You should do breathing exercises. Maybe do yoga a few times a week and you’ll feel better. Go for a walk daily. Start your day off with a 10 minute meditation.
I cannot count the number of times people have given me advice like this to me. These are probably good suggestions and they do indeed have a reasonable amount of research supporting them, but I believe they are insufficient for promoting lasting composure. I do see a lot of value in maintaining a relaxed, composed state of mind while going through my day. When we are calm our brains function differently, we have superior reasoning and problem solving abilities. I think many people can relate to the experience of reacting inappropriately when distressed. How can 10 minutes of meditation in the morning, a walk, or yoga a couple of times a week maintain my composure throughout the day? I do not believe it can. Instead, perhaps I need a tool I can easily use throughout the day to maintain my composure. For me, this tool is practicing mindfulness.
Mindfulness refers to paying attention to the present moment, without judgement. Practicing mindfulness is simple and incredibly effective for regulating my emotions throughout my day. What does practicing mindfulness look like? Take a breath, notice the air filling your lungs, notice your rib cage expanding, notice your heart beat, just notice how it feels. Focus on those things, and without judgment (“It should be deeper”, “it should be slower”, “it should be…”), just notice the way it is. Congratulations, you have just practiced mindfulness. It’s that simple.
Paying attention to your breath can be convenient because we always have our breath, even in a completely dark room, late at night but we do not have to pay attention to our breathing to practice mindfulness. We can be focused on anything in the present moment without judgement to practice mindfulness. By “judgment” I mean assigning interpretations like “good”, “bad”, “better”, “worse”, etc. For instance I often look at a tree outside my office window. I watch how the sun hits each leaf, I look at the shades of green and grey, I watch it move in the wind. Instead of thinking “that is a beautiful tree” or “that tree should be bigger” I just notice and accept how it is in the present moment.
I direct my attention to the present moment hundreds of times a day. As the people in my life can attest (with some frustration occasionally) I do very little worrying about the future. I also try and rarely think about the past, besides considering what I can learn from it and moving on. My paying attention to the present allows me to avoid much of the anxiety and depression that is associated with worrying about the future and regretting the past.
But I need to problem-solve and plan! I can’t just be sitting around looking at trees all day! I agree, that is impractical. However, I would argue that many people do far more worrying and regretting than are truly necessary. How many times have you lay in bed and lost sleep because you were trying to worry your way out of a problem? So we problem solve and plan when we must, and we stay in the present as often as we can. This way when we do have to problem we are composed, and our thinking is productive.
Okay, so what happens when I’m paying attention to the present moment and my mind just naturally thinks about the future or the past? It takes practice to stay in the present moment for any extended amount of time but while we are training our minds we want to be compassionate with ourselves. Like training a puppy, we want to be consistent, reliable, and gentle. So when our minds wander to a place they don’t need to be, we gently guide it back to the present.
I find practicing mindfulness to be most helpful in distressing situations. For example, when talking in-front of people I find it very helpful to just take a deep breath and just for a moment notice the air filling my lungs and my ribs expanding. This relaxes me immediately. Or after a stressful experience I will take a breath and just ask myself “what is going on in my mind right now?”, “what am I feeling?”, and “where are these emotions coming from?” I find this to be much more helpful for regulating my emotions than thinking “stop getting angry”, “I shouldn’t (judgement) worry about this”, or “I’m being too dramatic (judgment).”