Stay calm under pressure

Stay calm under pressure

Do you feel yourself getting easily wound up or reacting to people or situations in a way that makes you later think ‘that wasn’t the best of myself’, or “I wish I had responded better to that”? Learning how to stay calm under pressure is an essential life skill.

Our brains are hard-wired to constantly seek out threats, so it’s only natural that our ‘flight or fight’ response can get triggered by events or people that cause us to feel angry or fearful.   When we are ‘triggered’, we are hijacked by the ‘smoke detector’ in our brain – the amygdala –  and when this happens we are more likely to express our anger or fear in ways that are not particularly helpful . In fact, our reactions can be detrimental to relationships and lead to regret, conflict or even worse.


How does this relate to resilience?

Since resilience is all about how we recover from, adapt to, and move forward from difficult life experiences, then learning how to stay calm when under pressure can make all the difference in how we practise resilience.

While our flight and fight responses kept our ancestors alive for thousands of years, the reality is that we live in a modern world where we are not at imminent risk of death – we aren’t being chased by big scary beasts that want to eat us for dinner.  And yet our amygdala continues to scan our environment for threats and reacts accordingly, either by telling us to get angry and fight for our survival, or be afraid and run away from danger.

This stress response results in an elevated heart rate, blood pressure and breathing, so we are ready to take action from perceived danger. A mild dose of this stress response can also help us perform better in situations when we are under pressure to do well, such as working on an important project or trying to meet a deadline.

How useful is this response when there is no real threat, for example being stuck in heavy traffic and running late for an appointment, or receiving an email with information that upsets you, or the kids have made a mess? If we aren’t self-aware, it could be easy to respond to such situations with shouting, verbal abuse, crying, panicking, sending harshly worded messages, or more.  I once witnessed a frustrated business owner responding to a stressful situation by kicking a large filing cabinet…and breaking his little toe in the process, and then feeling very embarrassed for his lack of professional behaviour in the workplace.


What can I do?

I find using the S.T.O.P. approach is very simple and useful.

S = STOP what you are doing. Step away from the situation if possible or necessary .

T = TAKE A BREATH. “If in doubt, breathe out”. Breathe s l o w l y and deep into the belly, focusing on long exhales (which helps to slow a racing heart).

O = OBSERVE. Continue to breathe long and slow, and observe your thoughts and your body. Mentally scan your body – can you feel any tension? How is your breathing? Do you feel nausea or butterflies in your stomach? Is your heart racing? Do you feel sweaty? Is your mind racing? What kind of thoughts are going through your head? Observe using your 5 senses t0 ground yourself in the present – what can you see, smell, taste, feel and hear?

P = PRESS PLAY. Proceed with intention, doing something that will be helpful and useful to you in the moment.


The power of making space

By choosing to STOP , it gives you the opportunity to choose how you want to respond, so you can be more focused, alert and at your emotional best.

Sometimes a short break can be enough, like stepping away to get a glass of water or fresh air. Other times you might feel you need to STOP and come back to the issue at hand much later on, when you feel more ready to respond in a way that you won’t later regret.

How can YOU create some space so you can be more intentional about how you respond under pressure?


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Carley Nicholson
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