A smart person knows what to say.
A wise person knows whether or not to say it.
When a crisis strikes – whether in our personal lives or on a larger scale – it’s only human to have an emotional reaction. The trouble begins when these overwhelming emotions cut us off from our inner wisdom and cause us to react in ways that often multiply our stress (and don’t help solve the problem we’re facing).
What we really want is to be able to access our inner wisdom and come from a place of calm, so that we can make constructive decisions that actually help us move through the crisis.
In Buddhist thought, wisdom is about understanding things as they actually are, not as they appear to be. But when we’re upset, our perceptions are often wildly distorted by our emotions. This is why learning to restore calm in stressful situations is so essential to accessing the innate wisdom within us.
Let’s face it. Without wisdom, we can say and do things that have destructive consequences. With wisdom, we can construct solutions and avoid adding fuel to the fire – by tempering our words and actions with a healthy degree of restraint, and making reasoned decisions that we can live with even after the stress has subsided.
So, when you find yourself in the middle of a crisis, or a stressful event of any kind, follow these steps to calm down and reconnect.
Step 1: Notice that you are upset.
With the simple act of noticing, you engage conscious thought. You can see that you’ve been triggered, and this awareness alone means you stand a better chance of noticing where your emotions have hijacked your inner wisdom and are driving your reactions.
When you engage your awareness, you will also see that you have a choice in these reactions: you can either react in lockstep with your emotions, or consciously choose not to. By choosing not to react, you get that much closer to accessing your inner wisdom.
Step 2: Make calming down your first priority.
In the middle of a crisis, it seems like the first priority is to “solve the crisis.” But as we’ve just discussed, it’s difficult to solve problems when your emotions are running amok. So make your first priority slowing your emotions and choosing calm.
To do that, put your attention on your breath. The simple act of repeatedly bringing your mind back to your breath activates the part of your brain that can quiet down the stress response. A few minutes is often all it takes to bring increased blood flow to your brain’s self-awareness and calm center. Here’s how it works:
- Pause and notice the muscular tension in your shoulders. Then take a slow, deep breath.
- Let your shoulders be heavy and relaxed on the inhale, sliding down toward your back pockets on the exhale.
- Continue the sequence for as long as you like, keeping your mind focused primarily on relaxing and releasing tension through the breath.
If you’re so upset that this doesn’t have much effect, sometimes a reset activity can be in order. This could be taking a walk, reading, cleaning, listening to or playing music, or even just looking out the window. When you figure out which reset activities are most effective, you have another tool at your disposal for calming down.
Step 3: Press the “Pause” button on your inner monologue.
When you’re upset, you’re prone to speculation and jumping to conclusions. You’ll likely discover a story running through your head, with a common theme that you may notice has come up repeatedly throughout your life. There might be variations on that theme, but it will still follow the same well-rehearsed lines. Listen for superlatives like “always” or “never,” usually combined with that feeling like you’re about to drop off the edge of a cliff or burn the whole thing down.
It can be very helpful to identify the reactive emotions of shame, blame, guilt, outrage or self-pity. These emotions, contrary to our conditioning, are not productive and will only lead us down a rabbit hole. They feed our emotional reactions, rather than slowing them down.
If they had just done what I’d asked, none of this would have happened! (blame)
I can’t believe she talks to me like that! (outrage)
This is all my fault. (guilt/shame/self-pity)
Simply noticing these habitual emotional themes can serve as a reminder to press the “Pause” button. It only takes a moment to see that what your inner monologue is describing isn’t as much “fact” as it is “the way I often react”.
Your emotional reaction may not instantly evaporate, but you’ll have placed a buffer there that ensures you can never quite go back to that former, less conscious and more reactive, state.
Step 4: Challenge the validity of your thoughts.
When you first start pressing “Pause” on your inner monologue, it will only be partly effective. Thoughts will still slip through that in the moment, and under the influence of your emotional reaction, will feel very “true.”
At this point, questioning these thoughts and perceptions is vital. When you are in a reactive state your thoughts will follow a familiar set of distortions, usually involving all-or-nothing or catastrophic type thinking. The more you challenge these thought patterns, the more aware you will become of them, which means they will have far less influence over you in the long term.
Every time I try something new, it goes badly.
My (sibling, coworker, partner, parent, etc.) always has to sabotage everything I work towards.
I will never get this right.
The more you are able to challenge the validity of your thoughts when you’re upset, the wiser you will be to the distortions caused by reactive emotions. It won’t happen overnight, but if you keep pressing “Pause” to reset, you will get there.
Step 5: Exercise restraint in what you say or do.
At its foundation, wisdom is about learning to restrain fear-based impulses. When our brain’s survival switch is tripped, chemicals flood our system urging us to fight, flee or freeze. This might present itself as chronic anger, anxiety or shutting down.
We make much better choices when we are willing to simply sit with the situation until we feel calm and clear about our best options. This is why it is so essential to slow down and recognize when your reactive emotions are still churning. Slowing down allows you to see that your best option under stress is to delay making a decision about what to do (or not do) until you’re calm.
So, the next time you find yourself in the middle of a stressful situation, rely on these five steps to help you access the inner wisdom you need to move forward:
- Notice you’re upset – so you can bring consciousness to the situation.
- Make it your first priority to calm down – so you can connect with your inner wisdom before exploring solutions.
- Press “Pause” on your inner monologue – so you can recognize your emotional reactivity and choose consciously instead.
- Challenge the validity of your thoughts – so you can separate emotionally distorted perceptions from what’s actually occurring.
- Exercise restraint – so you can make choices that support you rather than multiplying your stress.
These simple, self-care measures will go a long way to strengthen your sense of self-empowerment. Whatever crisis you may be facing, you’ll make much better choices from that place of empowerment, where you can access your inner wisdom – rather than making reactive choices arising from a feeling of emotional chaos.
When you support your well-being, you also reduce your reactivity to stress itself, and encourage self-compassion about your failures and mistakes. This creates the perfect conditions for accurate perception and self-awareness that enable you to cultivate your inner wisdom.
Take good care : )
P.S: If you’d like to learn to reliably calm your emotions and quiet your mind in the face of stress, visit CalmSpace™, our simple, streamlined program that offers power tools for building inner peace.