Many everyday work situations can make it difficult to keep calm. The pressure and stress of looming deadlines, dealing with bad news, making a mistake in plain view, or hearing critical feedback can all fight against our natural ability to stay cool.
And while it may be easy to shine when everything is going well, it’s your response to the pressure of stressful situations that can set you apart from the crowd. Of course, losing your temper once in a while is usually forgivable – we’ve all been there. But doing so on a regular basis can signal to others that you may not be in control of your emotions, seeding doubt that can put a dent in your credibility.
There’s a lot of well-meaning advice out there on staying calm under pressure, such as “don’t take things personally” or “stay positive.” But keeping cool is easier said than done. The more realistic approach can be to make self-care practices a way of life. Here are six tips to help do so.
1. Find an Outlet for Your Frustrations
It’s commonly known that a good workout can help reduce the negative effects of stress and boost your mood. This doesn’t have to mean a vigorous hour-long weightlifting session at the gym – unless that’s what you’re into. The important thing is to try to find and stick to an exercise outlet that works for you. It’s okay to start slow.
But it’s not just physical workouts that can help lower our overall stress levels and make it easier to keep calm under pressure. Mental exercises can make it easier to stay cool, too. Talking through thoughts and feelings with a supportive listener may help you work through stressful situations, as well as meditation.
2. Raise Your Emotional Self-Awareness
To stay calm under pressure, you need to know your hot buttons – those situations and people that are likely to make you lose your patience or composure. Chances are, most of the things that irk you are of a recurring nature, a catalyst or a trigger that gets your adrenaline going. So start by trying to raise your self-awareness in this crucial area, because self-awareness precedes self-management.
And, with practice, you may actually rewire your brain so that your reaction to these triggering events is lessened. When a stressful situation happens, for example, try to remind yourself that your reaction to the issue is an automatic pattern you want to change. Then, try to refocus by taking the time to listen, breathe deeply, take notes, or even change your position: if you’re standing, sit down; if you’re sitting, stand up; go grab a coffee, a glass of water, or take a walk. Consider using this opportunity, however brief, to let the dust settle and come back with composure.
The more often you give yourself the space you need to stay calm under pressure, the more you may find yourself in the driver's seat rather than letting stressful situations take over.
Keeping cool is easier said than done. The more realistic approach can be to make self-care practices a way of life.
3. Outwardly Acknowledge the Sensation
It’s natural to get stressed and feel pressure from time to time, but remember that feelings of pressure and stress are largely mental states. Though they can and do elicit physical responses, such as a fast heartbeat, sweating, and rosy cheeks, intense exercise can cause the same. At a certain level, the difference between the two lies in how you’re thinking about the sensation, according to a Harvard Business Review article. Recognizing the sensation of pressure for what it is – a feeling – and then “de-emphasizing” the seriousness of it by bringing humor, honesty, and vulnerability into the mix may do a better job at keeping you cool than attempting to conceal any rising emotions.
If you’re losing your cool in the face of a deadline, for instance, it may be better to admit it rather than fake confidence. If tension is high in the workplace, consider taking a moment to address the sensation to your team. Confronting the feeling may help you gain sympathy and connect with other employees who might be feeling the same. Once you feel calm, you can try to open up about why it’s so important to hit this deadline – maybe a late delivery will put you at risk of losing a major client. Openly and honestly getting everyone on the same page can be the difference between coming together to constructively work through the pressure as a team, or reaching a collective – and perhaps destructive – boiling point.
4. Cut Back on the Caffeine
Caffeine consumption may affect our ability to stay calm. Ingesting more than 400 mg of caffeine a day, for instance, can increases nervousness and irritability – two antonyms of calm. A cup of brewed coffee contains about 100 mg of caffeine on average. So if your daily routine includes drinking four or more cups of coffee, pay close attention to how it makes you feel. If you’re on edge and struggling to stay cool under pressure, that extra dose could be brewing trouble. Cutting down on coffee, switching to decaf or a milder tea, or cutting caffeine completely may put you on the road to a calmer disposition.
5. Write Those Worries Down
To help prevent worries, stress, and anxieties from sapping your brain power when you need it, get in the habit of writing down your worrisome thoughts. You can do this any time during the day, but it can be most important just before a high stakes event.
Another good practice is to consider carving out 20 minutes in the early evening to write down anything that's been worrying you. In their book, Goodnight Mind, sleep experts Colleen E. Carney, Ph.D., of Toronto Metropolitan University, and Rachel Manber, Ph.D., of Stanford University recommend dividing a piece of paper into two columns: One for “Worries and Concerns,” and the other for “Next Steps” or “Solutions.” Even if you don’t have a solution, the act of writing down your worry can make it less likely that it will follow you to bed.
6. Leverage the 80/20 Principle
The 80/20 principle, also known as the Pareto Principle, can be effectively used to help stay calm under pressure. The principle states that 80% of outputs come from 20% of inputs and can be applied to many industries and circumstances. In the world of business and productivity, it’s often used to help zero in on the activities and tasks that can have the greatest output. This makes it a useful guideline to organize and focus priorities, set boundaries and limitations, and realistically accomplish what’s most important – all of which can be antidotes to those high stress, Sisyphean times when the to-do list just keeps getting longer.
So next time the pressure is building, take a careful look at your to-do list. Multitasking can do more harm than good – juggling tasks can just create more stress – so narrow things down into what can have the biggest impact. Handle those tasks first, and alleviate some extra pressure by delegating low impact activities elsewhere.
The Bottom Line
Some people are naturally gifted with the ability to stay calm under pressure, and it can help to give them a competitive advantage. For the rest of us, getting some exercise, raising emotional self-awareness, connecting to the sensation of pressure, cutting back on caffeine, writing down worries, and leveraging the 80/20 principle can all go a long way toward promoting a cool demeanor even when the going gets tough.
A version of this article was originally published on September 30, 2014.
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