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How to Stop Your Mind from Going Blank in Any Stressful Situation

How to Stop Your Mind from Going Blank in Any Stressful Situation

I wasn’t breathing.

At least that’s what it felt like to me. My body was seemingly paralyzed, my mind futile in its attempts to once again get me moving. There is very little else that I abhor more than raising my voice in the presence of a group, no matter the size. Right now, what I need is to quiet the noise of the five thousand thoughts racing through my mind at the same time.

Who am I to think that I could do this?

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What do I know anyway?

What if I embarrass myself in any number of possible ways? What then?

Needless to say, this was not the time to freeze up. This presentation was a significant portion of my final grade, and without it, all of my other hard work would have seemed to be in vain. The anxiety continued to rise.

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It’s so often to have a blanked mind under pressure.

Have you ever found yourself in that situation? Drawing a blank at the most inopportune times, your wealth of knowledge almost instantly depleted under the watchful eyes of your own high expectations, is unfortunately not uncommon. According to research by the …….

Of course, while a mind-blank may be the last thing that you want to have when you have that important interview, or that crucial presentation, but the typical response of near-hyperventilation can make an already-awkward situation even more uncomfortable. The brain is telling you to run, but your body is most likely frozen in place, so what is there to do. You are the opposite of calm, and at any moment, you might feel like you are about to explode.

Many of us are unable to remain calm in situations like this, because we find ourselves cloaked in a sea of uncertainty and a huge scarcity mindset. We are convinced that, not only are we now horrible individuals unable to complete a simple sentence much less a simple task, we are supposed to expect only one possible series of events and only one particular outcome. One mistake we make during this situation, is to remain silent, doing and saying nothing, while your mind races with self-deprecating thoughts of your ability.

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Luckily, there are quite a few strategies that are worth a try to help yourself remain calm, and reclaim your mind from the blankness of a high-pressure situation. Below, you will find three, simple-to-implement strategies outlined.

Always remember to breathe, always.

As silly as it may sound, while your body is already on autopilot when it comes to the whole breathing thing, a few deep breaths never fail to help you become grounded in the present. Deep breathing[1], which can be thought of as individually manipulating the rate, pace, and depth of each breath that the body takes, is a long-known strategy for regaining calm in not-so-calm situations. The benefits are derived from the parasympathetic nervous system[2], the integral body system that is the headquarters of rest and relaxation for your bodily functions. It helps to diffuse the effects of the fight-or-flight response[3] that tend to be linked to high pressure situations, and allows you mental space to start unraveling your racing mind.

Here is a quick one that can be utilized in particularly stressful situations:

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  • Breathe in slowly through the nose for a relaxed count of 5.
  • Hold that breath gently for another relaxed count of 5.
  • Breathe out slowly through the mouth for a relaxed count of 5.

Repeat this as many times as necessary to begin feeling calm and present.

Know what you want and aim for realistic expectations.

Now, I am not suggesting that your standards for academic, professional, and/or social excellence should lowered. Rather, in times of high-pressure, when your anxiety and panic may become easily triggered, give yourself the opportunity to reframe your position on what you expect from the situation. For instance, your important presentation may possibly place you on track for a career boost, but going blank right in the middle may find your progress stalled.

Instead, before your presentation (or any other high-pressure situation), first, remind yourself of why you are about to do what you are about to do. Secondly, allow yourself the space to consider possible outcomes anywhere on the spectrum, from worst case scenario, to best case scenario, to could-have-been-more-fireworks-maybe-but-I-still-did-my-best, and release your attachment to any one.

You can turn your negative self-talk into something positive.

Think about a time when you believed that the stakes were particularly high for you. You prepared as best as you could to perform well in this situation, yet, the outcome was not exactly what we imagine. Now, one of your first statements to yourself may have been, “I’m so ______!” Insert any number of self-deprecating remarks here. While you have a right to be upset, after all, we have been nurtured to place a high-value on high-expectations, negative self-talk can derail your further progress[4]. It can possibly fan the flames of an already volatile mental and emotional situation, so it is essential to reframe it in order to remain calm under stress.

You could either do the following mentally, while in public and feeling the strain approaching, or when you have time to do a quick five minutes of reflective journaling[5]:

  • Think of at least five of the most common negative statements that you can recall saying to yourself in the past.
  • Give yourself a few seconds to think about why you resort to those particular words or phrases.
  • After your quick reflection, think of a solid opposition to the original negative statement. Instead of highlighting what you may believe to be an obvious flaw, allow yourself the space to flip the script. Thinking about your circumstances and your effort can help with this particular section.
  • Repeat as often as necessary to begin feeling grounded in your abilities, despite what a looming fear of failure may be telling you.

Reference

[1] PsychCentral: 3 Deep Breathing Exercises to Reduce Anxiety
[2] ScienceDaily: Parasympathetic nervous system
[3] Harvard Health Publications: Understanding the stress response
[4] Witted Roots: How to Change up Your Habit of Negative Self-Talk
[5] Witted Roots: Reflections Journal

More by this author

Shanice J. Douglas, MSc.

Writer | StoryTeller | Founder, WittedRoots.com

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Last Updated on October 21, 2019

How to Be a Good Leader and Lead Effectively

How to Be a Good Leader and Lead Effectively

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a contender for the 2020 Democratic nomination, is a reminder of why I am so drawn to leadership as a topic. Whenever I think it is impossible for me to be more impressed with her, she proves me wrong.

Earlier this week, a former marine suggested that he had been in a long-term sexual relationship with the Senator. She flipped the narrative and used the term “Cougar,” a term used to describe older women who date younger men, to reference her alma mater.

Rather than calling the young man a liar, or responding to the accusations in kind, she re-focused the conversation back to her message of college affordability and lifted up that “Cougar” was the mascot for her alma mater. She went on to note that tuition at her school was just $50 per semester when she was a student. Class act.

But by the end of the week, news broke that U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, another contender for the presidency, had a heart attack. Warren not only wished Sanders a speedy recovery but her campaign sent a meal to his staff. She knew that the hopes of staff, donors and supporters were with the Senator from Vermont and showed genuine compassion and empathy.

To me, she has proven time and time again that she is more than a presidential candidate: she belongs in a leadership hall of fame.

What makes some people excel as leaders is fascinating. You can read about leadership, research it and talk about it, yet the interest in leadership alone will not make you a better leader.

You will have more information than the average person, but becoming a good leader is lifelong work. It requires experience – and lots of it. Most importantly, it requires observation and a commitment to action. Warren observed what was happening with Sen. Sanders, empathized with his team and then took action. Regardless of the outcome of this election, Sanders’ staff will likely never forget her gesture.

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You would have had to work on a political campaign in order to appreciate the stress and anxiety that comes with it. In this moment, staff may not remember everything that Warren said throughout the lengthy campaign, but they will remember what she did during an unforgettable time during the campaign.

If this model of leadership is appealing, and if you are searching for how to up your own leadership game, read on for six characteristics that good leaders share:

1. Good leaders are devoted to the success of the people around them.

Good leaders are not self-interested. Sure, they want to succeed, but they also want others to succeed.

Good leaders see investing in others just as important as they see investing in themselves. They understand that their success is closely tied to the people around them, and they work to ensure that their peers, employees, friends and family have paths for growth and development.

While the leaders may be the people in the spotlight, they are quick to point to the people around them who helped them (the leaders) enter that spotlight. Their willingness to lift others inspires their colleagues’ and friends’ devotion and loyalty.

2. Good leaders are not overly dependent on others’ approval.

It is important for managers to express their support for their teams; good leaders must be independent of the approval of others. I explained in an article for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, that:[1]

“While a desire to be loved is natural, managers who prioritize approval from subordinates will become ineffective supervisors who may do employees harm. For example, a manager driven by a need for approval may shy away from delivering constructive feedback that could help an employee improve. A manager fearful of upsetting someone may tolerate behavior that degrades the work environment and culture.”

In yet another example, a manager who is dependent on the approval of others may not make decisions that could be deemed unpopular in the short run but necessary in the long run.

Think of the coaches who integrated their sporting teams. Their decision to do so, may have seemed odd, and even wrong, in the moment, but time has proven that those leaders were on the right side of history.

3. Good leaders have the capacity to share the spotlight.

Attention is nice, but it is not the prime motivator for good leaders. Doing a good job is.

For this reason, good leaders are willing to share the spotlight. They aren’t threatened by a lack of attention, and they do not need credit for every accomplishment. They are too focused on their goal and too focused on the urgency of their work.

4. Good leaders are students.

In the same way that human beings are constantly evolving, so too are leaders. As long as you are living, you have the potential to learn. It doesn’t matter how much knowledge you think you have; you can always learn something new.

I have the experience of thinking I was doing everything right as a manager, only to receive conflicting feedback from my team. Perhaps my approach was not working for my team, and I had to be willing to hear their feedback to improve.

Good leaders understand that their secret sauce is their willingness to keep receiving information and keep learning. They aren’t intimidated by what they do not know: As long as they maintain a willingness to keep growing, they believe they can overcome any obstacle they face.

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As both masters and students, good leaders read, listen and study to grow. They consume content for information, not just entertainment purposes. They aren’t impressed with their knowledge; they are impressed with the learning journey.

5. Good leaders view vulnerability as a superpower.

It means “replacing ‘professional distance and cool,’ with uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure,” said Emma Sappala in a Dec. 11, 2014, article, “What Bosses Gain by being Vulnerable” for Harvard Business Journal.[2] She went on to note the importance of human connection, which she asserts is often missing at work.

“As leaders and employees, we are often taught to keep a distance and project a certain image. An image of confidence, competence and authority. We may disclose our vulnerability to a spouse or close friend behind closed doors at night but we would never show it elsewhere during the day, let alone at work.”

This rings so true for me as a woman leader. I was raised believing that any show of emotion in the workplace could be used against me. I was raised believing that it was best for women leaders to be stoic and to “never let ‘em see you sweat.” This may have prevented me from connecting with employees and colleagues on a deeper, more personal level.

6. Good leaders understand themselves.

I am a huge fan of life coach and spiritual teacher Iyanla Vanzant. In addition to her hit show on the OWN network, Vanzant has authored dozens of books. In her books and teachings, she underscores the importance of knowing ourselves fully. She argues that we must know what makes us tick, what makes us happy and what makes us angry.

Self-awareness enables us to put ourselves in situations where we can thrive, and it also enables us to have compassion when we fall short of the goals and expectations we have for ourselves. Relatedly, understanding ourselves will allow us to know our strength. When we know our strengths, we will be able to put people around us who compliment our strengths and fill the gaps in our leadership.

Final Thoughts

Being a good leader, first and foremost, is an inside job. You must focus on growing as a person regardless of the leadership title that you hold. You cannot take others where you yourself have not been. So focusing on yourself, regardless of your time or where you are in your career will have long term benefits for you and the people around you.

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Further, if you want to become a good leader, you should start by setting the intention to do so. What you focus on grows. If you focus on becoming a better leader, you will research and invest in things that help you to fulfill this intention. You will also view the good and bad leadership experiences as steppingstones that hone your character and help you improve.

After you set the intention, get really clear on what a good leader looks like to you. Each of us has a different understanding of leadership. Is a good leader someone who takes risk? Is a good leader, in your estimation, someone who develops other leaders? Whatever it is, know what you’re shooting for. Once you define what it means to be a good leader, look for people who exemplify your vision. Watch and engage with them if you can.

Finally, understand that becoming a good leader doesn’t happen overnight. You must continually work at improving, investing in yourself and reflecting on what is going well and what you must improve. In this way, every experience is an opportunity to grow and a chance to ask: ‘What is this experience trying to teach me?’ or ‘what action is necessary based on this situation?’

If you are committed to questioning, evaluating and acting, you are that much closer to becoming a better leader.

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Featured photo credit: Sam Power via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] The Chronicle of Philanthropy: Why Good Managers Overcome the Desire to Be Liked
[2] Harvard Business Journal: What Bosses Gain by being Vulnerable

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