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4 ways to stay cool under pressure 

Leaders can stay cool under pressure by planning for the worst, knowing their priorities and remaining flexible, writes LaRae Quy.

9 min read


under pressure

(saifulasmee chede/Getty Images)

I’m not a natural athlete. This sad fact became evident at a very inconvenient time — my first day of new agent training at the FBI Academy. New agents are tested in physical fitness and are required to accumulate a certain number of points in different areas. I landed at the bottom in every category; the pressure to perform was intense because if I didn’t get high enough scores, I’d get kicked out of the Academy.

Everyone experiences stressful events, which trigger a boatload of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones can prepare us for action, but they can also make it difficult for our bodies to calm down. 

The stress we feel when we’re under pressure triggers a fight-or-flight-or-freeze response in our limbic brain system. The limbic system controls our emotions; its primary job is to keep us safe. As a result, it often responds with panic and interrupts the thinking brain’s ability to process rational thoughts. When this happens, we lose our cool under pressure because our emotions spiral out of control.  

We’ve all experienced “freak out” moments when slapped with the uncertainty accompanying a crisis. Fear and anxiety raise their ugly heads. So, how do we keep from snapping in these moments? It’s possible to stay calm under pressure if we are mentally tough.

Research indicates that the difference between regular and ultra-successful people is not that the latter group thrives under pressure. It’s because they are better able to mitigate its adverse effects. 

Most of us must cope with stressful situations in which we feel the pressure but don’t think we have the skills to succeed. 

Here are four ways you can be mentally tough and stay cool under pressure:

1. Ditch the tough talk

Too many of the articles and books on mental toughness employ “battle-ready” techniques that promise to show unsuspecting suckers how to take control of their destiny. A swagger in your step might be intimidating from a distance, but it won’t prepare you for the hard battles in life. Battle-ready tactics tell you to hunker down with grunts and brawn when confronted with roadblocks. 

Sports coaches and tough-guy movies give vulnerable audiences the impression that mental toughness means plowing through obstacles. That might work in snowdrifts and football, but not in real life.

We’re duped into thinking that if we talk and act tough enough, we can bluster our way through anything. That is not mental toughness; it is hubris mixed in with a strong dose of stupidity. 

Mental toughness is the right approach, but let’s accurately define it: It is managing your thoughts, words and behavior in ways that will set you up for success. Bulldozing your way through life only makes you look and act like an idiot.

In reality, what you really need is an open, flexible and adaptable mind. You also need to be savvy enough to recognize not only your own emotions but those of others.

If you are mentally tough, you can accurately identify the emotions you feel, both good and bad. Understanding and managing your emotions is critical to remaining calm and cool under pressure.  

How to make it work for you: It takes self-awareness to have a strong mind. Self-awareness means you have a clear understanding of your strengths, weaknesses, emotions and thoughts. 

2. Create a prioritization strategy

We might take a page from the medical profession by prioritizing what needs to happen when deadlines compete for our attention. In an ER, the staff needs to prioritize patients and treatments daily. When confronted with a series of horrible situations, the doctors and nurses break them down into critical and non-critical categories.

Ask yourself, “What do I need to do first?” This is where mental toughness comes in because you must calm your mind before distinguishing between what is critical and non-critical. 

Mentally tough people understand that our brains can only handle so much information. The Reticular Activating System (RAS) is an essential part of the brain that focuses our attention. The RAS filters out critical information that needs more attention from the less urgent that we can handle later. Without the RAS filter, we would be over-stimulated and distracted by everything in our environment. 

We need to keep the tension between the larger goal (to save a life in the ER scenario) and the activity in front of us. So, while the overarching goal is to save a life, the best way to accomplish it is by focusing on what needs to be done right now. There is a better time to multi-task because the situation requires our complete attention if we want to achieve our larger goal. After the operation, our attention can shift to what will happen in the future.

A mentally tough person focuses on what they need to control in the present moment. This explains why many golfers miss putts at the end of the final round or why football players drop the ball inches from the finish line. They choke because their attention switches from the present and moves to the future. As a result, they lose their focus. Whatever they choose to focus their attention on will make it past the mind’s filtering system. 

How to make it work for you: When your day is jammed with competing priorities, try the Eisenhower Matrix. It has four categories to help you schedule your day. Assign your tasks to one of the following categories:

Most urgent and most important: These tasks must be done on the same day and usually include deadline-driven projects. A crisis fits into this category and can re-arrange your entire day.

Most urgent and least important. Delegate these tasks if possible, but keep track of their progress. This can be difficult because these tasks can also offer immediate gratification. One tip is to save these activities until the end of the day when your energy is lower rather than wasting your early-day productive hours on them.

The least urgent and most important tasks are the ones you tend to leave on the back burner. Put them in your calendar so you don’t delay action.

Least urgent and least important. Forget them! These are the tasks you don’t need to do and shouldn’t spend time or energy on.

3. Plan for the worst

As an FBI agent, I found that investigations rarely follow a straightforward path with predictable conclusions. Instead, a trail that leads to the truth usually resembles a maze of underground caverns rather than a clear road map with signs. 

Mentally tough people are not derailed when things don’t go as planned because they’ve thought of contingencies. They’re not left flat-footed because they’ve not thought beyond Plan A.

Life rarely unfolds as we plan it. Most of us learn this by second grade, but it still stings when our carefully laid-out plans run into a hard wall. When things fall to crap, our heart rate jumps, and we start to move without thinking. In the process, we make bad decisions. We get more agitated, and fear becomes an angry beast that keeps feeding itself. 

Many of us don’t know how to move forward if things don’t go our way. One way to stay cool under pressure is to plan for the worst. This is when you need contingencies, so when the primary plan goes out the door, you can move to the next one with little downtime or thinking. 

“What-if” scenarios can be your friend by letting you play out the worst-case outcomes so you can brace yourself for them if they arrive on your doorstep.

The key here is that you’re anticipating the unexpected. It can protect you from a pressure surge by allowing you to prepare for and thus be less startled by the unexpected. Instead of panicking, you’ll be able to (better) maintain your composure and continue your task to the best of your ability.

How to make it work for you: Always have a Plan B. For example, if you’re in a sensitive or contentious conversation with someone, anticipate their response. Think it through before the discussion. For example, “If she says this, I’ll say that.” This will avoid spitting out an emotional response that only escalates the argument. 

4. Work in sprints

Physiologist Nathaniel Kleitman has discovered that, on average, we operate in a 90-minute rhythm throughout the day, progressively moving through periods of higher and lower alertness. After working at high intensity for more than 90 minutes, we rely on stress hormones for energy.

Called the Basic Rest-Activity Cycle (BRAC), studies have shown that when we’re awake, brainwaves are faster during the first half of the 90-minute cycle, which means we feel alert and focused. During the last 20 minutes of the cycle, brainwaves slow, and the body feels tired. 

The result is that the emotional limbic system starts to dominate the thinking prefrontal cortex; we begin to lose our ability to think clearly and move into a physiological state commonly referred to as “fight or flight.”

This research confirms that we require rhythmic pulses of rest and renewal throughout our day. Many of us rely on willpower to bulldoze through lengthy projects or meet deadlines, but taking regular breaks is just what our brain needs.

How to make it work for you: Mentally strong people don’t drink jugs of caffeine to stay alert. Instead, they manage their time by working hard for 90 minutes and then taking a 20-minute break. They prioritize their day’s tasks each morning to focus single-mindedly on their most challenging and important project for 60 to 90 minutes before taking a break.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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