“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” –William James.
About to give a talk, a performance, or a simple oral examination or recitation, and you can’t simply calm down? When under pressure, it’s really difficult to calm down and focus. You feel a lot of inexplainable emotions and feelings – getting butterflies in your stomach.
More so, when we are caught off-guard, the same thing can happen – we lag, freeze, and panic. Calming down and concentrating then becomes extra difficult.
So, the million-dollar question is: How do you deal with pressure and focus?
If you can anticipate it, anticipate it. Rehearse it.
Most of the stresses we face everyday, we can anticipate. We can anticipate a performance, an oral recitation, a surprise quiz, a traffic jam, or a hazard like an earthquake, fire, or flash-floods. We can anticipate how a meeting could go or what could go wrong. So, the first step to mitigating pressure and stress is to anticipate it and prepare for it. Visualise your anticipation, and rehearse it in your head.
Scenario-building is a useful way in preparing for situations that might catch you off-guard.
Address the Most Urgent Need First
Dealing with a lot of important and urgent things all at the same time is mind-blowing. The pressure and stress this might cause could essentially freeze your mind, and throw you out of focus.
The best way to deal with this is to prioritise urgent and important things and deal with each one at a time. Deal with things one at a time. If the situation so requires, deal with whichever comes to you first.
This is the most difficult thing to do. Failure to pay attention is in fact the reason focusing under pressure is difficult. And in midst of pressure, inability to pay attention makes it extra difficult to regain focus and control. So, if you are to effectively conquer pressure and stay calm and composed, the way you channel your attention is the best skill to practice.
“Calm mind brings inner strength and self-confidence, so that’s very important for good health.” –Dalai Lama
Here are a few steps you must learn in-order to better deal with stressful scenarios and pressure:
1. Learn how to defeat the panic signals.
When we are faced with an extremely challenging situation or situations that could catch us off-guard, our mind and body go into a “fight or flight” mode. But if you simply about to give a performance, or a presentation, or an interview, or a school recitation, you, of course, cannot fight it literally, or leave and run! You gotta face the situation no matter how dreadful that is.
The best way to deal with stressful events is to use a relaxation response.
The following is the technique reprinted with permission from Dr. Herbert Benson‘s book
- Sit quietly in a comfortable position.
- Close your eyes.
- Deeply relax all your muscles, beginning at your feet and progressing up to your face. Keep them relaxed.
- Breathe through your nose. Become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out, say the word, “one”*, silently to yourself. For example, breathe in … out, “one”,- in .. out, “one”, etc. Breathe easily and naturally.
- Continue for 10 to 20 minutes. You may open your eyes to check the time, but do not use an alarm. When you finish, sit quietly for several minutes, at first with your eyes closed and later with your eyes opened. Do not stand up for a few minutes.
- Do not worry about whether you are successful in achieving a deep level of relaxation. Maintain a passive attitude and permit relaxation to occur at its own pace. When distracting thoughts occur, try to ignore them by not dwelling upon them and return to repeating “one.” With practice, the response should come with little effort. Practice the technique once or twice daily, but not within two hours after any meal, since the digestive processes seem to interfere with the elicitation of the Relaxation Response.
2. Learn how to breathe properly.
One of the most effective ways to train this response is to learn how to breathe properly. Shallow breathing means that the diaphragm muscles are not being used. The secret is to inhale deeply so that the chest and stomach are filled with air.
If you are lying down, you can easily feel your stomach rising by placing your hands over your belly button area. Then exhale slowly. As you do so, concentrate on the movement you feel and also repeat a mantra such as ‘breathe in’ and ‘breathe out’. Simply put, you are now channelling the autonomic nervous system into much more productive activity which will be extremely useful in fighting the panic response.
3. Learn how to improve your vagal tone.
The principal nerve involved in the calming nervous pathways is the vagus nerve. This is rather long gangling affair which stretches from the brainstem right down into the stomach, intestines, heart and lungs.
The best way to stimulate this vagus nerve to calm the whole system down so that we feel safe and secure is to improve its tone. You can do this in the following ways:
- practice meditation or mindfulness;
- generate positive thoughts;
- do exercise or some physical activity; and
- increase omega 3 consumption by eating more fish and nuts.
4. Learn how to get things into perspective.
Dr. Andy Martens of the University of Arizona has done some interesting research in this area.
Wellness experts argue that learning how to prioritize and re-evaluate our talents, skills and experience is a great way of building self-esteem which in turn help us to put things into perspective when we are facing a critical challenge.
5. Learn how to avoid negative people
When you are surrounded by anxious, and cynical people, you might easily lose your focus or composure. So, avoid negative people especially when you are preparing for a stressful event. As much as possible, surround yourself with successful and hopeful people.
6. Learn how to re-label emotions.
Esther Sternberg, a researcher at The NIMH recommends that when, under pressure, you must re-label the ‘fear or flight’ emotions. For example, fear can become anticipation while dread can become caution. Being under pressure can be simply re-labelled as being courted. If you are successful with this technique you become watchful and aware rather than being frightened and ready to flee. All it takes is metacognition and practice.
8. Learn how to get in the ‘zone’.
The more you practise something, the more automatic it becomes. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has been talking about getting in the ‘zone’ or ‘flow’ where extremely heightened focus and immersion in an activity can lead to really superb performances. There is a perfect match between your skill level and the challenge you are facing.
In fact, time is non-existent and you forget your ego and other physical restraints. One of the ways of achieving the flow is not only practice, but overlearning a skill where you can stretch yourself to new limits. This is essential when you are under pressure. You can refer to some of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s books which outline the whole ‘flow’ concept with practical examples of their application in daily life.
9. Learn how to get on auto-pilot
There are experiments which show golfers performing lousy swings after being told that they should watch the position of their elbows. Why does that happen? Our conscious attention is hijacking our honed motor skills.
Being too conscious how you’ll do, or perform, is similar to simply ramping up unnecessary and destructive pressure like this, and it is not helpful at all. If I tell you to watch your grammar before your presentation, then your performance may be less than your best. Sports teams know all about this pressure when their fans get too enthusiastic and noisy, especially when playing at home.
Performers, especially orators, are known to have admitted that before they deliver their pieces, they don’t bother think about the piece at all, or even dare think “I might mess up” because when they do think about messing up, they do mess up every time.
That is how powerful your brain. In an experiment about how our brain unconsciously process information being fed to it, a group of students was asked to follow a set of instruction. The ultimate instruction was: “Do not think that the ocean is blue.” Guess what? Did the students follow the instruction? No, they didn’t. Our mere concept of the ocean associates it to being blue. Plus, the mere mention of the word “blue” after “ocean” automatically recalled the association of of the ocean being blue. Sian Bellock’s book,‘Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To.’ is a fascinating insight on this process.
10. Learn to look after yourself.
If you want to perform well the next day whether at work (there’s a presentation you are so eager to give but is nervous about) or at school (there’s a recitation) or a performance (say you are an artist or whatever), you have to take care of yourself well. That means looking after all the essential maintenance such as diet, sleep, exercise, and relaxation.
For example: Too many carbs in the morning, may cause your blood sugar to fall. That can lead to bad temper, whereas if you get enough protein, this can keep you going for much longer without that annoying sugar crash.