitator, and the founder of Wise Stress Mastery. If you’re ready to do stress better, to feel better and live better (and get more calm in your life), start by getting her free report Stress Relief Now — 4 Simple Ways to Reduce Your Stress Today

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  • Bullyinglte

    The easiest way to find that Calm and give up the anxiety and stess is to decide it is not good in your life and work hard to change that perception your mind is feeding you. I am listening to Scott Stossel’s book on “The Age of Anxiety” and he has a good section on how we have both mental and biological reactions to stress and anxiety. The balance comes in allowing yourself to have your “calm time”, while continuing to meet the demands of your time by others. It is a balance worth finding. Thanks for the article.

  • Richard H2

    Thanks for sharing this with us, Jacqueline. It’s such a comfort to know that I’m/we’re not the only ones who lose sight of the peace and calm that’s available to us. Sometimes it seems like I’m alone in my struggle to find, and to maintain, my center.

    For me, the biggest challenge is not to isolate myself too much from the really big things in life that are nothing less than tragic. It’s easy enough for me to find my center when my awareness sits comfortably within my bubble but what about when I become aware of something outside of my bubble… something that’s impossible to ignore… something that results in the widespread and unnecessary loss of lives? How does one maintain one’s center in such contexts?

    I read recently that 21,000 people die every day from hunger and hunger-related complications. And this, in a world where there’s already enough food to feed everyone. I also read that in the U.S. alone, we discard enough food to feed the entire population of those who are starving and malnourished.

    How can I — more abstractly, how can anyone — find peace and calm in life while this enormous, and wholly unnecessary, tragedy is ongoing? Color me troubled.

  • Susan Mary Malone

    What a great post, Jacqueline! You know, we all “fall off the wagon” now and then. It just comes with the territory. But by having a practice to return to, we find that peace again. It’s all about practice no? Because we don’t fall back to where we started from. As you say, “You will get better and better at stopping. Better and better at returning to the present moment. Better and better at restoring calm.”
    Thank you for this!

  • Ty Lim

    Hi Richard, your post here got me teared up coming from a Cambodia in the late 70’s where majority of the population was suffering from famine. It hurts how much waste goes on in the world. Blessings to you.

  • Ty Lim

    Thank you for this post Jacqueline, I needed it. Reading it brought me calm.

  • Jacqueline Stone

    Oh Richard it is crazy isn’t it, the world we live in. And it is important to be aware and have our eyes open and engage. It does make it harder but even more important to find and keep refinding your center.

    And yes isolation is not the answer, rather connection and you’ve just demonstrated that here by sharing your heart-felt comment — and it touched Ty Lim.

  • Jacqueline Stone

    And thank you for sharing, it is an age of anxiety and learning to adapt to that is a challenge. “Calm time”, I’m all for that!

  • Jacqueline Stone

    I’m so glad, thanks.

  • Jacqueline Stone

    Thank you Susan, yes practice is key. Or practice and awareness, yeah? I am learning to notice sooner when my calm is diminishing. The sooner I catch myself ‘losing it’, the easier I can steps and regain it. Also I’ve learnt not to give myself a hard time when I flunk in the calm stakes — yes we all “fall off the wagon”, and beating up on ourselves only makes it worse.

  • Richard H2

    Hello, Ty. Thank you for your kind reply. Having lived all my life in the United States, I (and many others, I suspect) can only imagine what it might be like to live under such tragic circumstances. Although I didn’t intend to bring tears to anyone, I suspect that those tears serve as evidence that one hasn’t yet lost the capacity for compassion and gratitude. Peace to you.

  • Richard H2

    Thanks for your reply, Jacqueline. There’s so much more that I want to share and to ask. I’ve tried a few times to do that in this reply but it always ends up being longer than I imagine is appropriate for a comment.

    I’m reminded of a quote by Jiddu Krishnamurti. I think there’s something to this, and that it’s relevant to my initial question (even if only subtly)

    “It is no measure of health
    to be well-adjusted
    to a profoundly sick society.”

    If our practice results in our being well-adjusted to the crazy world in which we live then isn’t that… odd? I don’t know, I feel like there’s something here worth exploring but I can’t put my finger on it. Thoughts?

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  • Oh, boy, did I need to read this now! I have been failing this week at stopping and being present. Usually my activity of choice is reading, but that wasn’t pulling me out of my worries as I kept feeling guilty the whole time. Last week a friend gave me a water color set and I painted two little landscapes and it was so soothing and definitely kept me present as I was figuring out how to get the paints to create the images I wished. I’m no Picasso, but this is definitely my new favorite form of calming “me time”.