20 Ways Smart Workers Keep Cool Under Pressure
And how they get things done.
As legend has it, the tune “Under Pressure” was crafted by some folks who were, well, under pressure. David Bowie and the band Queen happened to be in the same studio at the same time, both unable to lay down takes they were happy with. Out of the camaraderie of mutual frustration, a jam session ensued, and lo-and-behold, a number-one single was born. Success invariably requires us to step outside our comfort zones, to take a step back, to find new solutions to complex problems. Sure, you’re not a globetrotting rock star. But follow these tips and you, too, can have your number-one hit. And for more stress-relief tips, check out the 10 best non-exercise stress busters.
The first thing a guy feeling under pressure does is determine how much pressure he’s really under. It’s easy to let your assumptions or imagination lead you to imagine you’re under greater strain than you are in reality. Many people have a habit of imagining the worst, so when you are in the grip of a particular fear or anxiety you should ask yourself two questions, advises Jamie Price, wellness expert and cofounder of Stop, Breathe & Think: “1. Is it really true? I try to remember that my thoughts aren’t necessarily facts and that they are transient. They are like the weather—passing through and changing all the time, so I don’t have to take them so seriously or become attached to them. 2. Am I okay right now? Often my anxiety has to do with worry about the future, so it’s helpful to deliberately focus on what’s happening right now, in the present.”
The goal is to gently push away any menacing thoughts so your mind can function rationally.
Get Outside Your Head
This is especially helpful when have been engaged in highly concentrated or creative work. If you have been solving issues for a while, looking inward, and you feel like your mind’s processing power has shrunk, it might be time to vent for a while. “Extrovert your attention. Mental stress puts your attention inward on your self and your mind and mental chatter,” says Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, a stress management and nutrition expert, and author of The Magnesium Miracle.
“Look at the trees and the houses and the street and cars around your neighborhood, look outward and you will soon be extroverted and feel some relief from mental stress,” adds Dean. Looking out is like an exhaust mechanism that helps you order your thoughts, and calmly return to focus with a more rational outlook on things. Taking breaks from your work to take a walk or talk to a colleague is also one of the 15 ways to triple your productivity every day.
Connect to Your Senses
Another way to think about this, and to ground yourself during an intense time, is to get outside your mind and refocus on your body, breathing, and senses in the moment.
“To create some distance from anxious, repetitive thoughts I’ll bring my attention to each of the senses, grounding myself in the present,” says Price. “Wherever you are, take a few slow, deep breaths, and focus your awareness on your surroundings. Look around, and take notice of what you see. Just observe the variety of colors, shapes, and textures of what you see, without necessarily forming an opinion.”
Use the same technique to focus on your other senses: Aim your attention at sounds in your environment, isolating the loudest or the quietest you hear. Move your awareness to your sense of smell, considering what you smell and how many different scents you can detect; let the exercise absorb you.
“Finally, bring your awareness to your sense of touch,” says Price. “Reach down and touch the ground beneath you with your fingertips. Notice how many different sensations you feel. See if you can describe them without thinking about whether you like or dislike the sensations.”
By connecting to your senses you disconnect from your troubles and center your mind, giving it calm and energy. Center yourself further by challenging and debunking these 5 myths of male stress.
Focus on the Purpose of the Pain
Along the same lines, don’t try to just push through the stress you’re feeling while ignoring the source of your anxieties. That’s a recipe for an early heart attack. If you put attention onto what you’re feeling, you can better determine how to manage the stress. “When going through a crisis, try to find purpose, such as how it’s growing your character,”says Dr. Wyatt Fisher, a licensed psychologist based in Colorado. “Those who find purpose in the pain make it through life storms much better than those who don’t. Dive into the anxiety rather than ignore it.” Using your energy to dive into your anxiety, instead of draining yourself trying to avoid confronting the stress, builds up resilience.
Practice by picking an area that creates anxiety for you: Imagine the worst scenario coming true, and how you would handle it. “While doing this can be uncomfortable, it can lower anxiety by creating a battle plan in case it did happen, which provides a feeling of preparedness,” adds Fisher. Going to the source of your fear helps you create levers and mechanisms to deal with it in reality. Becoming more comfortable with discomfort is one of 30 easy ways to avoid getting overly stressed.
Do a Mini Meditation
No, meditation is not just for New Agers; it’s an indispensable tool in the repertoire of thought leaders and progressive thinkers. Often, just a short 10-minute spell can help you return to calm.
“A mini meditation can be done at anytime, anywhere, by anyone,” says author and speaker Dr. Kathy Gruver, Ph.D., RM. “You simply concentrate on your breath, the rise and fall of the chest. On the inhale you think, ‘I am.’ And repeat with every inhale. On the exhale you think, ‘at peace.’ And repeat that with every exhale.”
If other thoughts intrude on your mind during this practice, gently push them aside (without judging them) and resume the process. This simple practice and variations of it can reduce stress in a matter of minutes and help you better cope with high pressure—and high blood pressure. For more advice on how to handle that key number, check out the 10 best ways to lower your blood pressure.
Help Out a Friend or Someone Less Fortunate
There’s little that flips the pressure valve on your brain and stops you worrying about yourself for a time then shifting your attention (even for a few minutes) to someone else’s needs. Whether that’s helping a friend move apartments, or volunteering in the community, doing something selfless will help you put the pressures you are feeling into perspective.
That’s especially true of assisting the less fortunate: “Often, we become insulated in our tiny part of the world and think our problems are insurmountable,” says Fisher. “However, spending time with those less fortunate than ourselves can quickly change our perspective and make us realize we shouldn’t be as stressed as we are.” A subjective look at things may make you feel like you are trapped but observing other people’s challenges can be instructive. It often makes you realize that yours is not the worst type of stress.
Feelings of stress often come less from specific challenges you are actually facing than from worrying about what could happen. Training your mind to be comfortable with uncertainty can do wonders for your stress level and help you recover your sense of calm. “Take some time each day to think about how nothing stays the same,” suggests Price.
Focus on something simple, like the flowing of water in a river or the grass in the park. Noticing how often your own thoughts change only within an hour gives you a fresh perspective. You could also invest time to listening to guided meditation about change. “Recognizing that everything is changing all of the time can help you become more open, flexible, and able to go with the flow by accepting that most things are out of your control,” adds Price. Don’t sweat the small stuff, and tune in to these 25 longevity secrets to stay younger and learn how to accept change.
Know Your Triggers
Anxiety often follows a pattern. Invest time to read your reactions and appreciate what tends to get you feeling stressed out. “It’s natural to be triggered when you think your status, relationship, certainty, or power is threatened,” says Jessica Powers, leadership consultant and coach. “Ask yourself what, exactly, is at risk. Know how you usually respond to this. Every time you feel anxious at work or in your relationships, jot down what triggered you, and what your response was.”
You can even use an app like Stigma to track these triggers. You should ask yourself: Do you try to compensate with aggressiveness, or do you back down and play nice? Do you clam up and freeze, or do you find the nearest exit? Looking for what triggers your anxiety can help you deal with it better next time it occurs.
“If you usually freeze when your partner brings up something uncomfortable, ask yourself to behave as if you were an ice cube melting over a hot flame,” advises Powers. “Let yourself melt. Feel your body release, and then see how the conversation flows from there.” If difficult romantic conversations are the biggest worry on your plate right now, for example, read up on the 7 ways to make your marriage last forever.
Remind Yourself You’ve Done This Before
“Whenever I get nervous about something, I always trick my mind into thinking that I’ve done the task before and this new go-around is just a do-over,” says Jill Simonian, author of The FAB Mom’s Guide. “Pretend, ‘I’ve done this before and this is just a second take.’ This offbeat technique has worked for me for years— for everything from speaking on live national television, to handling my newborn babies (as a scared new mom), to singing the National Anthem in front of 38,000 people at Dodger Stadium, to interviews and presentations for work.”
Get a Rubber Band
Get into the habit of “patrolling” your mind with the goal of spotting negative and counterproductive trains of thought when they appear. “Affirm what you want in your life. Take responsibility for what you hold in your mind. ‘Thoughts become things…choose the good ones!’ Keeping a positive attitude and seeing the glass half full is a habit,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent.
You can try a behavioral approach: Place a rubber band on your wrist and snap it whenever you notice a negative thought or reactive fear. This will help you refocus to the discomfort on your wrist.
“This gives you the option to focus on your fear (what may happen) or replace it with a more optimistic view (what you want to happen),” says Walfish. If these negative thoughts are overly persistent and work-related, though, it’s worth making sure there isn’t another change you should be making—if you recognize any of the 20 red flags that scream “you’re in the wrong job,” you’re going to need a bigger solution than the behavioral approach.
Get a Pen and Paper
Creating a tangible record of your triggers, times you’re feeling under pressure, and times you feel at ease will help you to home in on what’s setting you off. “We all have strengths and weaknesses, and getting to know what challenges you will help you to address the challenge with eyes wide open,” says Heather Monahan, lifestyle expert, also known as “Boss In Heels.” “Journaling also gives you the opportunity to track your past roadblocks and document how you overcome them.”
You should create a written library of your positive and negative experiences so you can devise your strategy for confident and calm future successes. Giving structure and detail of your ups and downs and reviewing them help effectively improve your problem-solving approaches. “You feel much stronger when you can reflect on your accomplishments,” adds Monahan. “I like to remind myself of my darkest days and celebrate that I made it through those times so I can certainly make it through whatever is ahead of me now.”
Use the “CALM” Method
If you’ve tried a few of these and the pressure persists, Nicole Wood, CEO and cofounder of coaching company Ama La Vida, suggests using a methodology she helped develop, summarized with the acronym “CALM.”
“When you’re feeling overwhelmed, first you should Call It,” says Wood. “In order to start to tackle your stress, you first have to be aware #1 that you are stressed and #2 what has caused it. Then you should Ask for Help.” There is nothing wrong with asking for help, and having that important tool in your repertoire goes a long way. It is important to get your priorities in order and what you can be most effective in doing.
The rest, you should delegate. “Having a friend, partner, or colleague take even something small off your plate will immediately clear space in your mind and decrease your stress level,” adds Wood.
“Third, you should Laugh. This is one of the most simple but effective techniques for mastering stress. Laughter relaxes the body, boosts the immune system, releases endorphins and burns calories.” Then, finish it off with Meditation.
“I encourage you to think outside the box and the traditional definition of what qualifies as meditation,” says Wood. “Anything that helps you relax your body and quiet your mind can be considered a form of meditation, from taking a walk to doing yoga to reading a book.”
Stress is not all mental—often it results from physical activity (or lack thereof). Probably the best way to relieve the sense of pressure is a trip to the gym or a run around the neighborhood. So why are you just sitting there? Get up and get out there—and if you need inspiration, learn the 11 ways that fit people motivate themselves to go to the gym.
Rethink Your Eating
Beyond physical movement, what you put into your body can affect how pressure affects you. In order to have the optimum energy to tackle stress, adjust your diet to your sleeping and working schedule.
“Eat food to help get a good night’s sleep,” advises Walfish. “Drink milk, eat turkey, cheese, yogurt, or ice cream before bed. Yes, there is truth to the old saying about hot milk! The ingredient tryptophan has a natural calming agent that actually relaxes you without medication.”
She adds that oats also promote good sleep because they are rich in melatonin; cherries also contain melatonin and so are a good bedtime snack, if you need one. It’s one of the 25 biggest sleep myths that food has little impact on your sleep habits—it’s been proven that eating vegetables high in calcium can also improve your quality of sleep.
Check Your Posture
Another instant way to physically relieve mental stress: Check in on your posture. You can positively improve your mood and alertness by standing or sitting in a way that makes your energy flow optimally, bringing you calm.
“Make sure they’re sitting up straight, both feet on the ground and shoulders back,” says Lara Heacock, executive life coach. “This combines not only the research on body language and stress hormone reduction but the practicality of a physical movement bringing you back to the moment, instead of letting your mind spin out of control.”
If bad posture has already taken a toll on your spine, read our definitive guide to eliminating lower back pain forever.
Focus on the Immediate, Not the Future
Stress often grows from imagining a distant, unpleasant future. Instead, shrink your focus to look at what’s happening right now—and what you can do about it. “When the stressful feelings come up, know they will pass,” says Graham Betchart, mental skills coach for top NBA players and creator of Lucid, a meditation app athletes can use daily to keep their head in the game. “[Tell yourself] ‘There is no need to react, I can let them be there and just do my thing no matter what.’”
Visionaries and forward-thinking leaders constantly have their mind on results. They live in the future. While that can be effective when you are considering long-term goals, this projection creates stress when you’re in the heat of competition or an important professional challenge, detaching you from the present.
“A surgeon will fail if he thinks only about the result of the surgery,” adds Betchart. “If something unexpected goes wrong, some surgeons will immediately think, ‘I’m going to lose my job if this happens. I’m going to get sued for malpractice. I don’t know how to talk to the parents.’ What they do need to focus on is resolving the issue.” Focus on the now: You can even break it down into an hour-by-hour game plan that will help you conquer your stress.
Reframe the Stress
“A lot of the problems we face in becoming stressed or feeling anxious is that we associate so negatively with those words,” says Ari Banayan, Habit Nest cofounder, and coauthor of Morning Sidekick Journal. “If we began to accept both stress and anxiety whenever they happened to show up as merely reactions we have to certain situations, we can see that we don’t have to be governed by them.”
Instead of fearing the feeling of pressure, Banayan urges that guys consider their arrival as “events” that happen and can be dealt with rationally. “Use your logical thinking to remind yourself that stress isn’t going to help you responding adequately to whatever it is that is causing it,” says Banayan.
Turn Pressure Into a Motivator
“We need to create a new relationship with pressure—the energy of change,” says Aimee Bernstein, president of Open Mind Adventures. “Consider that whenever there is a job or task to do, energy comes into our system to help us do the job. If we resist, collapse, or deny the pressure, we will experience discomfort, distress and over time, disease. Our performance will suffer.”
Pressure can be a powerful driver to make you achieve more and discover yourself—if you’re calm and know how to leverage it. “If we open and align to it, we’ll feel alive and our confidence, presence, perceptions, performance, creativity, and well-being will be enhanced,” adds Bernstein. “When we see pressure as an energy source and tap into its flow we’ll accomplish more while feeling calm and centered. It’s a counterintuitive message that frenzied professionals can actually use.”
Remember What’s Important
Stress and pressure grow with the more responsibilities you take on and when your own abilities are under question. “Pressure is related to how we interpret a situation,” says Steve Portenga, performance psychologist for sports psychology consultancy iPerformance Consultants. “We are most likely to experience pressure when we view the situation as having significant consequences related to valued goals, outcomes, or commitments. We experience the most pressure if we think the situation is connected to our identity or sense of self.”
Stress makes you rethink your actions to protect your sense of self, leaving current goals in the background. Clarifying your priorities and what really matters to you can give you a sense of perspective and calm. For more simple advice like this, check out 10 great life lessons from Internet heartthrob Steve Carell.
Try Martial Arts
While meditation and yoga get a lot of attention for their helping align your mind and body, when you need to calm down you might also consider revisiting The Karate Kid. Martial arts combines the physical with the spiritual for full absorption and helpful philosophy that can be reapplied.
“One of the aspects of dealing with a high-stress situation is tunnel vision,” says Bruce Bibee, of Bruce Bibee Counseling, Kung Fu San Soo Center. “Everything collapses down to one focus, typically not something that is calming. The brain, then, starts cycling with doubts, fears, etc. And a feedback loop is created. This not only happens in the moment with traumatic events but is also evident in long term stress responses.” So take a break from your work to try a new class at the gym—or just buckle down on your current workout routine while following these 30 best ways to stay in shape while working.
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