Inner peace is possible, and you don’t need to meditate on a mountaintop or break the bank for a wellness retreat in order to find it. Carving out time to relax is wonderful, but it’s amid the frantic pace of everyday life when we need serenity the most: That moment when you’re stuck in the pharmacy line and the contents of your bag spill on the floor just as your phone starts ringing? That‘s when you need to find inner peace within yourself, right as you’re suppressing the urge to unleash a stream of four-letter words.
“I think often people look for circumstances to help achieve a sense of inner peace,” says Ashley Davis Bush, psychotherapist and author of The Little Book of Inner Peace: Simple Practices for Less Angst, More Calm. “In fact, this calm, compassionate, deep awareness is actually within each person. It’s as if we have a deep reservoir of peacefulness and serenity inside us. What we have to learn to do is tap into it.”
With the help of what Bush calls “micro-practices,” you can get better at accessing your inner calm—even if it’s been in hiding for awhile.
Peace of mind doesn’t require peace and quiet.
Have you ever been scuba diving, or even just watched a good deep-sea documentary? The ocean’s tide brings the drama when it crashes against the shore, but venture a few meters down and you’ll find a tranquil world of creatures moving at their own pace, wholly unfazed by the action up above.
“The problem is most of us live sort of on the surface of the waves, where there’s a lot of turbulence and wildness,” says Davis. “But again, this deep, calm, awareness is actually within each person.”
Davis maintains that you don’t need to shut out all the noise to find inner peace. “There’s this assumption that if you’re in a quiet place, it will be more conducive to accessing this spot within. But, in fact, there are people who have panic attacks while they’re on a massage table.”
“You could be on a New York city subway, surrounded by people and noise, and close your eyes to go into this space where your calmness resides.”
Breathe in, breathe out.
Your breath is always with you, and both yoga and meditation practices harness the power of breath control to help shift your state of mind. Davis likes to recommend practicing the 4-7-8 breath, which is based on a time-tested yoga technique, because you can do it anywhere at any time.
Close your mouth and inhale through your nose as you count to four. Hold onto that breath as you count to seven, and then exhale through your mouth for the count of eight.
“The long exhale helps stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is basically initiating a relaxation response in your body,” Davis says. “Make sure to breathe really low, to fill your belly with air.”
“Think about the people you care about, and the people who care about you,” Potiker suggests, saying that focusing on that can lower your panic-response. “Let the truth of that warm your heart.”
Visualize your happy place.
This is another micro-practice that becomes easier the more you do it, and the stronger your visualization, the more effective it is. It’s okay if it takes you awhile to conjure up what that go-to happy place is.
“You might want to picture the ocean, or your bedroom under your covers, a lake view, playing with your pet, being with someone you love, or maybe a favorite vacation,” Davis suggests. “Then, try to really get all the details in your mind’s eye—the smells, the sounds, the textures, the touch.” Accessing these vivid memories will cue your body to start feeling like you’re actually there, which will relax you, she says.
Read the story you’re telling yourself.
If you find yourself spiraling over a perceived disappointment, frustration, or panic-inducing thought, try stepping back to assess whether what your brain is telling you is true. Examining the source of your turmoil can make it feel smaller in size.
“I tell my students that what you resist persists and they need to feel it to heal it,” Potiker says. She often recommends the RAIN technique, an acronym first coined by meditation teacher Michele McDonald.
Recognize what’s happening. “Label the emotion, because simply naming it calms down your over-arousal,” says Potiker.
Allow your situation to be there. “You’re not resisting it, or trying to numb it and run away from it,” she says. “You’re allowing it to be there long enough to work with it.”
Investigate. Potiker says to ask yourself, “What most wants my attention? What am I believing? Where am I experiencing these feelings in my body—can I put my hands on where I’m feeling it, and soften the area? All of this inquiry is done with love, not judgment.”
Nourish. This is alternately defined as natural loving awareness. You’ve observed yourself, and it’s time to treat yourself with loving kindness. “Ask yourself, ‘what do I need to hear right now?'” Potiker says. “Just talking to yourself like you would a dear friend is extremely helpful and healing. It staves off the feeling of isolation.”
Or, ACT your way to deeper self-compassion.
There’s no one road to self-compassion, so here’s another way to think of it. Davis suggests trying a three-step method she calls ACT, based on the work of Kristen Neff, a prominent researcher in the field of self-compassion.
“‘A’ is for acknowledge, as in you acknowledge your suffering or your struggle: ‘This really sucks,'” Davis says. “‘C’ is for connect, connecting to all common humanity to remember that you’re not alone in this. Other people get frustrated, feel angry or impatient. The ‘T’ is to talk kindly to yourself.”
When it comes to positive self-talk, Davis echoes Potiker’s recommendation to address yourself as you would a friend, because using “I” sentences may make you feel more isolated. “Research shows that when you talk to yourself in the third person, you actually activate the care circuit in your brain so that you feel more cared for,” she continues. “You’re accessing your higher self so that you can talk yourself off the ledge, and you feel more supported. So I would say, ‘Ashley, you’re going to be okay. This is a really hard moment, but don’t forget, Ashley, you’re not alone in this.'”
Make a “joy list” for when you need it later.
While a compassionate inventory of how you’re feeling is a powerful mindfulness exercise, Potiker says asking yourself ‘what do I need to do right now?’ can remind you to lean on actions that tend to give you peace. Since many people find it challenging to remember which activities bring them joy when they’re currently feeling mired in chaos, Potiker recommends looking to a “joy list” that you’ve compiled ahead of time.
“Free associate what brings you joy, and then pick something on the list to do when you’re feeling lousy,” she says. While you’re doing that thing, such as flower arranging or baking, savor it. “Take it in for a few moments, because taking in the good rewires your brain for happiness and resilience,” Potiker says, citing the work of psychologist Rick Hanson, Ph.D.
If you look at a beautiful sunset and say ‘that’s a beautiful sunset—what’s for dinner?’ Potiker says you haven’t given your brain a chance to truly form a positive connection. Instead, try to fully give yourself over to the moment, noticing the rich colors of the sky, because that’s productive work in its own way.
“Just letting you fill you up for that moment of awe is enough to rewire your brain for happiness and resilience,” she says. You can do this multiple times a day, Potiker adds, building up a joy reserve by just savoring those first sips of morning coffee, or the sound of a child giggling.
Cultivate gratitude for what’s happening (and not happening).
The psychological benefits of gratitude have been championed repeatedly in the field of happiness research, and according to Davis, practicing gratitude is another way to quickly access that state of inner peace. She suggests two simple ways to get into the habit: Keeping a gratitude journal, and smiling as soon as you sit up in bed in the morning. “When you smile it signals to your brain that things are good and that you’re happy.”
If you find yourself struggling to think of what you’re grateful for in the heat of a chaotic or frustrating moment, Davis suggests you start by naming what you’re glad isn’t happening—and boom, now you’ve got something to be thankful for. To go back to her earlier subway example, in a crowded commute you might think, ‘I’m glad I’m not being mugged right now, or I’m glad it’s actually moving and we’re not stuck in the dark. I’m glad it’s air conditioned, I’m glad I have a seat! I’m glad I have a physically healthy body.’ One small positive thought often sparks another.
Ask yourself two questions daily.
Your gratitude journal entries don’t need to be lengthy reflections, like some burdensome daily homework assignment. Instead, Potiker says use these two simple prompts to list an item or two for each: “What did enjoy today?” and “What am I grateful for today?” Maybe you did something that’s on your Joy List, for example.
Serve others to help yourself, too.
“Everybody knows that when you help other people, you feel better,” Potiker says. Even in the coronavirus pandemic there are plenty of ways to help, including dropping off canned goods or volunteering virtually. Those in the field of positive psychology believe that the good feelings that come from truly meaningful acts cultivate something they’ve deemed eudemonic well-being.
Over decades, research has suggested that in the long term, the eudemonic happiness that people feel from doing something like volunteering or making someone else feel good is more rewarding, and longer-lasting, than the more commonly-pursued hedonic well-being, which prioritizes seeking pleasure and minimizing pain. Thus, building up a reserve of eudemonic happiness through acts of service could potentially up your general inner-peace baseline.
Maintain good self-care hygiene.
Eating right, getting plenty of sleep, exercising, meditating, and practicing what Potiker calls “mindfulness daily-life activities” can all shore up your mental-peace defenses for when all hell breaks loose (in your world, or in your head). “Even while you’re just brushing your teeth, you can focus on feeling the toothbrush, tasting the toothpaste, and hearing the sounds, so you’re not worrying about your to-do list or what just happened in the news,” she says. “That’s a mindfulness in daily life activity.”
It’s all about developing “the pause,” so that when you feel yourself reacting to a situation, you’re better prepared to respond in a calmer way.
In the larger pursuit of learning to access your inner peace, Davis says that accepting the existence of things that are out of your control is the long-term goal, difficult as it may be. “Acceptance is an overall way of engaging with life,” she explains. “So it’s less about a quick practice, and more about a life orientation.”
“When we resist our circumstances we create a lot of suffering, which of course is the opposite of inner peace,” she continues. “And the second you start going with the flow and putting yourself in alignment with what is, you immediately start to have a sense of flowing with rather than flowing against.”
It’s a challenging process, and one your brain may resist on impulse at first. That’s why it’s called “practice”—you may not nail it the first, fifteenth, or fiftieth time, and that’s normal.
“In terms of a practice, I might say to someone, “Right when you’re in a situation like you’re in a long grocery line, you can’t believe it, you’re late for something, you’re feeling really stressed? Just stop, drop into your heart space and say, ‘This is what I’ve got. This is where I am. I’m just going to flow with this. And I’m going to look for an opportunity now to just practice patience, and practice self-compassion. This is really hard. I wish I could be faster. I wish I wasn’t in this line, but I am. It’s okay, and I’m okay.'”