Secrets to Staying Calm in Stressful Situations

Being calm is not always easy. Over time, though, you can learn from these tips for staying calm in stressful situations.

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Last week, my son and I got stuck in a traffic jam for more than two hours. We crept along at 0-5 miles per hour on a short stretch of highway, extending an hour and a half trip to five hours.

Earlier that afternoon, a tanker hauling ethanol had overturned. The Department of Transportation closed all lanes of two interstate highways for about 8 hours while the spill was addressed. A detour diverted traffic off the highway to a traffic light that allowed about 15 cars through at a time, contributing to the bottleneck. There were no alerts advising drivers where to exit the highway or indications of why traffic was at a standstill.

After a couple of hours, I turned to my iPhone to check out the local news. There, I read about the tanker and the detour. Finally, I knew what was happening and what actions I could take to remove myself from the situation most efficiently.

During much of this time, I was calm. When a handful of drivers chose to ride on the left shoulder of the highway, I didn’t get angry. My son kept reminding me that there was nothing I could do and urged me not to get upset, frustrated, or angry. Instead of fuming or fretting, I (mostly) relaxed.

This calmness is somewhat new for me. Besides taking my son’s urging to heart, I realized that there are several secrets to staying calm in stressful situations. These are the times that are highly annoying but don’t make much difference overall.

Prepare yourself to be calm

Being prepared can affect both your mental state and physical condition. Here are specific ways to get your mind and body ready to deal with difficult circumstances:

Lower expectations

While I don’t want to go through life expecting the worst, there are times when lowered and adjusted expectations are appropriate. Driving on the interstate during rush hour is a time NOT to expect a perfectly smooth ride.

Be physically prepared

In this case, soon after we finished our outing (a college visit), I stopped at a gas station to fill up my car’s tank. Otherwise, we would have run out of fuel. Also, I happened to have my car stocked with a snack, which helped to take the edge off my hunger and, therefore, my mood.

Clear your calendar

The more you have to do, the more places you have to be, the more people are relying on you to complete certain tasks, the more minor interruptions threaten to wreck your peacefulness. By clearing your calendar for the day or loosening up your schedule in general, you eliminate a major cause of fretfulness.

As a result, a diversion of 15-30 minutes or several hours will be inconvenient, but won’t prevent you from making the next appointment or disappointing the friend who may have been waiting on you.

Have more experiences

The more you do, the more things will go wrong. The more times things go wrong, the better you learn to either prepare for or deal with the unexpected. This unusually long wait provided a good reference point for my son, who traveled to Atlanta with his dad for another college visit later in the week. Again, they encountered traffic jams, but none that made them late for appointments because they allowed extra time to get where they were going. In addition, none of the delays were as severe as the one my son and I had experienced earlier, making them seem minor in comparison.

Get some exercise

Problematic situations usually don’t bother me if they occur soon after a great bike ride or run. The calm that exercise provides usually persists for a while. And, generally, my workouts offer a way to control a small part of my life, helping me to more readily accept situations that I cannot control.

Learn to keep your identity out of the situation

Being too invested in a situation and its outcome can lead to frustration and stress. For example, instead of imagining myself as an influential person in certain scenarios and feeling that my self-worth is based on achieving a certain result by a specific time, I simply deal with the situation itself. Bad things that happen then don’t define me.

Stay calm during stressful situations

Practice staying calm, whether these methods come naturally to you or not. Eventually, you will be able to draw on your experience with these techniques to deal with maddening circumstances. Try these techniques:

Appear calm

Learning to act like you are calm is definitely one of those fake-it-until-you-make-it moves. Controlling your demeanor can help you to control your mood. This action involves holding your tongue and repressing anger. You can always panic or get angry later, but reversing course (going from panic and anger to calm) is very difficult.


If you are waiting in line or engaged in an activity that involves stillness, pray about the situation, the people involved, and how your words or actions might improve the situation. Also, consider taking your mind completely off whatever is happening by distracting yourself through prayer.

For example, if you are stuck in traffic, pray for those who may have been involved in an accident that is now causing the gridlock, pray for those around you to stay calm, or pray about an unrelated situation.

Accept circumstances

Try to relax into your circumstances and don’t blame yourself for bad timing, failing to prepare, or inability to deal with setbacks. Be present in the moment and handle what’s in front of you, instead of regretting whatever led to the situation or anticipating problems caused by the situation.

Keep your sense of humor

You don’t have to make jokes but you don’t need to lose sight of humor that could arise from the situation. For example, think about how you will retell the story about your thoughts and actions during this time, perhaps sharing how steamed you were over the incident but how you reacted nonchalantly instead.

View the situation from the other person’s perspective

The more you can relate to what others in the situation are feeling, the more you can empathize and stay calm for yourself and them. Sure, I often get frustrated at people’s lack of concern about my needs. But I can also look at the situation from another person’s point of view and become more understanding.

Determine future courses of action based on your experiences

Just because you have stayed calm through a maddening situation doesn’t mean you have to routinely deal with stress that could be avoided (though not all stress can be dodged or eliminated).

Choose your battles

We often talk about choosing our battles with our children, drawing clear boundaries on certain issues while selectively ignoring others that are inconsequential. Similarly, decide what behaviors are acceptable and which can no longer be tolerated. Wisely lighten up on some situations that maddened you earlier while maintaining your ground on important issues.

Be clear about next steps

Your ability to stay calm doesn’t mean that you should not hold people accountable for their actions. Articulate what should happen to avoid similar situations in the future.

Take your business elsewhere, if necessary

If you notice a pattern of frustrating situations with certain businesses, organizations, etc., then you may need to remove yourself from these interactions. Staying calm in difficult circumstances doesn’t mean that you must accept repeated failures due to unpreparedness, unresponsiveness, or negligence of other people.

Do whatever you enjoy

As you move away from situations that are stressful, pursue activities that bring a sense of peace. The more you can enjoy your life, the more you can withstand irritations along the way.

Make changes yourself

Though many stressful situations are caused by outside forces, consider how you may have contributed to uncomfortable circumstances. Make adjustments to your routines, demeanor, etc. to keep yourself calm, knowing that you have done all that was reasonable to avoid stress.

What I’ve learned is that the more I practice being calm, the calmer I am. I still get rattled, I still get angry, I still get scared. But I’ve slowly become calmer in more situations. I hope to continue this pattern.

Would you like to stay calmer in stressful situations? Do you think these techniques will work for you? What else can you do to stay calm?

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