Brain and Body

Neuroscience Tips to Remain Calm Under Pressure

September 9, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Zen in an office meeting.
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There’s a surprisingly simple way to calm yourself down using a skill that can be learned in minutes.

Have you ever wondered how the President seems so unfazed while addressing the entire nation? Or how there always seemed to be a couple nonhuman people in college who actually enjoyed giving presentations? The ability to remain calm and collected during high-pressure situations is certainly not a trait that comes naturally to most of us, but it’s a skill that can be learned, thanks to neuroscience.

First, let’s outline the biochemistry involved. When we feel attacked, or threatened, we dive into the “fight-or-flight” state, a physiological reaction. Essentially, it’s the opposite of staying calm. Your brain secretes hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, that instruct your nervous system to prepare your body for drastic measures — breath shortens, blood flows the muscles, and peripheral vision disappears.

High-pressure business or social situations don’t really constitute “threats” to our survival, so why do we freeze up? What happens is your anxious, jittery brain tells your body to redirect all energy to your muscles, but you never physically fight or flee the scene. So, the energy isn’t spent, but it’s being borrowed from neurological functions (such as focusing on details) that could really use the energy. You end up in a stressful cycle between your brain and body, and in less scientific terms, you lose it.

Once you’re in this “freak out” zone, chances are very high that you’ll freeze up like a deer in headlights or end up cringing at yourself after blurting out a bunch of stupid things you didn’t mean to say.

The key to remaining calm is to interrupt that stressful cycle between your brain and body. The fight-or-flight reaction begins in the amygdalae, the area of the brain that process memory, interprets emotion, and often makes those impulsive gut decisions.

Interestingly, just labeling emotions has the power to help you overcome them: fear, anxiety, paranoia, embarrassment, and so on. Jon Pratlett, an expert in neuroscience leadership training, suggests that, “reflecting on your feelings and labeling them may assist in calming the amygdalae, allowing you to move out of the fight/flight mode and free up energy allowing you to think more clearly about the issue at hand, rather than worrying.” This in itself interrupts the brain-body stress cycle.

The next step is one you’ve all heard before, but can’t be stressed enough. Breathe slowly. Count from 1 to 10 each time you inhale and each time you exhale. Deep breaths bring more oxygen into your lungs and bloodstream, cueing your body that it’s no longer necessary to generate the intensity of a fight-or-flight reaction.

After labeling your emotions and coaxing yourself through some deep breaths, the final step in eliminating the overwhelming fight-or-flight response emotions is to relabel them. Try viewing them in a more positive light than negative. For example:

-   fear → anticipation

-   worry → concern

-   flustered → excited

-   frustration → desire

This positive relabeling allows you to regain control over your body, lowering your heartbeat and returning to calmness. The technique takes practice, but once you’ve shifted your way of thinking to a more positive state, it will come easier and easier. In the end, it’s well worth it to avoid those cringeworthy cracks under pressure.

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