Calm amidst chaos: Sailing through anxious times

Has your world also felt smaller in recent years? Are you consumed by doom-scrolling through news flashes and statistics? Do you often find yourself feeling restless, uneasy, and frightened?


It is not surprising, given the unrecognisable and uncertain world brought on by the pandemic, the war in Europe and recent extreme climate events. What we thought we knew is no longer true, leaving us in realms unknown. These challenging times have put our ability to simply be to the test, yet many of us struggle to embrace this notion.

Uncertainty and crisis provoke different responses, and there is no right or wrong way to react. Some may feel worried and fearful, while others remain calm and practical. The key is to observe without judgment.

Slowing down and relearning the art of breathing is essential for all of us. This natural and fundamental act has been disrupted by macro-events, leading to heightened anxiety. As children, we learned to calm ourselves for extended periods, sitting quietly and in silence. I remember tracing doodles with my fingers in the condensation left by my breath during seemingly endless car journeys. It helped me slow down my breathing and quiet my racing thoughts, enabling me to endure drives that felt never-ending.

Nowadays, you may find yourself gazing out of the window into the bleak rain, avoiding the world beyond. Even the tiny garden at the back appears larger than life, as seemingly insignificant details, like a lonely tumbling leaf, have transformed into a universe you have come to appreciate and care for. Time never stops outside; with every glance, it feels like a new place.

To start your day on the right note, you might try getting up early to watch the sunrise through the bare trees through the window. Witnessing the sunrise forces you to yield to its majesty and splendour, evoking deep admiration and delight. It is a daily spectacle, repeating itself with predictability, and in those moments, your mind is free from thought, and you simply exist. Each daybreak carries its uniqueness, an encounter you would not want to miss, with its captivating light and intense forms.

You could also invite yourself into the room and onto a chair. Ground yourself spatially and temporally by pressing your feet on the floor, settling comfortably in the chair, and placing your hands on your lap. Take a few slow and deep breaths. Focus your attention on the sensation of the breath entering and leaving your body. Notice your mood and emotions, allowing yourself to temporarily let go of personal anxieties and desires. This ritual will help you reconnect with your body and meet yourself with an open, interested, and accepting attitude.

Other practical grounding exercises that can help to shift your attention away from anxious thoughts and bring your focus back to the immediate environment include the following simple yet effective tools. None of these take long, five minutes of silence and focus may well be enough to calm you down.

  • Sit in a chair, breathe deeply, and focus on your five senses – sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste. Name things five you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. Focussing on our senses helps distract the brain from negative and anxious thinking.
  • Keep a gratitude journal, where you write down things you are grateful for each day. Write without thinking about the grammar or forming correct sentences. Instead, allow the words to flow naturally by not lifting the hand off the paper, putting down one word after another, one sentence following another. If you draw a blank, repeat the last word you wrote again and again till the next grateful thought is ready to be put onto paper. Focussing on the positive aspects of your life can shift your perspective and reduce stress.
  • Spend time in nature even if it is just a short walk in a park, or along a street with trees. Walk slowly, breathe deeply, and focus on all your senses. Nature has a calming effect on our minds and can help reduce anxiety.

Engaging in these habits is akin to opening a window into your life’s narrative, unveiling the intricacies of your emotions and experiences. They also bear a resemblance to therapy, offering a similar sense of solace and introspection as you take a moment to slow down and breathe. Much like the therapeutic process, these habits involve repetitive and gradual exploration of our inner selves and the world around us. Just as in the therapeutic setting, you can address and confront the challenges within you, with the gentle guidance of a therapist at your side.

By embracing these habits, going to therapy, or both, you give yourself the opportunity to grow and understand yourself better, fostering a deeper connection with your inner self and the outer world. 
Last, try to remember to limit your exposure to distressing news and social media, as constant exposure to negative information can contribute to anxiety. Seek social support and reach out to friends, family, or support groups when you need someone to talk to. And finally, be gentle and kind to yourself. Self-compassion involves treating yourself with the same understanding and support you would offer to a friend in distress.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London SW7
Written by Ondine Smulders, Existential Psychotherapist & Clinical Supervisor, UKCP
London SW7

Hello and welcome,
I am a multilingual UKCP-psychotherapist, supervisor and executive coach based in London. Twenty+ years in investment banking & think-tanks gave me first-hand experience of highly competitive work environments, and a keen interest in work-life balance issues, stress & burnout, as well as loneliness, isolation, and belonging.

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