The Dumbest Technique to Calm Yourself Down (and Why it Works)
Exploring the science behind something that certainly shouldn't work
The first time I ever had a panic attack was in a hammock, softly rocking between two pine trees in one of the most pristine areas of the planet. The rocky mountains of Canada are hardly a place one expects to find themselves in such a state, and yet there I was positively clamouring for a way to calm myself down.
I was monitoring my heart rate via my watch, which in hindsight is probably a terrible thing to stare at when you’re worried that you might be having a cardiac event. I watched it rise, going round-for-round with the number of thoughts in my head, vying for the gold medal of making me feel terrible. It was a pretty tight race.
It wasn’t an overly serious attack by any metric, but it was new to me and wholly uncomfortable. What made it benign was also what made it so unsettling: there was no reason for it. None that I’d identified yet, at least.
I was on vacation, and not one of those high-pressure vacations that cost thousands of dollars and required perfect weather and well-behaved children. We were camping a couple hours from our home. The kids were fine. The weather was beautiful. I was not in financial distress or dealing with a crisis of conscience. In short, life was fine. Great even. Nothing to complain about. 5 stars. Would live again.
The voice in my head disagreed sharply. In an effort to shut him up, I reached for sweet lady distraction. I’d downloaded some audiobooks before I left, and now it was their time to shine.
My choices boiled down to The Shining by Stephen King and Solve For Happy, by Mo Gawdat. With all due respect to Stephen King, his particular brand of coked-up horror may not have paired well with my current existential crisis.
Solve for Happy was a self-help book that I’d heard recommended in a podcast and happened upon later that day on Twitter. Such a coincidence only comes around every other day, so I jumped at the opportunity to indulge. I’d hesitated on it for some time after the purchase due to the content. Contrary to the cheery title, it deals with some decidedly un-cheery things. It’s the story of a man who devises a mathematical formula for happiness. Several years after coming up with it, it’s put to the ultimate test as he loses his son in a cruel twist of fate. His family turns to his formula to try and overcome their greatest tragedy.
I know. Perhaps not your first choice during hammock-time. But Stephen King in the 80s you see… it’s not something to read during a panic attack. So strap on your skates Mo, you’re going in.
I’ve mentioned it a bit in my recommendation of this book, but the thing that struck me immediately about Mo is he has perhaps the most pleasant sounding voice I may have ever encountered. Given my situation, it was like a warm vocal blanket that reiterated what I knew but needed to hear–you are going to be alright.
The book starts out with a question that brought with it an impact that made me sit up straight–or rather it would have had I not been in a hammock (have you ever tried to sit straight up in a hammock? I don’t have the core strength). The question? Why are so many of us unhappy when we exist in the most wonderful time in the last 4 billion years? If you could come up with the ingredients for happiness, we’ve got them in abundance. As a white man in his 30s, sitting in paradise with his healthy family, it was an excellent question.
I devoured the book over that trip (and the next one), and it became my gateway drug into the world of a few things–namely happiness and mindfulness. I’d dabbled in mindfulness, but this was the first time I may have understood it on a different level. One particular hot tip stuck out at me as peculiar.
He mentioned that sometimes when he’s feeling a little out of control and the thoughts begin to take the wheel, he finds himself beginning to panic. For obvious reason, this chapter grabbed some of my attention. What magical solution would this wizard offer me? My tray table was stowed and my seat was in an upright position (again, pure exaggeration…. still in a hammock). I was ready. His advice?
Look around the room. That’s it. When he’s feeling overwhelmed by stupid life, he takes note of literal inanimate objects strewn about his immediate area. A coffee stain on his table. A shag carpet. A particular grain of wood on his oak bookshelf.
What the hell, Mo? You’ve seen some shit, friend. Forgive me for expecting maybe a bit more than a quiet game of eye-spy with goddamned nobody.
Whatever, the book still ruled, even if that particular bit of guidance was a bit odd. Or was it? We wouldn’t know until I faced my next bout of extreme unease, which thankfully was only mere weeks away.
Hazel is my dog. She is–as many of her generation will be known in dog training circles for the next 12-14 years–a covid puppy. Objectively she’s fine. She’s cute, wants to be good, and doesn’t bark. I may not be what most call “a dog person”, but I can admit she’s got her charms. Regardless, puppies remain a challenging life experience. They’re destructive and aloof babies with razor teeth and a thirst for blood. During a warm day in June they can be a pain in the ass… during the 3rd month of a worldwide pandemic, they might have you reaching for that Stephen King book to find a solution.
We decided to take our puppy (who we would shortly learn hates car rides) on a hike in the mountains. This was a hilarious misstep in hindsight, but early covid days, man, they were a real trip. One thing we hadn’t fully appreciated was hiking was one of the last bastions of activity available to the unwashed masses. Gyms had closed, sports had ceased, and being outside was one of the few remaining activities that had that savoury nostalgia of normal.
The trail was packed ass-to-ass is what I’m trying to say. We drove for 2 hours with a dog screaming in the backseat (she’s a husky, so she doesn’t bark as much as she pontificates via guttural bellow). Upon arrival, us and the rest of western Canada set off to defeat Ptarmigan Cirque, and entirely conquerable trek of mediocre difficulty. This factor mixed with all the others contributed to its outrageous popularity. It’s close to a city, breath-taking, and not terribly long or steep. And we brought our puppy. As a man who is working towards radical self-love, I say this with affection: what a pack of morons we were.
The first problematic characteristic of Ptarmigan Cirque is it has a very narrow trails. Aggressively undulating root systems of the nearby trees ensure you can’t really wander too-far off the path. This results in a trail no wider than 6 feet that you can’t maneuver off of. On a quiet day it’s not much of an issue, but on this day it was like a highway running down a back alley. Weekend warriors vied for pole position going up and down the mountain, resulting in a frantic game of sitting in traffic, but being exhausted while doing it.
Problem two. It’s Hazel again. She loves. Perhaps too much. At least I call it love. More accurately it’s a complete lack of self-control. She loves dogs and she loves people, but what she really loves is genitals. All of them. She ain’t got time for discernment. If you’ve got genitals, I’ve got a dog who needs to check them out. And hiking genitals? In the sun? That’s her Super Bowl.
So there we are. It’s hot. The kids are whining and beginning to fight because the heat and incline is starting to get to them. My dog is jumping at everybody. Every. Body. She is the all-displaying, tail-wagging embodiment of my failure as a dog owner and as a man. Surely, every person on that trail is thinking deeply about me and how I’ve let them all down.
At one point–and to this day I can show you that point on a map–I debated turning a hard 90 degrees into the forest, walking 200 yards and laying down in the soil for a slow return to Jesus. I was done with this shit.
It was at my wit’s end that I finally succumbed to absurdity. With nowhere left to turn, I would try Mo’s weird-ass advice on what to do when everything was turning mad. I had lost all hope. It was time to look around and name stuff.
“Why are we stopping?”
“Just. Just shut up a second.”
That lone branch of pine needles has a different colour than the rest of the tree. Hell is going on there? That’d be like having an unhealthy finger.
Oh cool. A cloud that looks like a cat riding a dolphin. That’s preposterous. Natural enemies.
A series of striations cut out of a rock by a glacier that creeped by thousands of years ago. Only a nerd would find that interesting. Wait. Am I a nerd?
A mountain that rose so oddly that it appears as though it melted against the one next to it.
This mountain… I was really taken by this mountain. I’ve seen thousands of them in my time, but this one was unlike anything I’d seen. It had a bend to it that seemed so unnatural that I couldn’t help but find myself in complete awe.
And that was the end of it. I had calmed myself down. My frustration towards the dog, the kids, and myself all dissolved into the air and ended up somewhere between the peak of that mountain and that absurd cat riding a dolphin. The rest of the day was incredible. We took goofy photos and laughed at the dog when she stepped in glacier water and freaked out. I found somebody’s wallet and gleefully returned it on the way home (I’d love to tell you I’m just that damn incredible, but he just so happened to live in the community next to mine).
It was a pivotal shift in my understanding of emotion. I’d heard that it isn’t events that bother us, but rather our reactions to them. This however was something different. This was undeniable proof that entire moods (and justifiably enraging ones) can be shifted by little more than looking at stuff.
Am I broken, or perhaps an imbecile?
I would use this superpower frequently over the next few months, never ceasing to be amazed at not only the effectiveness of it, but the speed at which it worked. I felt stupid even mentioning it to friends because they might assume I’m some sort of loon.
But what if I wasn’t crazy? One day a good friend of mine called me up to chat. He’d been going through a tough time and needed to make a very uncomfortable phone call to his boss. You know those phone calls that take 20 seconds but you spend 3 days pretending they’ll go away if you watch enough tv? One of those.
So he’s telling me about sitting on the edge of his bed, phone in hand, about to make this phone call. Do I dare let him in on The Method? Can I trust this guy to not think me insane? As it turns out, I didn’t even get a chance. He’d been in therapy a bit by this point and they’d discussed this foreboding feeling. He tells me there’s this really weird thing his therapist told him to do when he gets super stressed out.
“I looked at a clothes hanger that had fallen on the floor, a hat in my closet, and a streak of sunlight that had come through the window, and I can’t explain it, but the feeling just disappeared. I made the phone call and it sucked, but it was all done in 30 seconds.”
So now we have proof that I’m not just mentally hijacked by a placebo affect courtesy my new friend Mo. This is a real thing and other people can experience it. I was fully in on this. It perhaps wouldn’t work for overly serious problems, but for the every day run-of-the-mill lameness of life moments? I had a hammer in my belt named “look at stuff”.
WTF Is Going On Here
This method was delivered to me in the language of mindfulness. In essence, it’s designed to remind you that at this moment in time, everything is fine. If you have the capacity to notice the things around you, by definition, your present moment simply isn’t that bad. If you can imagine yourself in a truly terrible situation, your capacity to do this trick won’t be there. So if you can enact it, you are by all accounts ok.
It took years for me to have this simple nugget of wisdom explained to me, and I found it unexpectedly in a random podcast that I was listening to one day. As mentioned, this concept was first presented to me in the language of mindfulness, but what would it sound like in the language of science?
Dr. Andrew Huberman is a neuroscientist and tenured professor at Stanford University. In 2020 he was interviewed for an article in Scientific American called “Vision and Breathing May Be the Secrets to Surviving 2020”. In it he made the claim that while breathing is often touted as a thing we need to focus on in a stressful state (which is correct), the visual system is often overlooked as a kick-ass way to do the same.
There are a pair of brain structures that are pushed out during development. These structures get to boast to all their friends that they are unique in that they’re the only parts of the brain that exist outside the skull. We call them retinas.
In much the same way our ears function to process sound but also play a role in balance, our eyes also have a secondary function. Along with light, colour, shadow, and movement, they also send messages to your brain that it’s time to do stuff (or not do stuff). If your eyes see light, they signal the brain to start the engine and get off our ass. If they see a sunset, a sequence of events is set in place to wind us down for the day. When nerds on the news tell us to stop holding a device that acts as half syringe full of cortisol and half flashlight 6” from our faces at 11pm, this is what they’re trying to warn us about. Doing so hijacks the system designed to wind us up or down.
It doesn’t just function to activate our cycles though, the eyes can also send information to tell the brain that everything is peachy cool or that everything is screwed beyond all comprehension and we need to act to avoid a catastrophe.
We can see this happen in real-time if we want to. Whether we’re stressed or calm, our pupils adjust accordingly. When we talk about a highly stressful situation putting us in a state of “tunnel vision”, that’s literally happening–our lenses are physically changing shape to keep us focused on the task at hand.
Now here’s the beauty around our silly little trick: the system works both ways. Stress and relaxation can impact the visual system, but so too can the visual system impact stress and relaxation. By breaking the tunnel vision through brute force via staring at stuff around you, you’re able to send a notification to the brain that things are more ok than it thinks.
Science and Mindfulness, Together Again
These two. Just can’t seem to keep these bastards apart can we? I can’t help but love when frilly wisdom cooked up thousands of years before we could ever look at a cell under a microscope turns out to have a clear scientific explanation.
So, the next time you find yourself unhinged on a mountain-side in stifling heat with a puppy you probably definitely should not have gotten, I urge you to take a moment and pray to that cat in the sky. He’ll be riding a dolphin.