15 Mar 2018
115. STRESS AND PRESSURE
If you can’t keep your head amidst the madness, your ability to make decisions will be compromised and your physical and mental wellbeing will suffer. We look at how to stay calm under pressure.
Words: Jeremy Snape
When you face a particularly challenging situation – perhaps a conflict with a team member or a problem that is suddenly pressing and seems insurmountable – remember that it is not the situation itself that is driving your stress or anxiety, but rather your thoughts and perceptions around it. Indeed, stress is defined as the imbalance between the perceived threat or challenge and our perceived ability to cope with that challenge. The symptoms are those of the primitive fight or flight response, so the brain gears the body up for survival – the heart beats faster, the breathing quickens and we are ready to run from danger. In this state you’re not in the best condition for thinking and reacting calmly and rationally.
One way to turn down the threat response and bring yourself back to the present is to focus on the breathing – for example, taking shallow chest-based breaths for 20 seconds and then 20 seconds of slow rhythmic belly breathing.
The stress response can also be improved by thinking about your thinking, including recognising and trying to override any negative associations that you may have developed over time. According to leading neuroscientist Professor Vin Walsh, when you have a pattern of negative thought the brain creates a shortcut between that thought and failure. So if, for example, you have a fear of public speaking, each time that situation arises your brain will loop quickly to thoughts of failure and instigate the stress response.
Practical solutions to help us to avoid this include staying in the moment. The only time you can change the game is now, so ask, ‘what’s important now?’ The All Blacks, for example, have cues such as looking at the stadium roof, wiping their brows or kicking the ground to jolt them back into the present.
Challenging your perceptions of a situation is also a helpful exercise. Ask yourself these questions: what are the best and worst-case scenarios and the probable outcome? Can I look at it another way? How would I hope or advise a friend or colleague to react in this situation? Talking to trusted advisers is another way to find perspective, objectivity and energy.
THINKING ABOUT THINKING
Thinking about your thinking can also help you to avoid common mind traps, such as ‘all or nothing’ thinking, where you focus on total success or total failure and forget all the little victories and improvements along the way. Personalisation is another mind trap, where you take all the blame when something goes wrong, while catastrophising is where you allow your thoughts to spring straight to the worst-case scenarios.
What is key is that you recognise your ability to choose your response to a stressful situation, rather than simply letting it happen to you. That means choosing to think differently about the pressures you face in life and looking at which behaviours you should change in order to reduce stress and perform well consistently.
Disappointment and failure are inevitable in any job and can easily lead to feelings of frustration and even panic. While this is natural, especially when you are ambitious, hard-working and eager to prove yourself, it is counter-productive. With so much to do and think about, you need to be able to bounce back from disappointment quickly.
This is easier than it sounds, as our bodies are designed to remember the bad stuff in order to improve our chances of survival in the wild. The key is to stay rational in defeat and connected to the positives rather than dwelling on the past. Look at what went wrong in terms of what, if anything, was within your control and what you might do better or differently next time, then move on.
Realise that, as everyone has different criteria for success, it’s inevitable that someone, somewhere will be disappointed with your performance. In the face of this, the most important measure has to be your own, which means you need your own set of criteria for success. These goals must be both obtainable and within your control. Also, have the courage of your convictions, because regrets often stem from the knowledge that we didn’t stick to our guns and do things our way.
Pressure is often positioned as harmful, but you need some pressure to perform at your best. What’s key is finding effective tools for dealing with difficult situations so that you can control your stress response and continue to perform at your best when it’s needed most.