Saturday, June 24, 2006

Stephen Teach, associate chief of emergency medicine at Children’s National Medical Center in Northwest, doesn’t have to remind himself to remain calm. He is calm. He says it is crucial in his line of work. In a life-threatening emergency, one does want to see a panicky doctor.

“I think it is necessary for an emergency room doctor to stay calm,” he says. “We have to set a tone for the patients and the doctors. If we appear agitated, it transfers quickly to the families.”

For many of us, life’s stresses — big and little — are worn on the outside. Stuck in traffic? Boss breathing down your neck? Children driving you crazy? Don’t bother me; I’m having a bad day.

However, some — such as Dr. Teach — walk among us cool and collected, even under extreme pressure. It’s a chicken-and-egg question, though. Are calm people drawn to the work they are in because of their demeanor? Or have they learned to rise above the pressure for a true Zen experience?

“I am definitely calm by nature,” says Dr. Teach, who says his personality matched well with pediatrics when he was choosing a medical specialty 20 years ago.

“Some doctors couldn’t wait for their pediatric rotation to be over. Now, when I have junior staff members in here, they hear the babies crying and say, ‘How can you stand it?’ I tell them I can’t even hear it. It doesn’t even register as stress to me.”

Carolyn Gross, author of the book “Staying Calm in the Midst of Chaos: How to Keep Positive in an Unsettled World,” says not only are some people born calm, but they have an uncanny ability to deal with challenges.

“Most of the chaos in our lives comes from relationships with other people,” she says from her California office. “Some of us naturally have that skill; others have all these challenges with chaos. But calm can absolutely be learned. The times we are living with now have never been more challenging.”

Toni Holmes is tested in her relationships with other people every day. Those other people are 20 6- and 7-year-olds. Mrs. Holmes has been teaching first grade at Clarksville Elementary School in Howard County for 30 years.

Mrs. Holmes says if she let every spilled carton of milk or playground squabble get to her, she would never get through a school day, let alone 30 years of school days.

“I am patient and calm,” Mrs. Homes says in her soothing, elementary schoolteacher voice. “That is my basic personality type. It is very necessary to be that way to be with kids all day. The key isn’t brainpower — it’s patience.”

Like Dr. Teach, Mrs. Holmes says she tries to set a tone so her students will stay stress-free as well.

“Being collected and organized is the key to success,” she says. “I have the day thought out. The kids know what we are going to do. They pick up on that orderliness.”

Of course, plans change. They always do. Someone’s not listening, or someone hasn’t put away a folder. Roll with the punches, Mrs. Holmes says.

“We have all these expectations of greatness,” she says. “I just have to remember these children have only been on this Earth for six years.”

Klia Bassing is not calm by nature. The former World Bank consultant, 30, was having physical symptoms brought on by stress. The more she thought about all she had to do, the more stressed out she became.

Five years ago, she started meditation. Now she practices it daily and teaches others how to bring themselves a little peace. Ms. Bassing, of Northwest, runs Visit Yourself at Work, a program that brings meditation workshops into the workplace. She has taught employees of the World Bank, the National Academy of Science and the Library of Congress to breathe and relax.

“By midday, people are completely tense,” she says. “I wanted to target [the workshop] to places where people were making decisions that had a big impact.”

The key to becoming calm, Ms. Bassing says, was self-awareness and self-acceptance. Now she says she can concentrate on the now and not the million things she has to do in the future.

Tara Brach, a Washington-area clinical psychologist and meditation instructor, says most people are “addicted to thoughts.” Most people who are naturally calm don’t spend much time thinking about what can go wrong.

For the rest of us, the list of potential worries gets longer every day.

“Mark Twain once said, ‘The worst things in my life never actually happened,’” Ms. Brach says. “We have such a fear of failure. We’re in a trance of unworthiness. It’s pervasive whether at home or at work. That is the deepest source of our stress.”

Learning to be calm starts with getting out of that “trance of unworthiness,” Ms. Brach says.

Then, just stop for a minute, she says, learn the art of pausing. Just take 10 or 20 seconds after hanging up the phone or logging onto the Internet and take a few breaths.

“You will find an actual shift in body and mind,” she says. “You can train your body to be in a more relaxed way. We are always tumbling into the future, driven by anxious thoughts. This culture is addicted to speed — to consume more, to go faster. The happiest people are not superspeedy. They are not racing to the finish line. They are arriving in the moment.”

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