Book Notes: Calm

Calm by Steven A. Schacher MD

[Book Notes Disclaimer:  This is not intended to be a book summary, only the contents I found to be the most interesting, potentially valuable, or otherwise relevant at the time of reading. Most of these notes are directly copied lines from the book, but some are personal adaptations or added personal insights.]

Two Primary Points:

1.)  The essential process of calming:  1)  acknowledge your stress reaction; 2) breathe intently and slow down or stop your movement; 3) un-tense your body – relax your eyes, widen your vision, and relax your jaw; 4) objectify the perceived stressor – gently connect with the stressor and allow its significance to decrease as you examine it (i.e. put it in perspective).  Take your time with this process until you’re fully relaxed.

2.)  Events are not inherently stressful – they are only stressful because of your perception of their seriousness or importance.  You have control of your coping ability.  Once it’s physiologically conditioned to so, our cerebral cortex allows for us to consciously activate a state of calm.

– Realize when you’re having an “Acute Stress Reaction”

Step 1:  Realize/Acknowledge that you’re having an acute stress reaction.

Be mindful of your body’s physiological false alarms – be aware that your body is trying to operate in “reactive mode”; carry out the next steps to maintain the optimal “responsive mode”

Step 2:  Take two or three deep breaths.  Focus on gentle, purposeful breaths.  Believe the breaths are helping you; know they’re helping you – know that breathing (oxygen intake) is helping to regulate your autonomic nervous system

Remember Dr. Weil’s essentials for relaxation breathing:  deeper, slower, quieter, and more regular

Step 3:  Go slower.  Slow down all body movement and relax all muscles – especially in your face – as much as possible.  Even stop for a minute.  Stop what you’re doing for a minute or two and imagine your body as limp or weightless – totally relaxed.

Remember:  untense

Step 4:  Widen your vision.  Expand your field of vision – gently look up and around.  Fully relax your eyes and blink slowly & steadily.

Eye muscles become rigid during stress and are essentially hyper-focused on fighting or fleeing the perceived stressors.  Notice your eyes – slow your eye movement and relax your eyelids.  This will help you see the big picture and literally un-focus on stress.

Step 5:  Loosen your jaw.  Slightly open your mouth and loosen the back of the jaw.

Your jaw clenches in stress which can restrict blood flow to face muscles and can inhibit natural breathing. Also – smile!  And continue to breathe.

Steps 6 & 7:  Connect with the stressor.  Examine the source of stress and communicate with it.  Understand the “stress” is based on your perception and that you can sensibly override it and dismiss that misperception.

Imagine stopping and gently reaching out to shake hands with the perceived stressor, as if that’s all the stressor wants and then it’ll go away.

– Notice when you slip into the stress reaction, especially in public.  Pay attention to your face muscles, especially your jaw, your natural breathing, and your posture.

– What primary, functional traits distinguish the human brain from the typical mammalian and reptilian brain?  Communication and self-awareness.

– We either opt to use our advanced cerebral cortex to manage the stress reaction, or fail to use it and succumb to the reptilian mind.  Be cerebral!

– Remember, if someone or something can get you to activate the acute stress reaction (lose your cool), then they have you functioning from a “non-thinking” part of your brain, and you are then at a tremendous disadvantage.

– In chronic stress, the story you tell yourself is a powerful determinant of how much stress your actually experience.

Tell your own story to yourself with positive-realistic regard – mentally embrace the positive facts of your own story.

– Seligman finding:  the crucial element for optimism during crisis is what we say to ourselves the moment the crisis hits – it’s being calm during the crisis that effectively diminishes stress, more so than our approach to crises or response to crises.

On how well you handle chronic stress:  the most decisive variable is whether the story you tell yourself about the crisis is fundamentally optimistic or pessimistic.

It’s the amount of accommodation an individual must make to life events that dictates how stressful that event will be for the person and what we actually mean by the word stress.

– E.g. –  Getting ready for a dinner party can be more acutely stressful than a car accident…

Most people think that stress is related to how “serious” the external event is, not realizing that it’s their own internal perception of that reality that results in stress.

– It doesn’t matter whether a life event causing stress is a happy occasion or a sad occasion, a pleasant event or an unpleasant event.  What matters is how much life accommodation that event requires of you – how much the event takes you out of your comfort zone.

-E.g. –  Preparing a meal could be as stressful as moving.

– When referring to tangible, physiological stress we consider how much cortisol and adrenaline are required to cope with it.

– What is hard on our health is not the external stress itself but the total social readjustment that the stressor requires of an individual – the amount of energy needed to accommodate a life event.

We need to be aware of our unresolved accommodations that are going on simultaneously during a stressful event.  These accommodations, or “back-burner” stressors – i.e. your perceived “to-do” list – are what primarily determines your stress level during a single event.

– The more busy or behind you feel, or the more unprepared or unorganized you feel in general, the greater your stress reaction will be to an isolated event.  SO, be sure to be mindful of these perceived accommodations and put their actual importance levels in perspective.

– Over time you may notice that solving any small problem – such as fixing a clogged sink, changing a light-bulb, going to the grocery store – may get you out of stress and back within your coping ability.

The Cures for Stressful Boredom:  connection and creativity.  When bored, we need to connect with people and/or release creative energy (even in activities such as exercising, writing, cooking, etc.).

The antidote to chronic stress in general is becoming more involved in life in ways that are aligned with our abilities and values.  But do not be overly involved with personal matters, and do not be overly concerned with your past experiences or future conditions if they are not directly helpful.

Chronic stress generally arises when we have either so many challenges that we feel overwhelmed, or so few challenges that we pass into boredom.  Both cause stress and/or anxiety.

– Consciously create and sustain a balance so that you have an appropriate amount of challenges – not too few and not too many.

– The non-stressed individual values friendships and alliances and makes continual efforts in both the social and work environments.

Exclusively pursuing pleasure inevitably leads to stress.

– You can learn to increase your coping ability by:  1) solving the simple problems first; 2) Finding the common, fundamental causes of your problems

– Curiosity is a muscle, inventiveness is a skill of visualization and association, and creativity is a discipline that needs to be cultivated.

– Once you are consciously connected to other people and to your own life adventure, the noradrenalin you activate will stimulate pleasure rather than pain.

– Connection defeats stress.

– Have faith in the process.  Trust in yourself and in God or the natural order of the universe.  Maintain conscious awareness of your current experience.

– “The sine qua non of stressed individuals is a panic about time.”

When we’re stressed, we see the world as “us vs. them”.  When we’re calm, we see the world as “us and them”.

– To gain genuine satisfaction you need to break the stress reaction, go into conscious non-stress, connect to the world, give, and then you’ll achieve joy.

– The goal of the stress free life is to experience joy.  The key that takes pleasure and relaxation and transforms it into joy is conscious personal growth.