Being Calm in Times of Stress: How to Have Joy in Spite of Everything

“Don’t worry about things. Don’t push. Just do your work and you’ll survive. The important thing is to have a ball, to be joyful, to be loving and to be explosive. Out of that comes everything and you grow.” Ray Bradbury


There’s a lot up against us, life can be capricious, sometimes a joker, other times a friend, but no matter the challenges you face, love it anyway. Even through the challenges. Whether you’re writing, painting or just plain living, life isn’t meant to be easy but to love it anyway, through all its whips or whirlwinds, imperfections and all, is to live it.

As poet-philosopher-musician Patti Smith said at a conference in 2010, “[Life] is like a roller coaster. It’s never going to be perfect — it is going to have perfect moments, and then rough spots, but it’s all worth it.” The darkness has to exist for there to be the light. Though even in the darkest of times, the light can and does return. The ever-changing interplay of joy and sadness or suffering and content are part of living, as painful as it can sometimes be. For those of a Taoist persuasion, it’s the interplay of the yin and yang but it’s about how you look at it. The final of all freedoms is the freedom you have to choose how to react in every situation.

Mindful Moments

If you have an ever-present feeling that you’re always in a rush, or find yourself more on your plate than you can comfortably digest, that is without bloating or a nasty dose of indigestion, stop. Take a breath, close your eyes and exhale all the momentary built-up of stress, and be still. Allow your body to gently relax by mentally attending to how you are holding yourself, de-crumpling and lengthening as necessary.

When rushing around or anxious, whether about our creative work and deadlines or just our overloaded lives, often without even realising it, we shorten and accelerate the tempo of our breath. Simply by becoming aware of your breathing, or spending 30 seconds inhaling and exhaling over a count of four each time you find yourself a little overwhelmed or under stress, will considerably alter how you feel.

Having an awareness of your breath also gives you a sense of inner harmony, reducing stress and encouraging both tranquillity and composure in the face of life’s playful [and not-so-playful] tweaks. Try it now. Simply observe and be still, aware of your breath. When breathing mindfully you gently soothe your entire being by regulating your overall rhythm, in turn calming yourself on every level, freeing yourself from anxiety, and thus freeing yourself to create. Breathing slowly, deeply, evenly, like a child, is a major key to sanity, creativity, and of course good health.

Notice your own resistance to the moment or set of circumstances and feel how you are fighting with what is. It may be a tricky chapter of a novel you are writing or procrastinating about or other work that is due and feel it subconsciously nagging at you; or perhaps you have far greater woes. Whether grand or tiny, resistance to anything that you cannot change in the immediate moment, even resistance to the moment is a waste of your precious energy and could be put to far finer use.

We all have to do and experience things we wish we didn’t yet everything in life, no matter how challenging, can be met with grace. Circumstances may be far from ideal but it’s about which way you look at it but be on your own team. This simple practice draws back to the moment, which is after all the only moment.

Life isn’t easy but no sailor’s skill is strengthened by sailing in calm seas. Speaking as someone who has until very recently, been bedridden for more years than I care to share, many of which without the use of leg nor limb nor core, intermittent use of my hands returned to me. Of course even with intermittent use they’re still filled with pain but for every moment snatched despite the cruel nature of my ailment, I now find myself here. Though I will not linger on this topic of pain, save to say that sometimes she flares more fervently than a Scotch Bonnet, halting every plan until calm again. Storytelling itself has been a saviour of sorts. Much story-reading too.

Whatever your own limitations may be, if your heart yearns to create something of value, be it for you alone or the world, keep going and find a way. Each one of us must steer our own ships, and write our own stories. Conditions may never be ideal but never loiter for something as capricious as right conditions or you’ll never get anything done. Waiting for the right conditions, that’s for amateurs. If you long to create whatever your art, whether fiction, film or flamenco, poetry, photography, painting or prose, if you want something to happen, you have to make it happen and make it happen every day you can.

Joy in Spite of Everything

No matter where you are now in relation to where you long to be, whether in terms of the projects you’re working on, or in light of the bigger, grander scheme of things, the trick is to meet it all with grace. When you can calm your mind by the simple practice of mindful breathing, even if you have less than a minute, this will afford you newfound calm.

Whatever the challenges you face, love it anyway. As author Tom Robbins so exquisitely said, have joy in spite of everything, “Recognizing the inequities and the suffering and the corruption and all that but refusing to let it rain on my parade.” And if there’s no joy in your life right now, find the joy within (more on this soon).

Be capable of consciously choosing how you respond to any given situation, no matter how constricting its circumstance or painful it may be. To be conscious is to be aware of your own existence, sensations and thoughts. Instead of allowing your focus to rest on what you’re resisting or longing to change, maintain an awareness of your inner landscape at all times, so this awareness swiftly becomes habit, and remember that you are always free in how you choose to react.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Viktor E. FranklMan’s Search for Meaning

Remind yourself how blessed you are to even be here at all, to be alive and hopefully well on this little blue dot of a planet. Even if your goals and dreams take far longer than hoped to actualise, even if you need to alter course, enjoy the process. The process is your life. Ensuring that you make steps each day in the direction of your dreams, however tiny those steps may be, is fulfilling right to the core.



  1. […] After this little number, the final track down to Vredehoek and the smooth glide into Cape Town, I wanted to do it all over again, the previous struggles of the day already distant memories. Those are the times that make all that hard work of the climb — or first draft — worth it to find your own trail and way but it’s vital to keep going, and keep creating through the not-so-fine times too, and find ways that work for you personally to overcome times of resistance, anxiety or creative blocks. […]

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