Falling apart under pressure? You’re not alone. Whether faced with short-term, high-stress situations (like a medical emergency or job interview) or longer-term, high-pressure situations (like a chronically stressful job), losing your calm is a common response.
But staying calm under pressure is a great skill to cultivate, and it’s something you can learn, even if it doesn’t come naturally to you. Read on to discover what’s happening in your body when you find yourself in stressful situations and five surprising ways to stay calm under pressure.
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The Science Behind Stress and Pressure
Stress is not simply a psychological experience, but a physiological state that’s activated when we perceive a threatening or high-stakes situation. The body’s “fight or flight” mechanism prepares you to act by releasing cortisol and adrenaline, two potent hormones. Your heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure increase, pushing oxygen into your muscles and brain. Your mind becomes temporarily sharper, as attention, focus, and concentration increase. You’re ready to handle the problem at hand.
The stress response evolved to help us cope with immediate, short-term situations. Unfortunately, busy lives and myriad responsibilities mean many people are living with chronic stress, which has been shown to have multiple negative effects on the body – physically, psychologically, and cognitively.
Still, others find that when faced with a high-pressure situation, they panic. Panicking under pressure leads to foggy thinking and bad decision-making, thanks to an overactive amygdala (responsible for emotions, especially fear) and a disrupted prefrontal cortex (responsible for executive functions and decision-making).
The solution to these problems? Learning how to stay calm under pressure.
5 Surprising Tips for Staying Calm Under Pressure
Learning to keep your cool can help you make good decisions and avoid panicking in high-stress moments, as well as tame long-term stress that takes a toll on your health. Here are five science-backed ways to deal with pressure you can incorporate into your life right now.
1. Embrace the Pressure
Pressure can cause people to panic and fall apart. But it can also push people beyond their perceived limitations and drive them to achieve something they wouldn’t have otherwise achieved. Make high-pressure situations work in your favor by changing your mindset from one of “stress is bad for me and I have to eliminate it” to “Stress can help me achieve my goals.”
Studies on stress reappraisal have found that this simple reframing device can change the outcome of stressful situations for the better. So the next time you find yourself in a high-pressure situation, embrace it. Remind yourself that the stress you’re feeling in your body is there to help you, not hinder you!
2. Practice Mindfulness
Practicing mindfulness has tangible short-term and long-term effects. It is not only calming in the moment, but it actually changes the brain over time, too. Research shows that the amygdala, which is key in assessing threats and triggering emotional responses, shrinks over time with consistent mindfulness practice. Meanwhile, the prefrontal cortex, which is key in planning, concentration, and decision-making, becomes thicker.
The implication of these findings is that with regular mindfulness practice, you will be better able to stay calm under pressure because you can rely more on your prefrontal cortex than on your amygdala to get you through high-stress situations.
Check out these ways to incorporate more mindfulness into your life.
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3. Visualize Success
Elite athletes have long used visualization to improve performance, and several studies over decades of research have shown how practicing physical movements in the mind can lead to real-life gains. In just one example (PDF), student-athletes who positively visualized performing lifts demonstrated a real-world gain of 10-15 lb. in weight moved, versus 5 lb. for a control group. These are gains based solely on what was “practiced” in the mind.
Visualization gives your mind a map to follow and a clearly defined goal to aim for. Depending on the types of high-pressure situations you find yourself in regularly, visualizing success can be a very effective way to improve outcomes and stay calm under pressure.
4. The Power of Breathing
This technique is so deceptively simple, you might be tempted to skip over it. But it’s true: the way you breathe can help you stay calm under pressure. Highly stressful moments can lead to shorter, shallower breaths. By purposely taking slower, deeper breaths, you can send a signal to the body to calm down.
The interplay between breathing and various systems in the brain is surprisingly complex. Research in mice has shown a connection between the nerves that regulate breathing and the arousal center of the brain, while in humans, a review of the literature demonstrates a multi-channel interplay between breathing rates and the autonomic and central nervous systems in various parts of the brain.
Next time you find yourself panicking under pressure, take some deliberately deep breaths. It really is that simple.
5. Think: Excited, Not Calm
This might be the most surprising tip of all because it’s not about trying to stay calm under pressure!
If you find yourself stressed out at the thought of an upcoming event like a speech, performance, or test, don’t try to talk yourself into calming down to relieve nerves. Instead, hype yourself up and tell yourself you’re excited.
A study on performance anxiety postulated that trying to calm down makes you think of the things that can go wrong while becoming excited about what’s about to happen makes you think of all the things that could go right. People who shifted their mindset from seeking calm to embracing excitement performed better in diverse situations like karaoke and math problems. Just like Tip #1, it comes down to mindset.
Whether you have a demanding job that regularly puts you in high-stress scenarios, or you’re simply dealing with chronic stress that’s so common in modern life, it’s worth learning some techniques to actively manage your response to pressure. These five techniques above are simple and effective ways to help you rein in your response so you can stay calm under pressure.