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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 April 19, 2021

The Art of Taking a Break So You Will Be Productive Again

The Art of Taking a Break So You Will Be Productive Again

Think of yourself as a cup. Each day, you wake up full. But as you go about your day—getting tasks done and interacting with people—the amount in your cup gradually gets lower. And as such, you get less and less effective at whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing. You’re running out of steam.

The solution is obvious: if you don’t have anything left to pour out, then you need to find a way to fill yourself up again. In work terms, that means you should take a break—an essential form of revitalizing your motivation and focus.

Taking a break may get a bad rap in hustle culture, but it’s an essential, science-based way to ensure you have the capacity to live your life the way you want to live it.

In the 1980s, when scientists began researching burnout, they described this inner capacity as “resources.” We all need to replenish our resources to cope with stress, work effectively, and avoid burnout.[1]

When the goal is to get things done, it may sound counterproductive to stop what you’re doing. But if you embrace the art of taking a break, you can be more efficient and effective at work.

Here are five ways on how you can take a break and boost your productivity.

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1. Break for the Right Amount of Time, at the Right Time

When I started my first job out of college, I was bent on pleasing my boss as most entry-level employees do. So, every day, I punched in at 9 AM on the dot, took a 60-minute lunch break at noon, and left no earlier than 5 PM.

As I’ve logged more hours in my career, I’ve realized the average, eight-hour workday with an hour lunch break simply isn’t realistic—especially if your goal is to put your best foot forward at work.

That’s why popular productivity techniques like the Pomodoro advocate for the “sprint” principle. Basically, you work for a short burst, then stop for a short, five-minute break. While the Pomodoro technique is a step forward, more recent research shows a shorter burst of working followed by a longer pause from work might actually be a more effective way to get the most out of stepping away from your desk.

The team at DeskTime analyzed more than 5 million records of how workers used their computers on the job. They found that the most productive people worked an average of 52 minutes, then took a 17-minute break afterward.[2]

What’s so special about those numbers? Leave it to neuroscience. According to researchers, the human brain naturally works in spurts of activity that last an hour. Then, it toggles to “low-activity mode.”[3]

Even so, keep in mind that whatever motivates you is the most effective method. It’s more about the premise—when you know you have a “finish line” approaching, you can stay focused on the task or project at hand.

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There are many applications and tools that can help you block distracting websites and apps (such as social media) for specific periods of the day. Similarly, you can also use some mailing apps like Mailbrew to receive all the social media content or newsletters you don’t want to miss in your inbox at a time you decide.

So, no matter how long you work, take a break when you sense you’re losing steam or getting bored with the task. Generally, a 10-15 minute break should reinvigorate you for whatever’s coming next.

2. Get a Change of Scenery—Ideally, Outdoors

When it comes to increasing a person’s overall mental health, there’s no better balm than nature. Research has found that simply being outside can restore a person’s mind from mental fatigue related to work or studying, ultimately contributing to improved work performance (and even improved work satisfaction).[4]

No lush forest around? Urban nature can be just as effective to get the most out of your break-taking. Scientists Stephen R. Kellert and Edward O. Wilson, in their book The Biophilia Hypothesis, claimed that even parks, outdoor paths, and building designs that embrace “urban nature” can lend a sense of calm and inspiration, encouraging learning and alertness for workers.

3. Move Your Body

A change of scenery can do wonders for your attention span and ability to focus, but it’s even more beneficial if you pair it with physical movement to pump up that adrenaline of yours. Simply put, your body wasn’t designed to be seated the entire day. In fact, scientists now believe that extended periods of sitting are just as dangerous to health as smoking.[5]

It’s not always feasible to enjoy the benefits of a 30-minute brisk walk during your workday, especially since you’ll most likely have less energy during workdays. But the good news is, for productivity purposes, you don’t have to. Researchers found that just 10 minutes of exercise can boost your memory and attention span throughout the entire day.[6]

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So, instead of using your break to sit and read the news or scroll your social media account, get out of your chair and move your body. Take a quick walk around the block. Do some jumping jacks in your home office. Whatever you choose, you’ll likely find yourself with a sharper focus—and more drive to get things done.

4. Connect With Another Person

Social connection is one of the most important factors for resilience. When we’re in a relationship with other people, it’s easier to cope with stress—and in my experience, getting social can also help to improve focus after a work break.

One of my favorite ways to break after a 30-or-so minute sprint is to hang out with my family. And once a week, I carve out time to Skype my relatives back in Turkey. It’s amazing how a bit of levity and emotional connection can rev me up for the next work sprint.

Now that most of us are working from home, getting some face-to-face time with a loved one isn’t as hard as it once was. So, take the time to chat with your partner. Take your kids outside to run around the backyard. If you live alone, call a friend or relative. Either way, coming up for air to chat with someone who knows and cares about you will leave you feeling invigorated and inspired.

5. Use Your Imagination

When you’re working with your head down, your brain has an ongoing agenda: get things done, and do it well. That can be an effective method for productivity, but it only lasts so long—especially because checking things off your to-do list isn’t the only ingredient to success at work. You also need innovation.

That’s why I prioritize a “brain break” every day. When I feel my “cup” getting empty, I usually choose another creative activity to exercise my brain, like a Crossword puzzle, Sudoku, or an unrelated, creative project in my house.

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And when I’m really struggling to focus, I don’t do anything at all. Instead, I let my brain roam free for a bit, following my thoughts down whatever trail they lead me. As it turns out, there’s a scientific benefit to daydreaming. It reinforces creativity and helps you feel more engaged with the world, which will only benefit you in your work.[7]

Whether you help your kids with their distance learning homework, read an inspiring book, or just sit quietly to enjoy some fresh air, your brain will benefit from an opportunity to think and feel without an agenda. And, if you’re anything like me, you might just come up with your next great idea when you aren’t even trying.

Final Thoughts

Most of us have to work hard for our families and ourselves. And the current world we live in demands the highest level of productivity that we can offer. However, we also have to take a break once in a while. We are humans, after all.

Learning the art of properly taking a break will not only give you the rest you need but also increase your productivity in the long run.

More on the Importance of Taking a Break

Featured photo credit: Helena Lopes via unsplash.com

Reference

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