Friday 24 January 2020

Slow down: How to calm your mind and unlock your potential

We're stressing ourselves out, and missing out on so much, with our relentlessly busy lives. Emily Hourican speaks to the experts to bring you 12 tips to help achieve greater serenity and reduce the speed at which your life is hurtling by

Mindfulness meditation can help combat stress in the workplace
Mindfulness meditation can help combat stress in the workplace
A calm mind is a productive mind

Emily Hourican

There is a misconception that a calm mind means an empty mind, a kind of Zen flatline.

In fact, it's the opposite; a calm mind is a productive mind, one where ideas and thoughts linger and percolate long enough to become productive, where creative thinking is favoured and decisions are taken out of an instinctual understanding of what you need.

A calm mind is a pleasant place to dwell, and is resilient when faced with life's inevitable shocks.

So how to achieve this desirable state of being? Here are some strategies for slowing down, for changing the pace at which you live - perhaps not permanently, but often enough to remind yourself why calming the mind is something to aim for.

These are aimed at the many of us who understand that by being busy all the time we have lost something valuable, are risking our fundamental health and happiness, and who wish to arrive at a state of greater serenity.

Some are short-term strategies, to deploy in a moment of agitation (breathing, for example), others are medium and long-term - physical and psychological changes to incorporate into our daily lives that will bring good results.

1. Pause

Consultant psychologist Dr Jane Louise Clarke, owner and director of The Consulting Clinic (, recommends as a first step that we "stop, pause and check in with yourself. In the rush of life we often feel we don't have time to stop and gather our thoughts, but doing so can calm the mind and reduce reactivity."

So take a moment, and ask yourself the following questions: "What am I feeling right now? Am I reacting rather than responding? Am I getting things out of proportion? Am I predicting the worst? Am I jumping to conclusions? What advice would I give to a friend in this situation?"

All these questions "help us to stand back and get a wide perspective, which then helps to calm the mind".

2. Breathe

After that, breathe. "Take a few moments to stop and connect with your breath. The breath helps to increase focus, regulate emotions and anchor back into the present moment," says Dr Clarke.

There are various formulae for breathing yourself calm, but one of the simplest and most effective is the 7-11 breath: Breathe in for seven counts, breathe out for 11. Repeat.

3. Take stock

Dr Clarke also suggests we take stock of our "areas of nourishment and depletion. When we feel stressed we tend to neglect the nourishing activities and get lost within the depleting activities that exhaust us. Nourishing activities lift mood, increase energy and help you feel calm."

Such activities might be exercise, healthy eating, meditation and connecting with your values. Areas of depletion are too much screen time, working long hours, avoiding socialising and exercise. Make your own personal list of nourishing and depleting activities, with the aim to reduce the depletion activities and increase your nourishing list."

4. Exercise

Linda Hamilton, cognitive behavioural therapist at Kinsale CBT (, says: "Exercise is hugely important for mental as well as physical health, and one of the most effective ways of reducing anxiety or depression (around five minutes of aerobic exercise can stimulate anti-anxiety effects, while as little as one hour of exercise a week reduces the risk of future depression).

"It releases endorphins, which can significantly boost mood and is one of the quickest ways of reducing stress. It reduces fatigue and tension, improves alertness and concentration, and the ability to sleep. Joining a gym or going hill-walking is great, but more modest steps - just getting out and moving when you can - will also help."

5. Get outdoors

If that exercise can take place in nature, the proven benefits are increased: "A growing body of research confirms nature has the power to rejuvenate," Hamilton says. "Recent research has found that people who spent at least two hours in contact with nature over the previous week were much more likely to report a greater sense of well-being than people who spent no time outdoors. It didn't matter how the 120 minutes was achieved (for example, one long visit versus several shorter ones).

"Spending more than five hours was not associated with additional benefits.

"Correlation is not causation, but it's fair to assume that most of us feel the benefits from accessing green space, whether it be in a leafy park or a walk by the sea. People at risk of anxiety or depression are especially likely to benefit - being near water and trees and birds and animals is a positive distraction that takes you out of your head, calming the mind and bringing you back to the moment."

6. Do new things

Hamilton also advocates spending time doing whatever it is that your enjoy - "whether it be reading, baking, listening to music" - but equally, highlights the power of the new: "The more novelty in your life, the longer it seems. It's easy to fall into familiar routines as we get older; as a result, one day can blur into the next.

"That's why a week holidaying in an unfamiliar location seems longer than a normal week. In novel situations, we pay more attention, taking in the different smells and sights. We can't be on holidays all the time, but we can shake things up by varying where we walk, drive, cycle, what we eat, and so on. Small injections of newness keep life fresh."

7. Work out your NATs and tackle them

"Life can be stressful," Hamilton says, "but stress can also be self-generated, with unhelpful thinking patterns making a difficult situation seem like an intolerable one. We often forget that our thoughts are not facts.

"This is especially the case when we are stressed or anxious. It's a good idea to jot down the NATs - Negative Automatic Thoughts - that pop into your head in times of stress and take a look at them later on, when things are calmer. You'll see that these thoughts can be harsh and self-limiting and characterised by the various cognitive distortions that we're all prone to on occasion.

"A quick way of defusing negative thoughts is to use the phrase 'I'm having the thought that...' with any unpleasant thought. For example, if your mind says, 'Everyone's going to laugh at me', say to yourself, ' I'm having the thought that everyone's going to laugh at me'.

"Diffusion helps you not take your thoughts too literally, promoting a sense of calm that allows you to watch negative thoughts come and go."

8. Eat right

What and how we eat also plays a large part in how we feel. Registered dietitian Nigel Denby (, with twice monthly clinics at The Menopause Hub in Dublin, explains the need for regular eating habits: "Your body and mind have a very definite natural 24-hour rhythm, which includes the body's expectation of food at regular intervals.

"This can be three main meals a day or five smaller meals, but once you step out of your rhythm, your body and mind soon become agitated.

"It is also not great to provide energy spikes or peaks. This happens when you eat lots of simple sugars as these foods give a rapid rise in blood sugar which puts the body and brain on high alert. It suits your mental state much better to eat your carbohydrates in the form of low-glycaemic foods like grainy bread, pasta, sweet potatoes, basmati rice and oats."

Incorporating certain foods can boost mental calm and clarity. As well as the usual advice around eating wholemeal bread and cereals, oily fish, poultry and red meat, Denby suggests we consider eating more pears (research suggests that Boron, a mineral found in pears, may help electrical activity in the brain), sesame seeds (rich in Omega 6 fatty acids involved in nerve impulses and may improve memory function), celery (contains phthalides which calm the nervous system) and ripe bananas (high in potassium; an inadequate intake of potassium can lead to mental confusion).

9. Hydrate

Don't forget to drink. "Dehydration causes confusion, fatigue and makes it difficult to concentrate," says Denby.

10. Be realistic

Don't try too much too fast, in case the very thing you hope will calm you, becomes a source of stress. Life coach Sarah Doyle, founder of The Better Life Project ( says: "If we try too much, we just add to the stress. It's about being realistic in our goals. If you were running a marathon in October, you would start training now. Look on your mental fitness in the same way. Devise a plan, follow it, and build up to where you want to be."

11. Be mindful

Doyle advocates taking time for mindfulness. "When we are in a calm and tranquil state, we are more open, more compassionate to ourselves and others, and more in the moment. We make better decisions. Commit to five minutes of mindfulness as often as you can, rather than every day. Aim for two or three times a week, but even once is good."

12. Be aware

"Connecting with nature can do wonders for our wellbeing," says Doyle. "Here, it's about being present on purpose. Focus on your surroundings. List two things you can see, two you can touch, two you can smell, hear and taste. This helps you really to be aware in the moment."

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