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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 May 16, 2019

The Daily Rituals of 7 Successful CEOs

The Daily Rituals of 7 Successful CEOs

One of my favorite success quotes ever comes from one of the original and most successful ‘CEOs’ of his era: Aristotle. Here’s what he said:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

This advice is just as sound today as it was when Aristotle first expressed it, way back when. I’m reminded of this at least once a week, when I interview an inspiring author, leader, or successful CEO on my show. I ask my guests a series of questions about what has contributed to their success and their ability to build something meaningful.

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You want to know what nearly all of them say? Almost every time, they respond by telling me that their success is the result of simple habits  enacted day after day.

These quotes from seven successful CEOs demonstrate the daily rituals that have contributed to their success:

1. Promote what you love.

“It’s so much better to promote what you love than to bash what you hate.” – Jessica Alba, CEO of The Honest Company

2. Develop a feedback loop.

“I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better. I think that’s the single best piece of advice: constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.” – Elon Musk, CEO of TESLA Motors

3. Create things that are better, not just “different.”

“Our task today is to find singular ways to create the new things that will make the future not just different, but better—to go from 0 to 1. The essential first step is to think for yourself. Only by seeing our world anew, as fresh and strange as it was to the ancients who saw it first, can we both re-create it and preserve it for the future.” – Peter Thiel, CEO of Palantir and best-selling author of Zero To One.

4. Meditate.

“Meditate. Breathe consciously. Listen. Pay attention. Treasure every moment. Make the connection.” – Oprah Winfrey, CEO of OWN Network

5. Read every day.

“Read 500 pages every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up like compound interest.”-Warren Buffet, CEO of investment firm Berkshire-Hathaway

6. Block time for email.

“Set aside a 20- to 30-minute chunk of time two or three times a day for email. Do not check continually through the day.” – Doug Camplejohn, CEO of predictive lead marketing company FlipTop.

7. Make your customers happy.

“We see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It’s our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better.” – Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com

Develop the right rituals. Become a successful CEO.

If the majority of these daily habits are new to you, avoid making the crucial mistake of adopting all of these habits at once. Research on habit-formation indicates that lasting habits are formed one at a time.

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For example, let’s say you’re excited about developing the following daily habits:

  • daily reading,
  • daily meditation, and
  • updating your to-do list every night

Let’s say that daily reading is the one that excites you the most out of the three habits noted above. It would be wise of you to begin by choosing and scheduling time to read every day, and then sticking to that time until it becomes a habit. Once it feels effortless and automatic, you’ll know that you’ve turned it into a daily habit. Now you’re ready to install the next habit… and the next… Until before you know it, you’ll start looking in the mirror and seeing the reflection of a successful CEO.

Featured photo credit: Amy Hirschi via unsplash.com

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