There are people who seem unflappable in chaotic and high-pressure moments: the unrealistic deadline, the hair-pin coastal drive, the medical emergency. And then there are the rest of us.
A number of factors can influence our tendency to freak out during intense situations — including a genetic predisposition to anxiety. But it’s also likely due to the normal functioning of your brain chemistry, says Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD, author of Habits of a Happy Brain.
“A stressful event triggers a cascade of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol,” Breuning explains. “This can prepare you for action, but it can also speed your heartbeat and cause a surge through your body that makes it hard to calm down.”
For many people, crises large and small trigger the fight-or-flight response. Cue the panic, freeze-ups, intense emotions, and even disordered thinking. In this agitated state, it’s tough to see situations clearly, let alone navigate them skillfully. (For more on how stress affects your body and mind, see “The Science of Stress.”)
Fortunately for those of us whose composure flees at the first sign of trouble, we can learn to stay levelheaded, says positive-psychology researcher Michelle Gielan, author of Broadcasting Happiness: The Science of Igniting and Sustaining Positive Change.
“Having certain strategies prepared in advance, when you’re not in a pressure situation, can be very helpful when those moments arrive,” she explains.
For situations you can anticipate (maybe you tense up every time you merge into bumper-to-bumper traffic, or you’re dreading an upcoming meeting to discuss a long-overdue raise), Gielan suggests training like an athlete gearing up for a competition. You might practice deep-breathing exercises even when traffic is light, or rehearse your salary negotiation with a friend.
For those high-pressure moments you can’t foresee, these strategies can help you build perseverance, de-escalate panic, and keep your cool.
1. Focus on Now
Our brains are designed to anticipate danger. “For many people, this creates a flow of threats that’s hard to turn off,” says Breuning. “Adept problem-solvers focus on the immediate issue.”
So if you’re on that winding coastal highway, concentrate on your speed and the turn that you’re navigating right now rather than the miles ahead or the steep drop to your right.
When you pay attention to what you can control and break problems into small, easy tasks, your mind becomes an ally. Each time you solve one of these problems, your brain releases dopamine, a chemical that elevates your mood and gives you a feeling of greater confidence. That will get you to the “unflappable” stage much faster than trying to deal with all aspects of a situation at once.
2. Remember Your Resilience
An overwhelming situation can be compounded by a fear that you’re unprepared and that it will end badly. Gielan argues that you can override these default settings by keeping a mental list of stressful events you’ve handled well in the past.
“Maybe you aced a huge presentation or lived through a very painful breakup,” she says. Even seemingly small victories, such as keeping your cool during a charged political discussion at Thanksgiving, can be on the list, because they demonstrate you already have that ability. You just have to reaccess it.
When you’re careening into panic mode, recalling those resilient times can help reduce the pressure.
3. Reframe Your Beliefs
“Changing your mindset can change everything,” says executive coach Jen Sincero, author of You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life. “Your perspective is what determines how well you deal with a high-pressure situation, and you can decide to shift that perspective. You have a choice.”
Sincero suggests switching up your language from dispirited and rudderless to powerful and driven. For example, instead of saying, “I’m so nervous about this presentation,” you can tell yourself, “I’m so excited to be doing this.” Even if you don’t quite buy your own words, your brain believes it, she says.
Several studies of mindfulness meditation in recent years suggest this may occur because focused visualization increases blood flow in the brain, especially in the frontal lobe — which is where all the good stuff happens, including problem-solving, impulse control, and spontaneity.
4. Talk It Out (But Not Too Much)
Gielan says people have a tendency to deal with stressful situations in two ways: They either talk to no one, withdrawing into jaw-clenching silence, or they discuss it with too many people — essentially crowdsourcing possible solutions.
In a study conducted at the Institute for Applied Positive Research, Gielan and her research team asked more than 10,000 people about their ability to handle stressful situations. They found that those who connected with just one or two other people tended to have the best results.
“Being an open communicator and talking it through helps to minimize the stress response,” she says. “But if you’re too open — as in talking to all of your friends — that can actually increase your stress, because you’re likely to get conflicting advice.”
5. Breathe — and Let Go
Even when a crisis situation ends, your fight-or-flight switch might stay on, says Henry Emmons, MD, author of The Chemistry of Calm. Some people can get stuck in their dialed-up energy, which leads to chronic stress that can affect sleep, energy level, immunity, and mood.
Take time to allow your nervous system to discharge this amped-up energy and flush out cortisol and other stress hormones. Emmons recommends conscious, deep breathing — a technique that engages your parasympathetic nervous system and, in turn, slows your heart rate and relaxes your fluttering stomach.
“This seems almost too simple to work, but just take a moment to notice your heartbeat and your breath,” he says. “Have heightened awareness of your body, right now. Take three deep breaths and consciously relax your shoulders and your jaw.”
Doing this on a regular basis when you’re not frazzled makes it much easier to employ it when the chaos kicks in. “You’re training yourself to let go,” he says. “It’s like any kind of training: You don’t do it all at once, but in increments. The more you do, the more you’ll feel in control when you need it.”
This originally appeared as “Cool Under Pressure” in the March 2018 issue of Experience Life.