“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 running more slowly than the rest of the world. It’s normal! And it’s natural. When you’re feeling pressured, your brain is trying to work with extra incoming information, which can be an overwhelming feeling. This 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 largely in preparedness.
Stress, Pressure, and the Human Brain
When you’re in an anxious situation, 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 When you’re preparing for a stressful situation, these reactions are normal and expected, but they can wreak havoc with your ability to stay calm and keep focused. You might also suddenly have trouble remembering information that you thought you had known, which can increase your stress response. Knowing how to stay calm under pressure therefore helps you to keep up your focus and avoid the horrible sensation of freezing in a crucial moment.
For a lot of people, freezing or “choking” under pressure is an unfamiliar and unexpected sensation. Even the most confident of speakers, athletes, and performers might feel an unfamiliar twinge of anxiety leading up to an important moment. In 2005, researchers from Miami and Michigan State University discovered evidence to support a hypothesis 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 sometimes like no one is truly immune to choking under pressure, especially in the face of the unknown.
How to Stay Calm Under Pressure, and in Stressful Situations
In 2002, an in-depth study from Michigan State University attempted to uncover the source and effects of choking under pressure. One of the key findings from this study 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 To this end, one of the best ways to stay calm in anxious or stressful situations is to practice. If it’s a boardroom meeting, know your stuff before ever walking in; if it’s a test, study; if it’s a presentation, rehearse in front of a mirror. The better you know your capabilities and specific projects, the easier it will be to overcome any lapses in memory or confidence that may occur because of stress hormones.
The next best thing you can do to stay calm under pressure is to take care of yourself when you need to. 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. Always remember to think before you speak! That is, take a moment to process information as it comes in, so you don’t become overwhelmed in the heat of the moment on the field or in the boardroom. It is also important to start paying 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.
The eSmartr Smart Compression Sleeve is another strong way to help overcome these challenges; by sending signals to the brain that encourage better calm and reduced anxiety, it can be a great way to help with meditation, self-health practices, and with stressful situations themselves.
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. 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. And remember – eSmartr is also here to help!
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.