Your work deadline is just a few minutes away, there are hundreds of messages and emails you need to reply to, you get a reminder for another work deadline, and the ‘ting’ sound of notifications continues to flood your phone. At this point, your anxiety levels are just rising and nowhere near to dropping. You feel like ripping your hair out, your hands and feet run cold to the point of not functioning properly, and suddenly you’ve forgotten how to breathe. This feeling can colloquially be described as ‘freaking out.’
If you can relate to it all, then you surely know it’s an awful feeling.
Often when the human brain is put under highly pressurizing scenarios, our body doesn’t quite know how to react to it. We end up feeling so overwhelmed, that in the end there is little to no productivity achieved. The best way to deal with such a situation is to ‘keep calm.’
If there is one common characteristic amongst all great leaders, performers, athletes, business tycoons it would be that all of them know how to keep calm and perform under pressure. A great example of this would be the exemplary Indian cricketer MS Dhoni. Can you imagine the kind of stress he was in during the 2011 World Cup finale against Sri Lanka? He had the entire country’s, his teammates’ expectations lying heavy on his shoulders, with millions of eyes gazing at him, hopeful that he would lead India into a victory after 27 long years, and just one chance. Now that’s undeniably a lot of pressure for one individual, but as we all know, he didn’t let the situation get the best of him. Dhoni conquered millions of hearts that day with a swinging six.
According to Neurologists, remaining calm is a trait that can be learned over time and is not innate. So, here are a few techniques you can learn to deal with pressure.
In order to stay calm, the first thing you need to be doing is to interrupt the physiological reaction to stress & pressure. When freaking out, the reaction begins in the amygdala triggering the hypothalamus to have a fight-or-flight response (perceiving the situation as a threat).
In such cases, the body either freezes or ends up saying/doing something dull.
To stop this process, you must try to identify the different emotions taking over you (fear, worry, dread, afraid, shock). This interruption allows the body to take itself out of the fight/flight mode & harbor energy into thinking about the task at hand, than worrying.
When the body is subjected to stress our breathing pattern changes. We tend to breathe shallowly from our upper lungs, which might lead to hyperventilation. This phenomenon explains symptoms such as shortness of breath, dizziness, dry mouth, nausea, numbness, etc. Few breathing exercises which can help you relax are Belly breathing, 4-7-8 breathing, Roll breathing, and Morning breathing. One very easy to learn exercise would be Equal breathing; wherein, as you inhale through your nose, you slowly count 1-2-3-4, followed by an exhalation for the same four seconds.
When we follow a systematic breathing pattern we become more mindful of our feelings, thus sending a message to the brain to calm down & relax, which in turn sends the same message to the body.
The next thing to do while maintaining the steady breathing is to think positively, as the negative emotions skedaddle their way out. Try not to put yourself through situations of ‘what if’ (never ends well). Change those previously identified negative emotions of fear, worry, afraid to positive ones of anticipation, concern, alert respectively. This is you taking charge of the situation, preventing your brain from considering it a threat.
If you have a lot of things on your plate, prioritize and focus on one task at a time. Make a list of all your tasks, categorize the urgency of each task related to the deadlines. Put a value against all your work and assess which one needs your utmost attention at that very moment, estimate the effort needed for the most urgent tasks at hand; and start off with the work which requires more of your time. You need to be quite flexible & adaptable when prioritizing. Being all over the place with your work while trying to multi-task only causes more anxiety and trouble.
This is perfectly summed up by Pen-Pen Chen & Noa Kageyama in their TED-Ed video, “Practice under pressure, with focus and with that glorious end goal in sight, makes perfect.” What the authors are trying to say in this video is that, put yourself through pressure & try to understand how to function in that stressful scenario and, overcome the adversity. By doing so, we are getting our brain accustomed to the foreseen pressure, which can’t be avoided. They also talk about a phenomenon known as choking (performing poorly than expected due to pressure), which can happen to anyone from your favorite athlete to the best student in the class. This process is best applied when it comes to any sort of performance.
What I mean here is a small routine to boost your self-confidence right before a performance. A power routine can simply be a short & crisp pep talk to yourself, a few stretches, even just breathing consciously & slowly. For example, right before getting started on some work, you could pump yourself with a few motivating words; or say, you have a presentation at your workplace, start off with some stretches or practice one of the breathing exercises, to relax & stay calm.
The age-old concept of Stoicism was earlier practiced in Ancient Greece and Rome. Stoicism talks about calm, resilience & emotional stability. It deals with maintaining calm and sanity in an unpredictable world. What Stoicism also talks about, is very relevant in today’s times as well. The main underlying idea of Stoicism as explained by Seneca (Roman Stoic Philosopher) is assuming that the worst is inevitable and making ourselves understand that it’s not ‘the end of the world’ i.e. it is survivable.
Marcus Aurelias (one of the few good emperors of Rome & a well-known Stoic) compiled his teachings on Stoicism in his book called Meditations, which can be applied to understand Stoicism during this pandemic.
It might take a considerable amount of time to perfect the skill of keeping calm under pressure but is definitely worth your time & effort. To conclude, I just want to leave you with the statement:
"We don’t always have control of what situation we’re pulled into but we do have control over how we approach it, respond to it."