Two Steps to Help You Feel Calm, Not Just Stay Calm
Updated: Feb 11
Let me assure you, I am not one of those moms whose kids are so sweet and agreeable that I think parenting is easy, or that I have it all figured out. Not by far. My kids are, in fact, very spirited. Even wild sometimes. They scream. They fight. They leave messes everywhere. They refuse to wear clothes and insist on being held while I’m trying to do a million other things.
Just like you, I’m doing my very best to teach them, and to give them lots of praise and love, too. However, at times, it’s all I can do to keep from losing it, and truthfully, sometimes I do. Still, I’ve learned to relax quite a bit over the years, and now with three little ones, I’m much less on edge that I was with one or two. I think, in part, that came with gaining confidence as a mom, but mostly it’s thanks to adopting a different mindset about stress.
That’s why I wanted to share a simple method that’s helped me relax and feel more calm—not only around my kids, but in all relationships and circumstances—and that I hope can help you, too. It’s called the relaxation response.
Learning to Relax
We’ve all heard of our instinctive “fight or flight” response to stress, but the opposite response, which is much less known, is called the relaxation response. It’s just as natural and necessary to our survival, because it’s how our bodies rebuild.
Lately, I’ve been re-reading all of the Jane Austen novels, and something that’s struck me again and again is how much simpler life was then. I’m not sure if that’s even the right way to word it, because, of course, Austen’s stories are full of all kinds of complicated and ridiculous situations. But what impresses me is how often her characters depend on quiet reflection, especially in nature, to make sense of it all.
I believe we’ve lost that in our day. We pursue leisure and entertainment—diversions and distractions—but we’re not truly engaging our relaxation response. And we’re suffering because of it.
To give you some background, the relaxation response was discovered in the 1970’s by Dr. Herbert Benson. What’s fascinating is that it was in the very same research room at Harvard where Walter Cannon discovered the fight or flight response in the early 1900’s. You can read about his findings in the book The Relaxation Response, which describes how it can actually fight disease and improve health.
But I digress. The reason I’m writing about this isn’t to help you treat PMS or migraines (although it can do that, too), it’s to help you learn to relax and feel more calm. The method is so simple, anyone can do it. The steps are:
Focus on a thought or activity that calms you.
Allow distractions to fall away.
At the heart, this isn’t just about slowing down (although I’m all for that!), it’s about learning to control your thoughts and emotions. You might even call it mindfulness, surrender, or transcendence. More than anything, Dr. Benson’s discovery only proves what God has been teaching us since the beginning of time: that when our minds and hearts change, we feel more peace.
“Things do not change; we change.” - Henry David Thoreau
The Reason We Lose Control
These days, we’re often too busy, distracted, stressed, depressed or anxious—by our own thoughts, as well as by our screens, schedules and the demands of parenting—to fully relax. That’s when we end up reacting or losing control. You might think it’s a lack of self-control, but that’s not necessarily true. We typically think of self-control as having the awareness to stop yourself from doing or saying the wrong thing when you’re most vulnerable. That’s very important too, especially for parents, but it’s not the point I’m trying to make here.
I believe true self-control comes from being in control of your emotions, long before you become vulnerable, so you don’t even feel the urge to react. I don't mean suppressing or resisting your emotions; I mean guiding them. It might not be possible every time, because we're only human. But the more we practice relaxing our minds, the more natural it becomes. It’s easier to stay calm when you actually feel calm.
Case in point: I often have to stop myself from losing my temper when my 5-year-old teases his little sister. It can be almost impossible, because I’m feeling undermined, or that it’s unfair for his sister to be treated that way. The result is, sometimes I do lose my temper.
What works much better is to focus on my own thoughts instead of reacting to his behavior. That way I can comfort his little sister before I’m tempted to come down on him, or try to see things from his point of view. That doesn’t mean I ignore or allow his behavior. It simply means I don’t lose my temper, so I can talk with him about not losing his. That way, he learns more than just holding back when he’s angry; he learns how to stop feeling angry altogether.
In other words, when you control your emotions, you don’t have to fight the urge to react, because you don’t even feel it. You stay calm, because you feel calm.
Changing the Way We Think About Stress
So then, how do you choose to feel calm instead of stressed, especially when your kids are acting up, or the house is a disaster, or your husband’s working late again? It’s the question I set out to answer for myself a few years ago, and that I write about so frequently here.
The thing is, we tend to think of stress as only negative, but that’s not always the case. Our bodies are designed to handle stress, and it can help us focus and overcome obstacles, like saving money, starting a business, or stopping your 3-year-old from sprinting into a busy street. This article by VeryWell explains it this way:
"By priming your body for action, you are better prepared to perform under pressure. The stress created by the situation can actually be helpful, making it more likely that you will cope effectively with the threat. This type of stress can help you perform better in situations where you are under pressure to do well, such as at work or school. In cases where the threat is life-threatening, the fight-or-flight response can actually play a critical role in your survival. By gearing you up to fight or flee, the fight-or-flight response makes it more likely that you will survive the danger." - Kendra Cherry
So, avoiding all stress isn’t realistic or even desirable. And stressing out about stress only compounds any negative effects, which isn’t helpful. Sometimes the best approach is simply to embrace it. Keep in mind, you have three choices when it comes to stress:
Say yes to stress that’s necessary to help you accomplish what’s important to you (like pursuing a goal, improving a skill, withstanding a trial, or supporting someone you love)
Say no to stress that isn’t worthwhile or doesn’t add value to your life (especially superfluous relationships, social situations, pressures, etc.)
Change the way you respond to stress, so that you can feel calm instead of anxious, worried or threatened
This is when the relaxation response can help counter the negative effects of stress. I learned this for myself when my husband started working late and I was putting our three little kids to bed on my own most nights. It took over an hour, and I desperately wanted them to go to sleep so I could finally relax. But then I realized, I could spend that hour feeling stressed and overwhelmed, or I could spend it relaxing and enjoying my kids. It was all in the way I was thinking.
The same turned out to be true for getting my kids ready in the morning. Stressing out didn’t speed up the process; if anything, it meant more whining and tantrums. So even if we’re running behind, which I hate, the truth is, I could be late and stressed, or late and relaxed. I might as well be relaxed, and try again tomorrow. (I’m actually improving my punctuality this way!) Learning to relax in stressful moments has helped me feel more calm and ready for whatever my day brings.
Using the Relaxation Response to Feel More Calm
When we engage our relaxation response, our bodies literally slow down; our heart rate and breathing become even, our blood pressure eases. We experience a sense of well-being that allows us to access our intellect and creativity in a way we can’t under stress. We’re able to learn, retain, process, heal and forgive. We communicate better, because we don’t feel threatened, and we make decisions based on logic and compassion, not fear. Real relaxation isn’t idleness; it’s essential to function at our highest level.
Kids learn better when they’re relaxed, too. I used to think my kids had to feel their happiness was threatened in some way if they didn’t behave. Of course, I believe that doing what’s right leads to happiness, and I want to instill that. But when kids feel shame, guilt, fear or pain, their logic shuts down, and they shift into fight or flight mode. Instead of listening and learning, they’re more likely to fight back or withdraw.
In the book How Children Succeed by Paul Tough (highly recommend!), the author presents study after study that shows how kids under stress can struggle all the way into adulthood. They’re prone to suffer from poor health later in life, too. Especially when the stress was inflicted by caregivers, whether it was from neglect or pressure to be perfect, the damage was almost irreversible. But amazingly, when kids feel safe at home, or even at school—in other words, they can relax—this offsets the effects of any stress they were under, whether from bullying, poverty, or schoolwork.
The point is, kids need the relaxation response to thrive, and so do we. Here’s how the steps might work if, for instance, I just discovered that my kids piled every single toy they own on the stairs. (My kids love this play this game, which they call "secret hideout.")
Step one, focus on a thought or activity that calms you. It’s easy for me to think all sorts of stressful thoughts like, It’s going to take all day to get my kids to clean this up! It’s so annoying to have to step over this mess. Someone could trip and get hurt. I’ve asked them over and over to keep their toys off the stairs! They need to take care of this right now. Worse, when I vent these thoughts out loud to my kids, it creates even more stress and resistance.
Instead, to relax, I can focus on thoughts that calm me like, I love how imaginative they are! Look at them playing together. This mess really isn’t a big problem. It’s good practice for them to clean up after themselves. This is a good chance to remind them about our rule against toys on the stairs and why we have it. Maybe they could move their fun somewhere safer. We’ll figure this out, everything will be alright.
With this way of thinking, even the activity of getting down on my kids’ level, talking with them, and helping them clean up can be relaxing. I might turn on some of our favorite music, too (we love folk music by Elizabeth Miller) to help, too.
Here are a few more thoughts to help you relax, which I find helpful in all sorts of circumstances:
This isn't a problem.
Every problem has an answer.
I'm feeling ______, and that's alright.
I can figure this out.
I can do this.
I don't need to change anyone else, I can choose for myself.
I don't need to know the answer right now.
I'm willing to be patient as long as necessary.
I trust God.
It is well with my soul.
I am at peace.
Only love today.
Step two, allow distractions to fall away. When irritating thoughts or comments inevitably come up, like all the things I'd rather be doing, I try to let them pass by without dwelling on them, and return to more calming thoughts. It almost becomes a sort of reverie, so that I’m able to be more present with the task at hand. Remember, not every problem needs to be pointed out or solved immediately. I believe it's more important to maintain your sense of calm, clear thinking so you're ready to face whatever comes.
Feeling Calm All Day Long
It takes practice to learn to relax your mind in stressful moments, but the reward is well worth it. It’s easier to stay calm when you feel calm. Here are a few more tips to help you relax and feel calm all day long:
Take care of yourself. Every busy mom knows how easy it can be to neglect your health. But nurturing your mind, body and spirit helps reduce stress on your system. You simply can’t thrive without proper self care. If you’re overwhelmed, start with one thing you can do for yourself daily. It could be as simple as taking a shower, going for a walk, or going to bed early.
Seek relaxing activities. We have enough stress in our lives. Think about what relaxes you. (Beware of distractions, especially screens—they can feel like an escape, but often create more stress.) It might be hiking, reading, baking, singing, photography, painting, dancing, gardening, crafting (to name just a few). If you don’t know what to do, simply pick something that interests you. I’m all for learning and trying new things! You don’t even have to be good at it, as long as you enjoy it.
Create a circle of support. This one doesn’t come naturally to me. I tend to be private and distant, even with the people closest to me. But reaching out to family and friends helps me break down those walls I’ve built up for false protection. I don’t live close to many of them, so I’ve come to love sending hand-written letters and gifts. For those of you who’ve been through trauma, the right therapist can be an invaluable support, too.
Know yourself. Many of us go through life without understanding our true worth, which I believe we find by looking through God’s eyes. He made you and gave you life, and to come to know yourself is to realize what a beautiful gift that is. Look for what inspires you, motivates you, and interests you. Listen to your thoughts and feelings, and ask yourself where they’re coming from. Get clear on what’s important to you and why, so you can stand by your priorities rather than crumbling to outside pressures. Journaling is a great tool for pen-to-paper pondering, and it’s one of the most relaxing activities I can recommend.
Practice soothing your kids. In her book Being There (another favorite), Erica Komisar shows how soothing your kids helps them learn how to feel calm on their own. To put it another way, helping your kids feel safe and relaxed with you, especially when they're upset or acting out—with reassuring words, questions, physical touch, fun, etc.—engages your relaxation response and theirs. This is a win-win because it helps both of you think more clearly and make better choices, and they'll be more receptive to your teaching than by scolding or nagging (which we often do when we're stressed, and which triggers their fight-or-flight response).
I think it’s important to remember that the point isn’t to be perfect, it’s to feel more peace. Call it mindfulness, surrender, transcendence—learning to relax is one of the best skills we can learn in this life. It helps us practice true self-control, so we can feel calm, not just stay calm. All it takes is two simple steps, and a little practice.
Here's to more good days,
Tell me, what helps you relax and feel calm? How do you handle stress? I’d love to hear! Leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by Hannah Mann