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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

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Robert Locke

Freelance writer

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Forget Learning How to Multitask: Boost Productivity 10X More with Focus

Forget Learning How to Multitask: Boost Productivity 10X More with Focus

There’s a dark side to the conveniences of the Digital Age. With smartphones that function like handheld computers, it has become increasingly difficult to leave our work behind. Sometimes it seems like we’re expected to be accessible 24/7.

How often are you ever focused on just one thing? Most of us try to meet these demands by multi-tasking.

Many of us have bought into the myth that we can achieve more through multi-tasking. In this article, I’ll show you how you can accomplish more work in less time. Spoiler alert: multi-tasking is not the answer.

Why is multitasking a myth?

The term “multi-tasking” was originally used to describe how microprocessors in computers work. Machines multitask, but people cannot.

Despite our inability to simultaneously perform two tasks at once, many people believe they are excellent multi-taskers.

You can probably imagine plenty of times when you do several things at once. Maybe you talk on the phone while you’re cooking or respond to emails during your commute.

Consider the amount of attention that each of these tasks requires. Chances are, at least one of the two tasks in question is simple enough to be carried out on autopilot.

We’re okay at simultaneously performing simple tasks, but what if you were trying to perform two complex tasks? Can you really work on your presentation and watch a movie at the same time? It can be fun to try to watch TV while you work, but you may be unintentionally making your work more difficult and time-consuming.

Your brain on multi-tasking

Your brain wasn’t designed to multi-tasking. To compensate, it will switch from task to task. Your focus turns to whatever task seems more urgent. The other task falls into the background until you realize you’ve been neglecting it.

When you’re bouncing back and forth like this, an area of the brain known as Broadmann’s Area 10 activates. Located in your fronto-polar prefrontal cortex at the very front of the brain, this area controls your ability to shift focus. People who think they are excellent multitaskers are really just putting Broadmann’s Area 10 to work.

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But I can juggle multiple tasks!

You are capable of taking in information with your eyes while doing other things efficiently. Scientifically speaking, making use of your vision is the only thing you can truly do while doing something else.

For everything else, you’re serial tasking. This constant refocusing can be exhausting, and it prevents us from giving our work the deep attention it deserves.

Think about how much longer it takes to do something when you have to keep reminding yourself to focus.

Why multitasking is failing you

Multitasking does more bad than good to your productivity, here’re 4 reasons why you should stop multitasking:

Multitasking wastes your time.

You lose time when you interrupt yourself. People lose an average of 2.1 hours per day getting themselves back on track when they switch between tasks.

In fact, some studies suggest that doing multiple things at once decreases your productivity by as much as 40%. That’s a significant loss in efficiency. You wouldn’t want your surgeon to be 40% less productive while you’re on the operating table, would you?

It makes you dumber.

A distracted brain performs a full 10 IQ points lower than a focused brain. You’ll also be more forgetful, slower at completing tasks, and more likely to make mistakes.

You’ll have to work harder to fix your mistakes. If you miss an important detail, you could risk injury or fail to complete the task properly.

This is an emotional response.

There’s so much data suggesting that multitasking is ineffective but people insist that they can multitask.

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Feeling productive fulfills an emotional need. We want to feel like we’re accomplishing something. Why accomplish just one item on the to-do list when you can check off two or three?

It’ll wear you out.

When you’re jumping from task to task, it can feel invigorating for a little while. Over time, this needs to fill every second with more and more work leads to burn out.

We’re simply not built to multitask, so when we try, the effect can be exhausting. This destroys your productivity and your motivation.

How to stop multitasking and work productively

Flitting back and forth between tasks feels second-nature after a while. This is in part because Broadmann’s Area 10 becomes better at serial tasking through time.

In addition to changing how the brain works, this serial tasking behavior can quickly turn into a habit.

Just like any bad habit, you’ll need to recognize that you need to make a change first. Luckily, there are a few simple things you can do to adjust to a lifestyle of productive mono-tasking:

1. Consciously change gears

Instead of trying to work on two distinct tasks at once, consider setting up a system to remind you when to change focus. This technique worked for Jerry Linenger, an American astronaut onboard the space station, Mir.

As an astronaut, he had many things to take care of every day. He set alarms for himself on a few watches. When a particular watch sounded, he knew it was time to switch tasks. This enabled him to be 100% in tune with what he was doing at any given moment.

This strategy is effective because the alarm served as his reminder for what was to come next. Linenger’s intuition about setting reminders falls in line with research conducted by Paul Burgess of University College, London on multitasking.

2. Manage multiple tasks without multitasking

Raj Dash of Performancing.com has an effective strategy for balancing multiple projects without multitasking. He suggests taking 15 minutes to acquaint yourself with a new project before moving on to other work. Revisit the project later and do about thirty minutes on research and brainstorming.

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Allow a few days to pass before knocking out the project in question. While you were actively work on other projects, your brain continues to problem solve-in the background.

This method works because it gives us the opportunity to work on several projects without allowing them to compete for your attention.

3. Set aside distractions

Your smartphone, your inbox and the open tabs on your computer are all open invitations for distraction. Give yourself time each day when you silence your notifications, close your inbox and remove unnecessary tabs from your desktop.

If you want to focus, you can’t give anything else an opportunity to invade your mental space.

Emails can be particularly invasive because they often have an unnecessary sense of urgency associated with them. Some work cultures stress the importance of prompt responses to these messages, but we can’t treat every situation like an emergency.

Designate certain times in your day for checking and responding to emails to avoid compulsive checking.

4. Take care of yourself

We often blame electronics for pulling us from our work, but sometimes our physical body forces us into a state of serial tasking. If you’re hungry while you’re trying to work, your attention will flip between your hunger and your work until you take care of your physical needs.

Try to take all your bio-breaks before you sit down for an uninterrupted stint of work.

In addition, you’ll also want to be sure you’re attending to your health in a broader sense. Getting enough exercise, practicing mindfulness and incorporating regular breaks into your day will keep you from being tempted by distractions.

5. Take a break

People are more likely to head to YouTube or check their social media when they need a break. Instead of trying to work and watch a mindless video at the same time, give yourself times when you’re allowed to enjoy your distracting activity of choice.

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Limit how much time you’ll spend on this break so that your guilt-free distraction time doesn’t turn into hours of wasted time.

6. Make technology your ally

Scientists are beginning to discover the detrimental effects of chronic serial tasking on our brains. Some companies are developing programs to curb this desire to multitask.

Apps like Forest turn staying focused into a game. Extensions like RescueTime help you track your online habits so that you can be more aware of how you spend your time.

The key to productivity: Focus

Multitasking is not the key to productivity. It’s far better to schedule time to focus on each task than it is to try to do everything at once.

Make use of the methods outlined above and prepare to be more effective and less exhausted in the process.

If you want to learn more about how to focus, don’t miss my other article:

How to Focus and Maximize Your Productivity (the Definitive Guide)

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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