How to Become Calm in the Midst of Chaos

by Dr Angel Adams and Dr Patricia Papciak

“Look not mournfully into the past; it comes not back again. Wisely improve the present; it is the thing. Go forth to meet the shadowy future without fear and a manly heart”

– Longfellow

Image: A dove

© (CC) Ian Burt

There is something that happens to our brain and physical functioning when we are in a calm place. Neuroplasticity is the term that neuroscientists use to explain how the brain is changing all the time. If we are calm there are signals that go to the brain that are quite different than when we are stressed. Our brain is literally a reflection of our personal world, based on every thought we think and its accumulation of information and all our experiences. According to neuroscientists, our brain upscales all of this into its hardware everyday and this continues for the rest of our lives.

When we are calm we feel healthy, and it makes everyone around us feel better. Sometimes we have the feeling of being calm when we walk along the seaside, even if it is a wild and stormy day. A stroll through the woods can make us feel calm as we revere the quiet, the age of the ancient tall trees, or the complexity of all the plant and animal systems that live silently and harmoniously in each other’s presence. Then there are the sounds that help us feel calm; the melodic songs of birds, the breeze in the air, the crackling sounds of the autumn leaves as we walk. Some people find that same kind of serenity in a church, or an ancient building whose intricate stonework might be inspirational. For others, calm is invoked in the sanctuary of their room when listening to music or to the rain with the window open at night.

But what happens to the brain when a person’s calm is disrupted and bombarded by fear, stress, negative thoughts, anger and even hatred? What happens when you are thrown off balance and you don’t have the time to compose yourself by going on a long walk by the sea? What do you do when you experience a mounting storm of anxiety? What can you do immediately when another person makes you feel annoyed, uncomfortable or threatened in some way? What can you do as a parent when your child is upsetting the whole family by aggressive behaviours?

Understanding and valuing our feelings is essential, however, it is important not to let our lives be run by our feelings as they are often connected to past experiences, events and associated thought patterns. It’s very difficult when distressing feelings or toxic thoughts are devouring your composure! If you react in the same maladaptive way to stress, it activates the primitive nervous system which turns on the fight or flight system and begins to mobilise the adrenaline in your body even when there is no real threat or harm to you. This only leads to the same dysfunctional reactive patterns that many mistakenly think will lead to a new result! Sometimes the adrenal rush makes people addicted to these negative experiences and interactions.

Developing new healthy coping methods is paramount and can be life changing, even life saving as research shows what kind of impact unmanaged and chronic stress has on us neurologically, physiologically and psychologically. Many people feel that they cannot find calm simply by breathing deeply, saying affirmations and trying to think positively. It is here that we do emphasise the importance of finding your own strategies to help you engender feelings of serenity before they become completely apprehended by anxiety, anger, resentment, and other negative emotions. You must do something that helps you to be greater then how you feel! Sometimes you may be reacting in a way that makes a catastrophe out of a minor issue, or ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ expressed by Shakespeare’s play with a similar sentiment. Sometimes just being aware that we are doing this can completely diminish the problem.

Some people have deep faith in God or a higher power, and they turn to the church when there is a problem. But even deeply religious people can have those feelings of futility and anxiety when problems arise. We need to instill something inside ourselves that can help turn our attitudes around a full 360 degrees. In the same way that we take an aspirin if we have a headache, eat a meal when we are hungry, or take a nap when we are tired, we need to work on thinking tools that help us to remain calm in the face of real or imagined dangers, even small dangers.

We therefore need to understand our internal thought processes and stop the same unnecessary habitual reactions and start reflecting from a different point of view. We can actually be lifted above our present emotional landscape through activating our memory to learn from the past, to plan ahead, to speculate, and to rehearse new behaviours that transform our old body-driven thoughts into new thoughts based on wisdom and understanding. There are many techniques for working on these kinds of problems. The first important way is to recognise your physical response to overwhelming fear, anger and other emotions. What can you do as soon as you become aware that your heart is palpitating, your stomach is churning, you are beginning to perspire, or you are becoming extremely unfocused.

Then when you feel yourself reacting negatively and angrily, desperately or argumentatively to a situation, you will have to think about the best ways to pull the plug on those feelings. Find ways to use your brain to become more reasonable and in a higher state of consciousness as a human when interacting with your children, your peers or your business associates. Just stop. You may need to excuse yourself to go somewhere to compose yourself. If you are not able to leave and find a private place, then zip your lip until you can. Ask yourself what is your part in the dynamics of this heightened response in the familiar interaction you keep finding yourself in.

Think about whatever you can do to help yourself turn your reaction into a healthy response. Remind yourself of what you have to be grateful for and that small problems are not catastrophes and can be dealt with one small step at a time. Remind yourself that you are strong and confident and have all the resources to choose from in resolving your problems. You are polite and brave and can think through whatever issues seem overwhelming at the moment. You start the process of figuring this problem out as soon as you stop reacting and recognise the problem in the same way that you recognise hunger or fatigue.

Once you have stopped, find a path to calm yourself. This path might mean you need a quiet space alone for a while. It might mean that you reach for a poem or a prayer that helps you such as the beautiful Desiderata by Max Erhman or the well known St. Francis Prayer of Assissi, Oh Lord Make Me an Instrument of thy Peace. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is one of our favourites: “I, myself, am good fortune.” Find a written passage that has impacted you deeply; a quote from the Bible, the Koran, or a quote from the Dali Lama. Keep this near you, on your person if possible, and let those words become an unshakeable ally in your memory instead of allowing words of anger and frustration to come rushing in like a suicide bomber.

If your upset does have to do with another person, the next important thing is to learn to apologise. Even if whatever is happening is not your fault, or perhaps isn’t anyone’s fault, if you can walk back to the situation and be able to say, “I’m sorry; I reacted unreasonably, and I’m working on changing my response.”, this takes the wind out of the sails of the argument. The other person is forced to refocus and consider what has been said. Perhaps your next sentence can be something like, “What do you think we can do to remedy this problem together?”—collaborating is easier than you think.

When you are able to go to another person and say, “I’m sorry; how can we fix this?”, then you are working from a position of love rather than fear. You are saying you are sorry because you are sorry that you both feel upset and don’t agree. Maybe you still feel angry or resentful or fearful of the situation, but when you can say you are sorry, you mean it—you are sorry that the balance of serenity and calm has been upset. You want the world to be good. You want your relationships at home, or at work, or with friends, to be good. So, you level the playing field by saying you are sorry. Then you can discuss the problem.

Strategies for Calm

Stop. Just stop. You can’t do anything until you stop and recognise the problem. If necessary, remove yourself from the situation. Maybe you don’t have time to remove yourself very far, but just leave the room for a minute to compose yourself.

Reach and Remember. Reach for an affirmation that you have memorised or a saying or a book, not just to give you a warm fuzzy feeling, but something powerful and beautiful that can help pull your mind out of your body (adrenalin and habitual ineffective thought patterns you have been experiencing for years) and bring it back into your brain. Reach for that something that is soul-reviving, constructive, and positive to help you instantly change in a more long lasting way. For some people that will be something philosophical, for others it will be a prayer, for others it might be something humorous that will help you release from your fear and anger. Have it nearby and get ready to reach for it.

Transform. Don’t repeat old habits developed from a state of survival. Take time to practice over and over the new ways that will help you break out of old patterns. As parents and grandparents, you can lovingly and respectfully help your children to practice new behaviours because they can see how you have changed. You can make it fun and rewarding for them. You can also meditate on these new thoughts and ideas and visualise yourself being transformed. In your mind’s eye you can rehearse, repeat the new behaviours, reinvent and turn that state of survival into a state of wonder, creativity, inspiration, motivation, meaning, and fulfil your potential to do great things, and your reason for being here. You can begin by creating new patterns of calm and decisiveness in your present circumstances at home and work. It will take work and wilfulness at first, but it will be worth it in the long run.

Walk or exercise. As soon as you have the time to release the adrenalin that is unhealthy for you and others, then do it. A physical release such as walking, swimming, running, yoga, or Tai Chi can bring you to a place that calms you and helps you to visualise positive outcomes because you are forced to concentrate on the mind-body connection. Get your heart rate going in a healthy direction, not one driven by fear, and let the positive endorphins in your brain return you to a balanced state.

Talk. Talk to someone about the situation who is a good role model, a mentor, and who you completely trust. There is nothing like being able to lay it all out on the table to someone who is grounded and feels safe to you. You may not even like their response, but because of the trust and respect you can let go and you will see another perspective.

Write. Write down how you are feeling. When you write it down, you let go of it in a different way. You can feel the fear and anxiety subsiding as you write. Each word allows you to let go a little further. Write down what you are going to do to help yourself respond instead of react to frustration. You can look at what you’ve written later and see if you learn anything about the repetition of the problem that you are trying to terminate.

Repare. Whenever possible say “I’m sorry” if you have reacted in haste and have offended someone, but back it up with changed behaviour so repeated apologies don’t become meaningless to others and a source of shame for yourself. Even if the other person misunderstood your intentions, you can still say you are sorry that a problem was created and you want to fix it. Those two little words will do wonders to improve your attitude and that of the person you are dealing with. You may have to find other words to express the same idea, but you’ll find those words if you come back to the person who is upsetting you with a deep feeling of calm and love.

Sleep. Take a power nap. Go to bed early. There is nothing like rest to allow your mind and your body to relax. You will wake up feeling refreshed and hopefully able to change your attitude about the situation. It is so difficult to be reasonable when we are tired so be sure to get enough rest. When you awake, you may not feel a lot better but you only need to start with one little move in the right direction.

Raise your consciousness. Here is a tool to raise your consciousness to a higher universal level that helps you to feel more mature, serene and more spiritual. This a great website that offers a free e-book on releasing fear at We chose a strategy from it created by Joel Bruce Wallach: Click here to read it.

We like to end our articles with the wisdom and guidance from the animal and bird kingdom. They are fascinating because they are beautiful, often graceful, appear calm in their natural world, and seem to instinctively know how to deal with a threat to their environment because they have to survive. They have no written or spoken work and can’t read or write about their problems. Their exercise is often about survival. Their sleep is even about survival. They often seem to play with their young, but they are mostly teaching their young to learn about survival, survival of their species.

As far as we know we are separated from the animals by our consciousness. As humans we have a consciousness that has two formidable attributes; 1. We have a frontal lobe with executive functioning that allows us to think differently, explore, enjoy, love, create, dream and think about the future; but also 2. We are also able to kill. Unlike animals, often this is not about the real threat of survival, but about the false sense of survival which creates feelings of hate and destruction. We can learn a lot from animals, but we must also honour and respect the attributes that we have as humans and work to use those attributes in a calm and thoughtful manner via our neocortex to make the world a better place for ourselves and our offspring.

Image: A painting of a dove

Oil Painting by David Adams, 1923-2006

Animals and birds are archetypal and give us meaning, solace, support and hope in their rich symbolism. We have chosen the dove to represent calm. The dove can represent the peace and the safety we must find within ourselves, and like the dove with the olive branch we can venture out into the unknown safely using new thinking skills that we have practiced over and over again. It’s like riding a wild horse, you can’t ride it gracefully until you befriend and tame it so that eventually the two of you are riding together with dignity as one.

We would like to give credit to Dr Joe Dispenza who inspired this article and from whom we have learned so much through his book “Evolve your Brain.” Watch this amazing microphotography that shows actual new connections and new patterns being formed as brain cells connect and old patterns of thought are broken as pruning of the cells.

Thanks for taking the time to read this Monday’s Motivational article.

Please feel free to send me any comments or your own stories you wish to share, or post them on this site by clicking the “Add new comment” link below.

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