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Home » How to Cultivate Calm in the Midst of Chaos: Lisa Powell Graham (Transcript)

How to Cultivate Calm in the Midst of Chaos: Lisa Powell Graham (Transcript)

Here is the full text and summary of Lisa Powell Graham’s talk titled “How to Cultivate Calm in the Midst of Chaos” at TEDxOneonta conference.

Listen to the audio version here:

TRANSCRIPT:

I feel like the year 2020 should have come with a warning label. Buckle up, humans. It’s going to be a wild ride. I’m not sure how any of us could have ever truly prepared for all the challenges we’ve faced as we’ve endured the global mass trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet thanks to my mentors who helped me heal from traumas in my own past, I had built up a toolkit of skills well before 2020 that helped me keep my sanity when it felt like the world as I knew it was imploding.

And thank goodness for that. Because the onslaught of bad news these past few years has been more than surreal. It’s been downright overwhelming, exhausting, demoralizing. It’s become way too easy to doom scroll on social media or fall into despair. So if you too have felt overwhelmed, anxious, depressed, or scared at times during these past few years, welcome to the club. You’re totally normal and you are so not alone.

In fact, a 2022 survey conducted on behalf of the American Psychological Association showed that a shocking 87% of adult surveyed, that is almost 9 out of 10, agreed that it feels like there’s been this constant stream of crises over these past few years. One crisis after another. We’ve been dealing with the pandemic, plus economic challenges, inflation, and climate change. It’s no wonder we’re so stressed.

Stress and anxiety can compound our troubles and harm our health, yet there are no guarantees that life will suddenly get easier or less complex.

So what do we do when the world feels like a dystopian hellscape? And where are the superheroes when it feels like the whole world is on fire? I want to tell you about one of my personal superheroes who changed my life forever.

So when I was in college, I had a stalker who repeatedly threatened to kill me. Even a decade later, living in a different city for graduate school, I was afraid he’d find me. Any strange noise at night would send me into a full-on panic attack, heart racing, sweating profusely, wondering if tonight was the night I would die. I desperately wanted to stop living in a state of terror.

So in an effort to quiet my noisy, anxious mind and calm my raw nerves, I began studying yoga and meditation. I know it’s a cliche, but these centuries-old practices were lifesavers for me. There was one yoga retreat I’ll never forget. I’m standing in a yoga studio on the cliffs above Santa Barbara, looking out over a forest that leads to the Pacific Ocean on the horizon. It was magical and serene.

Except Mother Nature threw us a curveball on this retreat. Wildfires had broken out in the trees beneath the cliffs where we meditated in silence. I felt like an extra in an action-adventure movie. From the cliffs, we watched the flame shooting high up into the air just a few miles away. A helicopter swooped overhead, flying back and forth to the pond next to the yoga studio to fill a giant hanging basket with water, which turned to instant steam when it was dumped over the flames.

Our teacher, Dina, calmly filled us in on the status of the fires and assured us we were still safe here on higher grounds. I expected to be way more anxious, but Dina’s quiet strength helped calm my fears. I didn’t panic because she kept us so focused on our practices, and I trusted her to guide us and keep us safe.

As the hours passed, Dina continued to fill us in on the state of the fires, and she led us through yoga poses. She guided us through calming meditations. I was in awe of her ability to stay calm in the face of chaos and peaceful in the face of danger. Finally, the firefighters gave us the warning notice that it was time for us to evacuate. Dina set a new example for me of what it means to be a superhero. Before we left, Dina said, “Include this, too, in your practice.”

These days, as a women’s leadership coach and motivational speaker, I use everything I’ve learned from Dina and from the past 17 years of studying yoga and meditation to help others become their own superheroes. I believe cultivating calm in the midst of chaos is in and of itself a superpower and one that the world needs now more than ever.

And despite all the chaos in the world these past few years, I would argue that the real problem was never just the pandemic. I think the real problem is that the convergence of so many traumas can make us feel hopeless. We live in a society in which it’s way too easy to numb ourselves, and hope, frankly, is harder to sustain than despair.

Despair lets us give up. We don’t have to do anything. Hope requires us to believe in a better possible future, and it requires us to take action. And while we can never control everything happening around us in a world of almost 8 billion people, I believe we can learn to become the I in the center of the storm. Then we can focus on what matters most in this moment.

We can assess what action steps to take when we receive distressing news, whether it’s a job layoff, a cancer diagnosis, or a fire. Everything changed for me when I learned that being able to return to a center of peace and calm in any circumstances enabled me to make wiser decisions, take thoughtful actions, and create better outcomes for myself and those around me.

That retreat on the cliffs was the first time I remember witnessing someone leading with so much calmness and clarity despite the literal fires raging just miles from us. Dina’s ability to stay calm in the midst of chaos helped me believe that maybe I, too, could embody this kind of peace. And my life has never been the same since.

I don’t have panic attacks anymore like I used to, at least weekly. I don’t sleep with a knife under my pillow anymore or my cell phone clutched in my hand like I did in the years when I was gripped by fear. Most importantly, I don’t live in a constant, debilitating state of anxiety anymore. Even though worry has been my companion since as long as I can remember, as a stressed-out, overachieving, very nerdy little girl, thanks to retraining my mind through meditation, I’ve learned to ignore the catastrophic thoughts that used to pull me down into a rabbit hole of despair.

I’ve retrained my inner voice to speak to myself more kindly, like I would to a child or a dear friend, versus the inner mean girl who used to hang out in my head and torture me. All of the work I continue to do to heal from trauma has transformed my life completely. And if I can heal from trauma, I believe that any of us can heal from trauma. I’m not special or different.

I’m just a human who found some really great healers who have helped me cope with this rollercoaster ride that is life. I have learned that situations that previously felt impossible can become more manageable when we approach them in a state of calm.

So if being calm really is this hidden secret superpower, how can we cultivate it more often? Here are three simple ways to cultivate calm in chaos, this superhero state of calm that I have learned and still practice daily.

Number one, eliminate distractions. And I don’t just mean putting down your cell phone or limiting your consumption of all the forms of media, although that helps. Consider how much time you have spent in this lifetime worrying about other people’s opinions of you.

For many of us, this can be a primary distraction that can sometimes stop us from speaking out, trying new things, or living our dreams. Yet so many of our fears and worries about what others think about us are unfounded. At the end of your life, no one will care what the number on the scale was, how much money you had in your bank account, or how many likes you got on your social media posts.

They’ll remember whether or not you were kind to them and how your unique gifts make this world more beautiful. Also, most people are too busy worrying about what you’re thinking about them to focus much on thinking about you.

Beating ourselves up is also a distraction. It may feel useful if you’re a recovering perfectionist like me, but it doesn’t actually get us any closer to our goals, and it causes us immense stress. Part of the pathway to inner peace is simply giving ourselves permission to be imperfect and human.

Number two, practice calming your nervous system. Let me preface this by saying that if your nervous system has been hijacked by trauma, and you find yourself stuck in fight, flight, or freeze so often that it impedes your ability to live, I hope you’ll seek professional help like I did. You deserve to find inner peace. You deserve help and kindness.

For me, yoga and meditation have been profoundly healing. These practices still help me deal with anxiety and stress. I also spent years in therapy reconciling the traumas of my past. These days, you can download free guided meditations online, take a yoga class online, or find a quality therapist online.

Meditation has been the biggest game changer for me personally, even though I couldn’t sit still for five minutes when I first started meditating. Now I lead and teach guided meditations. Listening to a guided meditation as you fall asleep at night or when you wake up in the morning is a gentle way to ease yourself into this practice, which is like a training gym for the mind.

I also recommend blocking out time to simply do things that soothe you, whether that looks like spending time in nature, playing music, cuddling with a beloved pet, or journaling, and practice resting when your body needs rest. I know rest isn’t often encouraged in our hustle-till-you-drop culture in the U.S., but rest for our bodies, minds, and spirits is essential, especially in times of high stress.

And the simplest thing that you can do when you feel anxious is to take slow, deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. Even one breath starts to make me feel calmer, and I do this any time I’m feeling anxious.

The 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 approach of grounding ourselves in our five senses can also help, especially if you’re a trauma victim like me. If life feels overwhelming or terrifying, stop and focus on five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, one thing you can taste. Slowing down and focusing on our breath or our five senses can help when we’re trapped in a fear spiral and bring us back to the present moment where we are safe.

Finally, number three, help someone else. A proven and rewarding way to help lower our stress levels is to help someone else. Since depression, anxiety, and stress involve a high degree of focus on the self, focusing on the needs of others literally helps shift our thinking, according to bioethics research professor Dr. Stephen Post. One of the best ways to overcome stress, he says, is to do something to help someone else.

Sometimes I like to remind myself that the superheroes we love in fiction aren’t perfect people. They’re flawed people who act calmly and courageously in the face of chaos. You may never have the fancy flying suit of Tony Stark or the telekinetic powers of El from Stranger Things, but that’s not what really makes them superheroes. They are ordinary people with a gift who found a way to use that gift to rise to the occasion when others are suffering.

To all the parents out there who homeschooled your kids during lockdowns, navigating online classrooms, often juggling your own remote workloads, you’re my heroes. To the teachers hosting those online classrooms and somehow keeping antsy six-year-olds inspired and engaged, you are superheroes.

To every healthcare worker who cared for people dying of COVID, showing deep compassion to those who were isolated and alone on their deathbeds, you are my superheroes. To every grocery store worker, restaurant worker, baker, chef, bodega owner, and truck driver who made sure we still had food during the pandemic, you are my superheroes.

To everyone out there who had to invent entirely new ways to make a living and pay bills when pandemic lockdowns resulted in millions of laughs, you’re my heroes. And if you just simply kept going when you wanted to give up, you’re my hero. As someone who suffered from suicidal depression, in my own darkest moments, I know that sometimes just staying here on Earth, when we want so desperately to end the pain we are in, is a heroic act.

I believe a superhero is anyone who decides this planet is worth saving and decides you can do something to make it just a little bit better. You can cultivate calm in the midst of chaos and practice, taking courageous action to help others. You can choose to foster hope rather than despair.

Maybe we are the superheroes we’ve been waiting for. Thank you.

Want a summary of this talk? Here it is.

SUMMARY:

In her compelling TEDx talk titled “How to Cultivate Calm in the Midst of Chaos,” Lisa Powell Graham addresses the unprecedented challenges faced by individuals in the tumultuous year of 2020 and beyond. Drawing from her own experiences and traumas, Graham highlights the importance of maintaining a sense of calm amidst the chaos. She emphasizes the need for effective coping strategies in the face of overwhelming stress, anxiety, and despair.

Graham introduces the concept of cultivating calm as a superpower, especially in times of crisis. She narrates her personal journey of healing from past traumas by incorporating practices such as yoga and meditation. These practices helped her regain her composure and reshape her perspective. A pivotal moment occurred during a yoga retreat on the cliffs above Santa Barbara, where even the threat of wildfires failed to disrupt her inner peace, thanks to the guidance of her yoga instructor, Dina. This experience left a profound impact, inspiring Graham to become a women’s leadership coach and motivational speaker.

The speaker outlines three practical approaches to nurturing a state of calm in the midst of chaos. First, she advocates eliminating distractions, especially the unnecessary weight of worrying about others’ opinions. Second, she underscores the significance of calming the nervous system through practices like meditation, therapy, and self-care. These techniques, Graham explains, enable individuals to navigate anxiety and stress more effectively.

The third approach entails helping others, as focusing on the needs of others has been shown to shift one’s own perspective and alleviate personal stress.

Throughout her talk, Graham pays tribute to the unsung heroes who emerged during challenging times. She acknowledges parents navigating homeschooling, dedicated teachers adapting to online classrooms, healthcare workers showing compassion to COVID-19 patients, and individuals innovating to sustain their livelihoods. Graham encourages the audience to realize their potential as superheroes in their own right, capable of fostering hope, resilience, and calm amid adversity.

In conclusion, Lisa Powell Graham’s TEDx talk offers a compelling narrative of personal transformation and resilience. By sharing her experiences and insights, she provides a roadmap for navigating tumultuous periods by harnessing the power of calmness. Her call to action challenges listeners to become the superheroes that the world needs – individuals who can embrace chaos, cultivate inner peace, and make a positive impact on both their lives and the lives of others.

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