It is not an understatement to say that these are stressful times. Almost routinely there are news reports that further heighten our anxieties-airport security is lax; the country is vulnerable to chemical, biological, and even nuclear attacks; our water can be poisoned and our food contaminated; sleeper terrorists are in our midst. The litany of dangers can unnerve even the strongest, most optimistic person. In spite of challenging times, it is possible to be a person who lives with serenity and tranquillity. Here are two dozen ways to reclaim your peace of mind.
1. Focus on what you can control.
Rather than obsess about terrorism and lack of security, focus on life- and health-saving behaviors that you can control. Exercise to keep your body healthy and strong. Wear a seat belt when driving, or a helmet when bike riding. Install smoke alarms. Apply sunscreens and get regular physicals. For areas of life that are beyond your control, place your focus on God. Join with the psalm writer who prayed, “My times are in your hands” (Psalm 31:15).*
2. Cultivate the “symptoms” of inner peace.
Inevitably, people who experience peace and serenity have some of the following characteristics of inner peace: a loss of interest in judging others; limited ability to worry; overwhelming episodes of appreciation; frequent attacks of smiling; feeling connected to others and with self; increased openness to receive love as well as an uncontrollable urge to extend it; a loss of interest in conflict and argumentation. Be guided by some wisdom from the apostle Paul: “The mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6).
3. Maintain perspective.
Often it is the loss of balance and perspective about life that increases stress and anxiety. Adopt the attitude that your cup is half full, not half empty. Consider this insight from Stephen Hawking, a world-renowned physicist. He is also imprisoned inside a body made helpless by ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). Although he could have ample reason to feel sorry for himself, Hawking does not. Often he reflects on a young man he met while he was hospitalized: “I had seen a boy . . . die of leukemia in the bed opposite me. It had not been a pretty sight. Clearly, there were people who were worse off than me. At least my condition didn’t make me feel sick. Whenever I feel inclined to be sorry for myself, I remember that boy.”
4. Express gratitude.
The Bible instructs us to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess-alonians 5:18). Take that advice to heart. Alexander Whyte of Edinburgh was famous for his pulpit prayers. He always found something to thank God for, even in bad times. One stormy morning a member of his congregation thought to himself, The preacher will have nothing to thank God for on a wretched morning like this. However, Whyte began his prayer: “We thank Thee, O God, that it is not always like this.”
5. Adopt the “as if” principle.
The late French actor Maurice Chevalier was once asked how he managed to be so cheerful. The entertainer admitted that even though he invariably appeared to be cheerful, he didn’t always feel that way. This was his last approach: “When I sense an audience responding to the gaiety I am trying to give out, I feel gaiety coming back to me. It is like a boomerang–a little blessed boomer-ang. This works not only for the performer. It is a good game anybody can play.
“A man goes to his office,” Chevalier continued. “He is grumpy, growls a greeting to his secretary. She may have awakened spirited and jaunty, but right away the ugliness is contagious. Or in reverse, he comes in whistling. Maybe he has picked a flower from his garden for his buttonhole. He extends a merry greeting. It boomerangs. The office brightens.” The lesson: even if you don’t feel joyful at the moment, act as if you are and exude joy toward those with whom you have contact. The joy you give out will be the joy that returns to you.
6. Life in the present.
“Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around in awareness,” declared writer James Thurber.
7. Be kind.
Live by the same philosophy that guided William Penn, founder of the state of Pennsylvania. “I expect to pass through this world but once,” he wrote. “Any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”
8. Try to make your world a better place.
Be guided by this wisdom from Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets: “I believe in taking a positive attitude toward the world. . . . My hope still is to leave the world a little bit better than when I got here.”
9. Ask God for inner peace.
Adopt the spiritual style of the apostle Paul, who prayed, “May the Lord of peace Himself give you peace at all times and in every way” (2 Thessalonians 3:16). Personalize Paul’s prayer for yourself: May the Lord of peace Himself give me peace at all times and in every way.
10. Walk in the light.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,” observed Martin Luther King, Jr. Be a person who lives and walks in the light.
11. Get back to nature.
Most people discover that spending time in the outdoors is a remedy for almost any soul sickness. Take advantage of this natural therapy by gardening, hiking, mountain climbing, or simply taking a leisurely stroll through a nearby park.
12. Practice self-care.
Your ability to deal with stress increases as you take care of yourself. Do this by eating nutritious, balanced meals, by exercising, and by getting enough sleep.
13. Smell serenity.
Take a walk through a grove of pine trees or light a candle that smells like cedar. Stimulating the olfactory senses can be a real spirit soother.
14. Believe in truth and love.
Consider this wisdom from Gandhi: “‘When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it, always.”
15. Get a daily dose of vitamin “H.”
Humor lightens the load of life and reduces anxieties. Buy a joke book and read it regularly, or check out the many humor sites on the Internet to get a laugh daily.
16. Finish what you start.
A great deal of satisfaction and contentment in life results from completing challenging and arduous tasks. John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania is sometimes described as “the greatest last-place finisher.” This unique description was given to him in 1968 while in Mexico City competing in the Olympics. Out of the cold darkness Akhwari entered the far end of the stadium, pain hobbling his every step. His leg was bloody and bandaged. The winner of the Olympic marathon had been declared more than an hour ear-lier. Only a few spectators remained. But the lone runner pressed on. As he crossed the finish line, the small crowd roared out its appreciation. Afterward a reporter asked the runner why he had not retired from the race, since he had no chance of winning. He seemed confused by the question. Finally he answered: “My country did not send me to Mexico City to start the race. They sent me to finish.”
Go out on a cloudless night. Gaze at the moon. Use your mind to picture a river of moonlight. Imagine loading your anxieties and concerns into a gondola, and letting them float all the stresses away.
18. Maintain personal integrity.
Duplicity is stressful. Avoid that trip. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Exemplify the values you profess to admire.
19. Remember that attitudes are more important than facts.
Television personality Hugh Downs observes: “A happy person is not a person in a certain set of circumstances, but rather a person with a certain set of attitudes.”
20. Forgive generously.
When you have been slighted, of-fended, or insulted, train yourself to forgive quickly and generously. Rehearsing wrongs and reviewing retribution can be tiresome burdens to carry. Let go of resentment and relinquish the need of retribution. In so doing, you will discover the weight of anger and hostility is lifted out of your life.
21. Simplify your life.
You don’t need to have what “everyone” else has in order to enjoy life. Trying to keep up with others can break you financially and emotionally. Consider Alay Desai, who is an executive in the Silicon Valley. Despite his large salary and an M.B.A. from the Wharton School of Business, he returns home each evening to a one-bedroom apartment furnished only with history books and a used TV. He and his wife, Nilima, sleep on the floor on a comforter and two pillows. They drive a 10-year-old Chevy Nova. “I don’t need all those laptops and cell phones and Palm Pilots. I don’t need a BMW or a dream home full of tech toys,” he says.
22. Just say no!
You don’t have to do everything. You don’t have to agree to accept every request that comes your way. “No, thank you” can be the three-word sentence that gives you a less hectic schedule and more peace of mind.
23. Make mealtimes peaceful.
Never eat standing up. Don’t wolf your food down. Pace yourself at mealtime. Sit down to a table carefully set with china and silverware. Light a candle. Decorate a table with a floral arrangement. Offer a prayer of thanks for the meal. Eat carefully and consciously.
24. Know what’s important in life.
Don’t get caught up in chasing after superficial goals such as materialism, wealth, or success. Such a chase can become emotionally exhausting. Live by principles that are deeper and produce contentment with life. Tip O’Neill, the late congressman and former Speaker of the House, said some of the best advice he ever received was from his mentor, Boston politician James Michael Curley. Recalled O’Neill, “He said, `Son, it’s nice to be important. But remember, it’s more important to be nice.’ “
* Bible texts in this article are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.