Calm, think, cope

By Geoffrey C. Ammerman, MS Ed. Licensed Psychologist

We all have automatic responses to our world that are effective and ineffective. Sometimes we are aware of what we do in response to stress, although most of the time we are not as aware as we think we are. We may crack our necks by turning our heads from side to side. We may feel restless and head to the refrigerator. We may grab another beer. We may get regular headaches or have muscle aches. We may have habits to manage our stress that are unhealthy, with us at times becoming terse with our family, friends and coworkers. These all can be automatic and learned responses to stress that may have worked for us previously. However, these strategies are losing their ability to work for us anymore.

For example, what’s the first thing you do when you see a traffic signal begin the change from green to yellow to red? The law says we are to slow then stop at the red light. So, you stop, right? Or at least you should. This is a learned response to specific stimuli. We weren’t born with the knowledge to do this. Others taught us this response, and it was reinforced by the world around us.

Now, imagine you are driving. You are out and about, with no stress at all. Someone pulls out in front of you, and you hit the brakes. The other driver acknowledges the near miss, waves and mouths an apology. What is your reaction? Now let’s take a different tack. You are driving home, gripping the wheel and thinking about an incident or event that has you very stressed. A car pulls out in front of you in the same manner as before. Now what is your reaction?

Stress reactions are neurophysiological. In fact there is a name for it: the psychoneuroendocrinology of stress. The automatic reactions we have that are not in response to life-threatening events are reactions that we have learned through observation and practice. In driving, examples of these automatic reactions are stepping on the brake when you see a red light or letting your foot off the gas when you see a state trooper. Some things like that you don’t want to change, however, there are some things you do want to change, like overreacting in traffic, stuffing yourself or perhaps having that extra drink when you are stressed because you are not sure else to do.

Under stress, our jaws may clench and our breathing becomes shallow. After some time in this state, our brains get a little stressed. The oxygen level gets lower. Breathing is rapid, and the automatic system kicks in. The brain then slows down the circulation to the extremities and fills the central core of the body and brain with blood and nutrition to save our organs. That is why our hands and feet may become cold and clammy and we may have tightness in the chest or pounding in the head. We may even hear our pulse in our ears and see flashbulbs going off in the corners of our eyes. We may not even be readily aware to what we’re responding. This fight or flight mode can happen instantly, just like in that example of the stressed driver who has to stop suddenly.

Redirecting and replacing this stress using the Calm Card® process is a skill-building technique that can teach you to replace many of the high-stress behaviors and habitual stress reactions with a more thoughtful response to these stressors. However, it is a skill and it takes practice. Think of it like learning to swim. It took you awhile to learn this complex skill, and retraining your brain to respond more thoughtfully to stressful events will also take some practice.

So, what do you think you would say to a person who would, when you’re really stressed, tell you to relax when you’re not entirely sure how to relax and be calm? My guess is you would not be very receptive to a person in the passenger seat of the car telling you to breathe. You have to start small and work up to more complex situations after you have had some practice. It is important to begin the calming process by creating a calming routine that can assist you in bringing a sense of calm and mastery to your everyday life.

Here’s an idea that helped me alleviate hammering headaches and has kept them at bay for more than 30 years. Deep breathe at the top of the hour, and if possible, consider moving to a quieter area that will exclude other stressors in the environment. Otherwise, sit quietly for a moment, deep breathe and pick a non-emotive cue word like blue or flower. Put your hands to your sides and breathe. You may feel a tingling in your hands and feet, maybe in your toes, and perhaps along the sides of your neck, as well as on your lips and tongue. Do not worry; this is your body calming.

Then become aware of the position of your jaw, and whether you are clenching your jaw muscles. Open your mouth, stretching those muscles while at the same time deep breathing. Let your jaw return to a relaxed position. You may find that the non-emotive picture in your mind varies. Just let ideas and visualizations pass through your mind like billowy clouds in a bright blue, sunny sky. Try this for five minutes an hour or five minutes every other hour. You may find yourself amazed as to how calm you feel.

So, when you find yourself anxious, worried or confronted with something that is stressful in your life, here is an exercise to try. I developed and used this Calm Card® in my practice for 30 years, and combined with the calming practice above, it produces remarkable results. When feeling anxious or upset:

  1. Stop – Stop whatever you’re doing. If you’re driving, pull off to the side of the road.
  2. Breathe – Deep breathe until you are feeling in control. Your fingers and toes may tingle, and you may feel lightheaded.
  3. Think – What is going on? What is happening? If you get upset again, repeat step one and two until you are calm, and can think through the issue without getting upset.
  4. Plan – Develop a plan to address what is happening and how you can calm down and respond to the situation in a healthy way.
  5. Do – Do your plan.
  6. Good job! – Tell yourself, “Good Job,” and feel good about working through the problem. 

This process begins to teach calming in the face of stress and builds rational responses to frustrating, fearful or perplexing events. This is a place to begin. Breathe, calm, think and cope.

Geoffrey Ammerman is the Director of Psychological Services at KidsPeace Mesabi Academy in Buhl, Minn., and has been a licensed psychologist since 1982. Geoff brings with him many years of licensed practice and consultation with adult and juvenile populations. Geoff’s career has encompassed working in public and private hospital settings, residential treatment and outpatient clinic settings for all populations. He has developed consulting businesses, and developed a behaviorally based performance evaluation software model for hospitals to meet JCAHO requirements. His work history incorporates organizational development, performance assessment, consultation and analysis. Geoff recently completed a credential and certificate in Advanced Healthcare Management. He is a member of the American Psychological Association, Minnesota Medical Group Management Association, Psychologists for Social Responsibility and the Employee Assistance Professional Association. Personally, Geoff is a trained vocalist and has performed both classical music and has appeared in community theater and opera performances, generally in character roles. Geoff enjoys ballroom dancing, golf and vigorously working out.