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Science Has It: Do These 10 Things To Keep Calm Under Pressure

Science Has It: Do These 10 Things To Keep Calm Under Pressure

Have you ever wondered what is the best way to keep calm under pressure? Perhaps you are dreading giving a musical performance, a talk or having to get through an interview. The pressure is relentless and the brain does not seem to help at all as it is overreacting and you are getting more nervous by the minute. Here are 10 ways you can reverse all that, keep really calm and sail through it.

“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” –William James.

1. Learn how to defeat the panic signals

When we are in danger or facing a really challenging situation, our minds and bodies go into the ‘fight or flight’ mode. Neither of these is really appropriate when we are about to give a PowerPoint presentation or turn up for an interview!

Stress hormones flood our system and can really help us overcome an emergency. In the long term, we do not need these at all as they can lead to chronic conditions. I know, because it happened to me and led to a state of permanent anxiety which was mistaken for a heart condition, known as angina. After hospitalization, the message was pretty clear. I had to find ways of combating these ‘fight or flight’ reactions. The best way was to train myself to use a relaxation response.

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2. Learn how to breathe properly

One of the most effective ways to train this response is to learn how to breathe properly. Shallow breathing means that the diaphragm muscles are not being used. Thee secret is to inhale deeply so that the chest and stomach are filled with air. If you are lying down, you can easily feel your stomach rising by placing your hands over your belly button area. Then exhale slowly. As you do so, concentrate on the movement you feel and also repeat a mantra such as ‘breathe in’ and ‘breathe out’. Simply put, you are now channelling the autonomic nervous system into much more productive activity which will be extremely useful in fighting the panic response.

3. Learn how to improve your vagal tone

We mentioned the autonomic nervous system above. The principal nerve involved in the calming nervous pathways is the vagus nerve. This is rather long gangling affair which stretches from the brainstem right down into the stomach, intestines, heart and lungs. It is no accident that people use terms like ‘he lost his nerve’ or ‘he hasn’t got the guts’ when stress takes over.

The best way to stimulate this vagus nerve to calm the whole system down so that we feel safe and secure is to improve its tone. You can do this in the following ways:

  • practice meditation or mindfulness
  • generate positive thoughts
  • do exercise or some physical activity
  • increase omega 3 consumption by eating more fish and nuts

 4. Learn how to get things into perspective

Learning how to prioritize and re-evaluate our talents, skills and experience is a great way of building self-esteem. This can also help us to put things into perspective when we are facing a critical challenge. Dr. Andy Martens of the University of Arizona has done some interesting research in this area.

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5. Learn how to avoid negative people

You are in control but not when you are surrounded by anxious, negative and cynical people. Learning how to avoid these people is crucial especially when preparing for an extra stressful event.

6. Learn how to be grateful

When you are under pressure, cortisol is released and functions well as a sort of lubricant for the nervous system. The problem arises when long term, constant stress produces too much cortisol and this in turn can damage the nervous system.

One great way to reduce cortisol is to regularly practise gratitude. Researchers at the University of California Davis, led by Robert Emmons, found that this practice was very effective in reducing cortisol by as much as 23%. There were added benefits in that people were in a better mood and felt better physically and mentally.

7. Learn how to re-label emotions

Esther Sternberg, a researcher at The NIMH has done a lot of research on mind-body interaction. One of her recommendations is that when, under pressure, you are successfully able to re-label the ‘fear or flight’ emotions. For example, fear can become anticipation while dread can become caution. Being under pressure can be simply re-labelled as being courted! If you are successful with this technique you become watchful and aware rather than being frightened and ready to flee.

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8. Learn how to get in the ‘zone’

Now I know saying ‘practice makes perfect’ can sound banal. Is there any scientific evidence that this is really true? Actually, the more you practise something, the more automatic it becomes. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has given lots of talks about getting in the ‘zone’ or ‘flow’ where extremely heightened focus and immersion in an activity can lead to really superb performances. There is a perfect match between your skill level and the challenge you are facing.

In fact, time is non-existent and you forget your ego and other physical restraints. One of the ways of achieving the flow is not only practice, but overlearning a skill where you can stretch yourself to new limits. This is essential when you are under pressure. You can refer to some of Mihali Csikszentmihalyi’s books which outline the whole ‘flow’ concept with practical examples of their application in daily life.

9. Learn how to get on auto-pilot

There are experiments which show golfers performing lousy swings after being told that they should watch the position of their elbows. The secret here is that our conscious attention is hijacking our perfectly honed motor skills and we normally perform, speak or run much better than this! Ramping up pressure like this is not helpful. If I tell you to watch your grammar before your presentation, then your performance may be less than your best. Sports teams know all about this pressure when their fans get too enthusiastic and noisy, especially when playing at home.

Just tell yourself that your sweaty palms or beating heart are not signs that you are going to fail! They are just the side effects of somebody who is ready to give the best performance in his or her life. Tell yourself that this test/match/interview/presentation is no big deal. Sian Bellock’s book,‘Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To.’ is a fascinating insight on this process.

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10. Learn to look after yourself

So, you are under pressure. But what steps are you taking to make sure that your body is going to perform well on the day? That means looking after all the essential maintenance such as diet, sleep, exercise, and relaxation. Did you know that if you have too many carbs in the morning, your blood sugar may fall? That can lead to bad temper, whereas if you get enough protein, this can keep you going for much longer without that annoying sugar crash.

“Calm mind brings inner strength and self-confidence, so that’s very important for good health.” –Dalai Lama

Let us know in the comments below how you manage to stay calm under pressure.

Featured photo credit: Keep calm and carry on/Brandbook.de via flickr.com

More by this author

Robert Locke

Author of Ziger the Tiger Stories, a health enthusiast specializing in relationships, life improvement and mental health.

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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