“Are you kidding me?” Sadie’s fists were clenched. “The teacher can give us, like 20 pages in a review packet and then just expect us to do it? Right then?”
“I was so mad.”
Sadie settled back in her seat and softened her fists. “So I took three breaths and then, I don’t know. I just was able to start.” She smiled. “I used my mindfulness.”
Like Fourth Grader Sadie, we all feel anger and panic blow through our beings. But do we have the power – like her – to shift our emotion and calm our feelings? Do we know how to calm down?
Calming down is a life skill. Something that we all need. Desperately.
On the phone with the software help line, my face is hot and my neck is so tight it hurts. On the other end, the woman’s voice is insanely chirpy, and I want to beam through my Verizon connection and shake her.
Yes, she is saying, her company’s software does have a bit of a glitch, and it will, in fact, grab an old file and send it to a client list, by mistake, when I am going through the steps to send a new file. A current file. A file about the here and now.
I know I cannot race down the data channel that leads to all my clients and pull back the newsletter that is two months old and looks as icky as a trampled beach umbrella. But I need to. And I am desperate to make this woman understand how terribly big this small glitch has become.
I get up from my computer screen, find a chair near the window and take three slow breaths. Reason seeps into my brain. My neck loosens. The woman’s voice on the other end becomes a voice that is connected to an actual human being, one with a beating heart and family. It occurs to me that she is not intentionally trying to ruin my life.
“OK. So what’s my next step?” I do not feel like being calm, but my nervous system has slowed and the fury has vanished. I am connected to the part of me that knows I have to move forward.
This kind of me-turn or U-turn, as writer Tara Brach would say, is mindfulness at work. It’s a moment of intention that allows me to re-connect with the smart part of my brain, the part that helps me manage my emotions and unplug my sky-is-falling reactivity.
Below are the steps you can take to use this mindfulness tool and “calm down” your big feelings.
Using the “Calm Down” Breath
- Breathe in slowly through your nose, like you’re smelling a flower.
If you’re helping a child, you can demonstrate by holding your index finger up to your nose and breathing in with them.
- Breathe out slowly – even more slowly than you breathed in – like you are blowing out birthday candles.
With a child, continue to demonstrate by lowering your index finger and breathing out with them.
- Repeat three times.
The “Calm Down” Breath soothes the nervous system, releasing the heat that’s been kindling your body’s emotion. It stops the flow of adrenaline and lowers your heart rate.
If you are a parent or teacher working with kids, take the “Calm Down” Breath with them. This helps for two reasons: their nervous systems will attune to your slower, calmer system as you take these breaths. And your demonstration gives them a clear model to follow: they will breathe with you.
After learning and practicing the “Calm Down” Breath, you can remember it by silently saying these phrases, as you breathe in and out:
Breathing in: “I can calm “
Breathing out: “my whole body and mind”
Students use the “Calm Down” Breath when they are sitting on the bench, at a soccer game, upset that they have been asked to leave the field. They use it before auditioning for plays, before tests, before finding a seat at the lunch table.
I use it whenever I am in that dark, smothered place of overwhelm. I am in the dentist’s chair and panic is filling my throat. I am late, again, for pick up.
What I love most about the “Calm Down” Breath is that I can do it as often as I want, whenever I want. It’s like the air we breathe: life-giving and always there.