Three Steps to Calm Down

Understanding Emotions

With 20:20 Hindsight, I wish I had written this article before the last one, which analyzed the relative merits of “Don’t Panic” versus “Keep Calm and Carry On” as advice. That may have been a bit esoteric for some readers. So, better late than never, here is more practical advice: a 3-step process for calming down so you can carry on.

The first step is to take a deep breath. For those who don’t already know, love, and practice this advice, let me explain why this is so important, and how to do it.

The intention in taking a deep breath is to breathe from the diaphragm, i.e., to let your natural breathing coordination take over, at least for a breath or two. There are many ways you may interfere with the natural breathing coordination. Holding your breath. Forcing a breath. Tensing up a part of the body — neck, shoulders, stomach, legs — any tension will interfere with the natural breathing coordination.

When you get upset, typically the automatized response includes tensing up or holding your breath. The result is that you literally get less oxygen, plus you are physically uncomfortable. If you can get out of your own way to breathe from the diaphragm, you will instantly feel more clear-headed, relaxed, and vital. It feels great — and gives you a shot of energy with which to implement the next two steps for calming down.

Here’s the easiest method I know for making the next breath come from your diaphragm: Exhale completely. I do this by making a SSSSSS sound, out loud, forcing every bit of air out of my lungs. At a certain point, my body takes over and I inhale deeply. Try it! It works every time, and immediately makes you feel calmer.

However, that calm won’t last unless you deal with the upset.

The second step is to accept the feeling you have, whatever it is, so that it doesn’t spiral out of control and overwhelm you. I cannot tell you how many times I have gotten upset that I was upset. This is counterproductive. It just escalates the distress until it’s hard to think. It is also futile. You do not have direct control over your feelings.

In contrast, if you accept the feeling, whatever it is, and no matter how uncomfortable it is, you stay much calmer. You retain the ability to identify the cause of the feeling and determine some constructive action, i.e., carry on.

Brooke Castillo taught me a great way to accept your feelings. Think of feelings as just a vibration in your body. Then observe your body and describe the vibrations to yourself. Maybe your stomach is clenched. Maybe you have tingling in your hips. Maybe your shoulders are tense. Looking for a vibration in your body puts your mind in the present and reminds you that feelings, in themselves, are not a problem whatsoever.

Now technically, many feelings involve more than just a “vibration in your body.” For example, emotions have an affective component in addition to a somatic component. Mental states such as overload and freedom have cognitive signals associated with them. But all feelings have a somatic component, and focusing on that somatic component helps to further calm you down. You are then ready for the last step: identifying the value at stake.

Feelings are often treated simply as the source of motivation to act. They do provide motivation to act, but that is not their primary function in the mind of a human being. For us, they serve as alerts that some value that appears to be at stake. By “at stake,” I mean that your next action will affect whether you gain, keep, or lose that value.

Identifying the values at stake is the final critical step for calming down, because it is the step that puts you in control of your destiny; it helps you see what you can do in the situation.

How do you identify the value at stake from what you feel? It depends on what kind of feeling you experience.

Some feelings are readouts on your body or mind state, and the value is implicit in the feeling. If you feel hungry, you are (apparently) needing food. If you feel sated, you have enough food, and eating more is not good for you. If you feel overloaded, you are needing mental “crow” space. You won’t be able to function effectively until you deal with the overload. If you are feeling clear-headed, you have enough mental “crow” space and can proceed with logical thinking.

Other feelings are emotions. An emotion is a feeling that you have in response to an explicit or implicit evaluation. Each emotion reflects a particular kind of evaluation. If you introspect the emotion, you can identify the general kind of evaluation it implies, and work out the value at stake for you now.

For example, fear is the emotion you have when something is threatening a value. It is not enough to identify the threat — which is usually the most obvious thing — you need to know what value of yours is threatened. For example, in the current coronaviris crisis, there is a threat of a worldwide depression. I do not have any direct control over that. Rather than focusing on how awful that would be, I need to figure out what value of mine is actually at stake now. I concluded it’s my business, which exists to spread my ideas. This helped me be clear that helping people deal rationally with a challenging time is my top priority now. Once I realized this, I was able to deal with the crisis calmly.

In my freebie, the Thinking Directions Starter Kit, I share a class called “Emotions and Values 101,” in which I talk a bit more about this. The kit includes my list of the 8 basic families of emotions, and their underlying evaluations.

I just want to mention a special case: Sometimes you are wildly distracted by something good or something bad, which does not appear to be subject to action right now. For example, suppose I started imagining what a worldwide depression would mean for my life and my standard of living. These fears could be wildly distracting, even if I had already prepared financially as much as possible. Much would be out of my control. Or, alternately, after I’ve given a great presentation, I can be so exhilarated by the experience that I have trouble paying attention to anything around me. It would be dangerous for me to drive. But the presentation is over.

In these cases, the value is at stake in this sense: the wild distraction indicates a need to acknowledge how important this value is to me in my life. I would need to honor it.

In the worldwide depression example, I would need to contemplate how much I value my home and the conveniences of life. Given that I could conceivably lose these, I might cry in grief as I honored that value. This process is called “mourning.”

In the presentation example, I would need to contemplate how much I value communicating my ideas and seeing that people understand them. Given that I’d just achieved that, I might cry in joy. This process is called “celebration.”

In either case, after honoring the value, I would come to a place of calm vitality and renewed sense of my self, my mind and my chosen values. Mourning and celebration center you emotionally by reinforcing and turning your attention to contemplation of your deepest values.

I’ve already gone on 1200 words, and I could write thousands more about how to identify the value at stake in difficult situations, quickly and easily. That’s why I offer a 6-hour class on Do What Matters Most, and many more hours of classes in the Thinking Lab. But I trust I have communicated the concept.

The final step in calming down is to see what value is at stake for you in this moment. When you see that value, your energy shifts, and you start seeing ways you can gain it. You regain a purposeful action mindset. You are calm, and you can carry on.

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  1. Celestra Hook

    Hi Jean,
    Just want to say ‘thanks’ for the brilliant article “3 Steps to Calm Down”. Reading this today really helped me deal with my stress and identify and honor the threatened values. One of my children booked a date with my husband for a driving lesson, and while remaining calm on the outside, my stress levels were out of control, and a bad stomach ache was coming on. So “thank-you”, … I read a lot and this is probably the best article I’ve read on the subject yet.

    • Jean Moroney

      Thanks, Celestra! I am so glad this was helpful. A lot of the advice for calming down doesn’t go all of the way to the root cause. That’s what’s necessary to get that shift.

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