It’s the little things that niggle: something somebody said that sticks in your craw or that great rebuttal you could have made if only you’d thought of it at the time. Perhaps it’s the one bit of “constructive” criticism you received amongst a sea of compliments, or simply the guy who cut you off at the junction. You can’t help but replay these events over and over in your head. As if life weren’t hard enough, we work ourselves up even more for what amounts to psychological mosquito bites. It’s not they’re painful but damn they sure do itch!

In the past year I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can foster a sense of calm in the face of life’s bigger and smaller challenges. My just-released Little Book of Calm: tame your anxieties, face your fears and live free includes no less than 95 short essays: from the science of anxiety to suggestions, metaphors, techniques on how to deal with it. Interspersed are quotations drawing on centuries of human experience in this area. Coming up with 95 ideas while dodging cliché and avoiding the obvious is no light task – but I hope the finished product will offer its readers accessible and easily applicable relief.

Many of the book’s insights involve recognising that, try as you might, human beings are quite sensitive to being shaken up. When provoked, don’t fight it. Simply (and compassionately) recognise that you’ve been activated because you are human. By fully recognising a feeling you give yourself the space to experience it rather than reacting to it. When an emotion is allowed to be fully recognised, it doesn’t need to keep knocking on your mind’s door.

When we have strong feelings of worry or anxiety we usually react in one of two ways: working ourselves up further, or ignoring or avoiding them. However, by fully identifying your feeling (“I’m freaking out right now . . .”) and then allowing yourself to gently and curiously go there (“Okay, now take a deep breath. What’s this about?”), you get to explore the feeling rather than letting the feeling take you over. Often, the distressing feeling is an old annoying  tune you know all too well, so instead of listening to it again, lift the phonograph needle out of the groove in your mind and move it elsewhere.

While we do often get hung up on the small stuff that doesn’t really matter, other times we feel anxious because something important inside us needs attention. On these occasions we don’t want to move away from the feeling, we want to lean into it so you can better understand it. Leaning into an unpleasant feeling doesn’t feel good, but it does feel better than returning to that half-experienced feeling over and over. Showing a feeling that you’re interested in it allows that feeling to be seen so it can go away. 

There’s no single solution for keeping calm in every situation, but by allowing yourself to acknowledge your feelings they become less distressing and less scary. In short, you get good at navigating your difficult feelings. Remember too that it’s not all in your head! Anxiety is a bodily experience as well as an environmental one – and it can’t be licked with psychology alone.

The Little Book of Calm covers the biology of anxiety alongside real world issues like money, exercise, the environment, and food, suggesting ways to build a strong foundation from which to meet life’s challenges. Tried and tested techniques outlined in the book are indicated by quirky section names like “Google earth yourself the hell out of there” or “Turn that Great Dane into a Toy Poodle.” Other sections focus on perceptions instead, including “Just notice” and “Descartes was wrong.” Others offer paradoxical approaches that will appeal to different kinds of people, “Get neat” and “Get messy” are on opposite sides of the same page. Existential anxieties are also addressed. Sections like “Be afraid, be very afraid” and “Come on in, the water’s cold” acknowledge that life is full of difficult challenges, and that we need to meet them as best we can.

Since we can’t control most of the little (or big) things that wind us up, we can (at least somewhat) choose how we respond to them. To feel “Zen” about something doesn’t mean that nothing bothers you – instead, the fact that it bothers you doesn’t bother you so much. That’s equanimity.

Photo by Sean Kong