Keeping Calm When Things Go Wrong

How to flex your calm muscle and keep your cool, even when sh*t’s hitting the fan

There is no day – or life – that is devoid of stress or chaos. Well, maybe if your feet are up on a lounge chair in the Bahamas with a Mai Tai in your hand. But even then, if your kids are there you’re probably worrying about them drowning in the ocean, maybe you’re anxious about your swimsuit, maybe you didn’t eat all day traveling and now you’re hangry and everything is closed. 


Every day is filled with natural moments of calm and natural moments of chaos. 


Some days it feels like one big chaotic minute after the next. One forgotten “star of the week” poster leads to being late for work and rushing into a meeting late, and that leads to skipping lunch and working late, which leads to getting stuck in traffic on the way home, leading to rushing dinner and homework and kid meltdowns. 

And then there are days we wish for those problems. Days when your health is at stake, or your partner got laid off, or you’re handling funeral arrangements for a loved one. 

Tools for calm when things go wrong

So much of what we observe in other people’s lives is curated for social media. A client was recently telling me about her son’s college drop-off and how smooth and happy it seemed for everyone else she saw. She and her son had a big argument and the weekend was fraught with stress and upheaval. She noticed how much her angst did not help the situation and wanted tools for the future to help her stay grounded when things go unexpectedly or off the rails. 

Here’s what I do in situations like this. 

1 – Have as many backup plans as possible

Without spiraling into negative “what if” thinking for too long, when possible it helps to go into situations with a backup plan in your mind. For example, if you build in a cushion into your calendar for driving in case you hit traffic or set up a backup person for pickup when you’re running late, you won’t feel panicked when you need to stay long at work or a zoom meeting runs long.

2 – Practice flexing your calm muscle even when things aren’t stressful

When your calm muscle is strong it will deploy naturally – like how a dancer memorizes a dance and executes it without even thinking. With a strong calm muscle, your brain can immediately go there instead of into panic and overwhelm mode, which usually leads to actions and behavior people regret. More on how to exercise your calm muscle here. 


For example, recently, my youngest pulled the fire alarm at school. For real! The same day, my older son literally put a paperclip into an electrical socket. You could not make this stuff up! But because I have worked on my calm muscle so much, I was able to stay centered in calm through it all. 

Pay attention to your mental energy and body’s signs to catch yourself before it goes into a chaotic state

For me, I try to avoid stressful activities when I know my mental energy is low (around the kids’ bedtime, Sundays, and the week of my period). That isn’t always possible, so I then pay attention to my body’s warning signals. Right before I start losing my shit, the signs are always the same, and I bet they are for you, too. My blood starts to feel like it’s electrocuting my body, I get short-tempered and lose patience. Once I realize this pattern, I can take a mindful pause and flex my calm muscle to prevent blowouts from happening. 


Take a bird’s eye view

I know, this one is tough within heated moments. But if you step outside yourself for a moment and think of your life like a sitcom, there is probably a hysterical moment in there. Say the baby has spaghetti dripping out of his nose and the dog is eating directly from it on the other side. In one frame of mind, this could irritate you (the mess, gross!) but if you try to see the humor in it, you may double over laughing at the absurdity of some of life’s situations. 

Put it in perspective

A common stress point in many of my clients’ days is surrounding when their kids fight. Kids crying, yelling and throwing-things is not conducive to keeping calm. What I suggest you do is, before you jump in as a referee (yes, let them keep fighting unless it’s dangerous), close your eyes and take a deep breath. Ask yourself, is anything here life threatening? Is there an actual emergency? Most likely the answer is no, and this realization will calm you down enough for you to employ some of the other tips here. 


Case in point, in the fire alarm and electrical socket story above, I was able to evaluate both situations and realize the school was not actually burning down and my son had not actually electrocuted himself, so I could put the situations in perspective and not lose my cool. 

If you do lose your shit, be kind to yourself

Everyone loses it sometimes. I had a moment a month into Covid-19  shelter-in-place 2020 where I completely lost it.! It’s called being human. Learn from it, journal about it later, come up with a backup plan if there is one available for the future, or just simply chalk it up to “one of those days,” and forgive yourself and move on. 


Staying calm is always going to lead to better results. Think about a time when you flew off the handle at the kids or to a car that cut you off – did it make anything better? Were the kids able to effectively listen to you while you were yelling at them? Probably not. And you won’t be able to learn anything from the experience either, in that mode. 


In a place of calm, you can better communicate with others, better process what actually happened, and better make adjustments to prevent it happening again, (if possible). But hey, sh*& happens and we can continue to practice our calm. 

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Reach out, I’m here for you.

Jenna Z Hermans - signature written

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