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Quieting the Stressed Mind in Difficult Times

Quieting the Stressed Mind in Difficult Times


A short time ago, I wrote about coping with stress through acceptance. Right now, as many of us enter our third or fourth week of uncertainty, we are beginning to feel the effects of stress as it continues to creep into our daily lives. We know that stress is harmful and affects both our mental and physical health. Unchecked, it can add difficulty to our lives, especially when it comes to exercising wise decisions. Unfortunately, we sometimes feel like we have little choice over the matter. Studies show that prolonged stress can take a toll on our bodies and our minds, but let’s face facts, this is not a drill. This is the real deal. The world is in crisis right now, so feeling the stress of the moment is understandable. As much as we might like, it’s not as if we can just close our eyes, make a wish, and the situation miraculously disappears. So, what can we do? How do we regain some much-needed balance?

We can’t always control the source of our stress, but we can control how we react.

How we manage stress is not necessarily a predetermined reaction. We all react a little differently, so when stress crops up, we need to remind ourselves that we still have a choice in the matter. We can buy into our darker fears and flail helplessly as the fear drags us down, or we can pause and remind ourselves that there are things we can do to mitigate the impact. Engaging with stress in a head to head contest of wills often winds up as a losing proposition or, at best, merely exasperating the situation. By practicing acceptance, though, we can begin to defuse and realign the severity of our reactions. 


Acceptance doesn’t mean rolling over and playing dead or allowing ourselves to be steamrolled by a situation. It means understanding the things we can control and the things we can’t. So, for instance, we may be searching for information about how to maintain our safety, so we grab our devices and start looking. Immediately we are met with an avalanche of information that’s good, bad, and everything in between. At this point, we must choose. Do we bend to fear and follow the path of misinformation, sensationalization, or innuendo? Or do we resist the temptation and find a better path?

The fear cycle

Fear is a powerful motivator because it plays on our instincts for survival. In times of stress, it is easy to succumb to the fear cycle. There is plenty of doom and gloom out there right now, but look carefully, how much of that is actually useful information? Is it designed to be helpful or to encourage more engagement by playing off your fears? Anyone who has engaged in this rabbit hole knows it quickly becomes an endless cycle of checking and rechecking. The further you follow, the more troublesome the engagement becomes. Once it stops being informative, it instead becomes a catalyst to feeling even more stressed. 

Newsfeeds, social media, and a host of other places we get our information are very good at manipulating impulsive behaviors. Their goal is to capture attention, period, and what better way to capture attention than to play off our worst fears. Fear-based information preys upon our compulsive nature to notice danger and seek more information in order to protect ourselves. It is innate and often goes unnoticed by our conscious mind until it becomes pronounced, and our behavior has switched from being measured and objective to being overly impulsive. So how do we stop the cycle? How do we keep the lizard brain from taking over and exacerbating the situation? 

The lizard brain. 

When we find our impulsive lizard brain kicking in and taking over, we must recognize what is happening so we can practice better judgment:

  • This is where I am. 

  • This is what is happening. 

  • Here are some things I can do to find or regain some sanity. 

The things that bring us peace are different for each of us, so you will need to discover which ones work best for you and allow you to regain some mastery over your impulses. Things like meditation, exercise, quiet reflection, and mindful distractions are just a few. The ability to practice these things decisively so that you may find peace in a stressful moment is the key to finding and practicing acceptance. 

For those of you who want to dig a little deeper on this, here a simple homework exercise:
  1. Find and identify your warning signs and or triggers. Once you’ve identified the warnings, write them down. Begin paying attention to when they show up again. What triggered it? How did you react? 

  2. If you are showing the classic signs of being overstressed, know that that does not mean you are powerless. Can you find a way to pause and remind yourself to take action so you may intervene next time you begin to slide? Can you minimize your exposure to those things that are catalysts? 

  3. Practice acceptance. You can not control everything but you can begin to control your reactions through practice. What would happen if instead of engaging with your impulses, you allowed yourself another outcome? How would it feel if you were to disengage once you recognized the pattern of behavior that led you in this undesirable direction? What if the next time you slipped, you were kinder to yourself in that moment and were able to comfort yourself instead of lashing out or lashing inward?

  4. Make it a daily practice to discover a way or new ways you can regain peace when your life feels out of balance. 

We are in a unique and difficult time. It is understandable to be experiencing stress right now. Remember, however, that stress will take up as much space as you allow it. Lessening its effect takes a little work and dedication. Many people who try things like meditation or mindfulness for the first time stop or quit out of frustration. Quieting the mind is not an easy challenge, so be careful not to give up too soon when trying something new. The rewards are many if you are patient enough to stay with them.