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Expert Perspectives

How to Calm Your Mind

By Amanda Beaman, Consulting Psychologist at Medcan

Achieving a state of calm can help you avoid or reverse burnout—and can actually boost productivity and efficiency, too. 

The word burnout seems to be increasingly prevalent these days. In the corporate world, the lines between work time and leisure time have become blurred, especially since the pandemic. And even during business hours, people are finding themselves increasingly tired and disenfranchised with their work. Suggesting that someone feeling this way try to calm their mind may be met with derision, but there’s meaningful benefit to it. 

I recently sat down with Chris Bailey, productivity consultant, public speaker and the author of the new book, How to Calm Your Mind. The book was full of well-researched theories on how to achieve a relaxed and present state of mind, and I like to implement his ideas when working with clients. Bailey shares that “to develop our capacity for healthy productivity, we must invest in calm.” But what does “calm” even mean? And how is it possibly achieved amid feelings of anxiety and stress? Bailey has a whole host of ideas he’s developed after years of researching the topic—and implementing the practices himself. 

“Calm,” says Bailey, “is a subjectively positive state with a low level of mental arousal and an accompanying absence of anxiety.” Realizing that calm exists on a spectrum, rather than as a destination or end point, can help with visualization. If complete calm is all the way to one end of the spectrum, and severe anxiety at the other end, then it’s possible to be slightly stressed or relatively calm, rather than experiencing extreme emotions. Bailey makes it clear that the point is not to entirely get rid of anxiety—in fact, anxiety is and has been our survival mechanism. The body’s response to stress includes physiological changes like the tensing of muscles and elevated heart rate, which kicks in so we can protect ourselves when threatened. We aren’t, however, being continuously threatened throughout our day, so it’s important to learn how to reduce anxiety, just not completely do away with it. “The point is not to live life devoid of excitement and stimulation,” Bailey says, “but rather develop a capacity to deal with situations that are stressful and stimulating.” 

So what kind of stressful situations are we dealing with? In our conversation, Bailey pointed out the difference between acute and chronic stressors. There are different management techniques associated with each, but practicing mindfulness is always helpful.  

Acute stressors are one-off anxiety triggers, like being caught in a traffic jam on your way to catch a flight. 

Chronic stressors are experienced repeatedly without an end in sight, like the traffic jams we’re caught in twice a day, every day, on the way to work. 

“Acute stress isn’t fun to experience,” Bailey says, but points out that it’s what challenges and compels us to grow. And when it’s over, you’re often grateful to have experienced it—or at the very least, better able to shake it off. Chronic stress, on the other hand, can have a truly negative impact on health and is one of the primary factors in developing burnout. This is because after prolonged, repeated exposure to stress and anxiety, the body eventually refuses to mobilize to respond to the stressor. In other words, burnout emerges when the demands of a job outstrip a person’s ability to cope with the accompanying stress. It is in this situation that I tend to counsel my clients to try mindfulness exercises, one of the best ways to improve our physical and mental well-being. Chronically stressed people develop what Bailey identifies as the three attributes of burnout: exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy, none of which are healthy or useful in daily life. 

How to Calm Your Mind identified six areas of our workload that can lead to burnout from chronic stress. 

  • Too much work to complete in not enough time 
  • Lack of control over how you complete your work 
  • Insufficient reward (not just monetary, but social recognition, too) 
  • Community and feeling connected with colleagues 
  • Fair treatment 
  • Alignment of personal values to the work 

Bailey suggests this technique whenever you start to notice any of the three symptoms of burnout: Take each of the six workload areas bulleted above and rank them out of 10 based on how well you feel each is going. If some of the areas are consistently ranking low on your list, it can help to specifically address them in your work life. With a proactive approach like this, not only do you protect yourself against burnout, “but you preserve your future capacity for accomplishment,” says Bailey. 

Try these three tips to achieve calm 

With calm being such a healthy, happy alternative to anxiety, stress, and burnout, how can you achieve a calm and present state? Bailey suggests the following: 

  1. Keep track of how much you accomplish. It’s common to feel a “relaxation guilt” that pops up whenever you lower our mental stimulation height (like disconnecting from social media to sink into a good book). Our brain panics as the dopamine hit from the mental stimulation recedes. But if you recorded our accomplishments instead of using our business or exhaustion levels as metrics of productivity, you’d see that you actually accomplish much more in a day than you think. 
  2. Define your productivity hours. Sure, we need to be productive during the day—that’s how we get things done. But at the start of the day, try choosing a specific time when you’ll start “caring” about productivity and when you’ll stop. This allows you to have an accomplishment mindset during those hours, as well as set that mindset aside when time is up. If this means allotting an hour in the evening to work, so be it. That’s better than being connected all day long, constantly stimulated and experiencing chronic stress. 
  3. Make a “savour” list. A what? “Savouring is a way of activating that ‘here and now’ network in our brain that leads us to enjoyment,” Bailey says. “It’s the process through which we convert a positive experience into a positive emotion.” Roughly 47% of a person’s time each day is spent thinking about “what isn’t going on.” In order to enjoy something you’re experiencing—something like sipping the perfect cup of tea or watching a gorgeous sunset—it’s absolutely imperative that you are present in the moment. Write up a savour list of everything you enjoy and want to be present for throughout your day. Then, make sure you pick one every day and practice. You’ll be surprised at how quickly your mind begins to calm and your focus sharpens. 

Want to embrace your inner calm, but could use some help? Arrange a consultation with a Medcan psychologist to see how we can kickstart your mental wellness journey. 

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