Techniques and Tricks to Stay Calm Under Pressure
“Keep calm and carry on”—much easier to write cheerily on a notepad than to achieve! Everyone can relate to the feeling of being in a stressful or anxious situation and feeling like your brain is struggling to keep up. It’s normal! When you’re feeling pressured, your brain needs to work with extra incoming information, which can be overwhelming, and can lead to freezing or choking. If you need to learn how to stay calm under pressure, or in stressful, anxious situations, you’re not alone. The trick lies in being prepared.
Stress, Pressure, and the Human Brain
When you’re in an anxious situation, it's hard to be calm. Under pressure, your brain reacts quickly to try and regain control of things. Within seconds, your brain releases neurotransmitters like adrenaline (which can lead to an elevated heart rate and sweating1) and serotonin (which works to regulate anxiety2). Your brain then releases hormones that can influence your brain’s ability to regulate your emotions and your memory.3 These reactions are normal and expected, but they can wreak havoc with your ability to stay calm and focused. You might suddenly have trouble remembering information, which can increase your stress response. Knowing how to stay calm under pressure helps you to keep up your focus and avoid the horrible sensation of freezing in a crucial moment.
In 2005, researchers from Miami and Michigan State University found evidence to suggest that individuals who have high working memory capacities were more prone to choking under pressure.4 No matter how confident you are, or how capable your cognitive processes may be, it can feel like no one is truly immune to choking under pressure, especially in the face of the unknown.
How to Stay Calm Under Pressure and Stress
In 2002, an in-depth study from Michigan State University attempted to explore why it is so difficult to be calm under pressure. One of their key findings was that golfers who had experienced “self-conscious training”—meaning they had been filmed while playing and watched the recordings back as part of their practice regimen—were far less prone to choking in high-pressure environments than their peers.5 This means that one of the best ways to stay calm in anxious or stressful situations is to practice. In a boardroom meeting, know your stuff before walking in; if it’s a test, study; if it’s a presentation, rehearse in front of a mirror. The more you know about your capabilities, the easier it will be to overcome lapses in memory or confidence that may occur because of stress.
The next best thing you can do to stay calm under pressure is to take care of yourself. Practice mindfulness by taking some time to breathe, meditate, or even just sit for a few minutes to clear your mind and regulate emotions. Be sure to eat well and get plenty of rest before stressful days. Take a moment to process information as you receive it, so you don’t become overwhelmed in the heat of the moment. It is also important to pay attention to your triggers. Realizing what causes you to lose your calm will help you recognize how to overcome it and persevere in the future.
If you take care of your brain, it will take care of you. Regulating yourself can be a challenge while stress is hardwired into our brains, but it is how you stay calm under pressure. Taking care of yourself and properly preparing yourself for stressful situations makes staying calm under pressure a much easier task than it might be otherwise. Practicing mindfulness and physical fitness are always great things to do before a stressful day, so be sure you’re eating well, getting enough sleep, and working hard.
4. Beilock, S. L., & Carr, T. H. (2005). When High-Powered People Fail: Working Memory and “Choking Under Pressure” in Math. Psychological Science, 16(2), 101–105. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0956-7976.2005.00789.x
5. Beilock, Sian & Carr, Thomas. (2002). On the Fragility of Skilled Performance: What Governs Choking Under Pressure?. Journal of experimental psychology. General. 130. 701-25. 10.1037/0096-34188.8.131.521.