You Can Train Your Brain to React to Stressful Situations Better. Here's the 3-Step Process.
Don't panic. Train yourself into mental clarity.
Lyndon B. Johnson was known for his histrionics — his customary reaction to minor pain or illness was "frantic" and "hysterical," wrote Robert Caro for the New Yorker in 2012. But when under pressure — real pressure, as he was the day he became president after John F. Kennedy was assassinated — Johnson assumed a near preternatural calm.
As Caro writes, "Johnson's aides and allies knew that, for all his rages and his bellowing, his gloating and his groaning, his endless monologues, his demeanor was very different in moments of crisis, in moments when there were decisions — tough decisions, crucial decisions — to be made; that in those moments he became, as his secretary Mary Rather recalled, 'quiet and still.'"
Certain people seem designed to perform well under moments of intense pressure. As an entrepreneur, it's certainly a skill you'd do well to develop. Research conducted by TalentSmart found that 90% of top performers can manage their emotions in times of stress and remain calm and in control.
Although stress is an essential tool for keeping the brain alert, too much has harmful consequences. Here are some tactics to prime yourself to take difficult situations in stride.
It works for yogis, and it can work for you, too.
Mindfulness is something you can develop over time, which you can then tap into when you need it most. One study from Harvard found that eight weeks of meditation resulted in both the growth of the hippocampus — the region of the brain that regulates emotion — and decreased density of the amygdala, which plays a role in anxiety and stress.
Meditating just a few minutes a day can help build mindfulness to the point that, when a stressful moment does arise, you'll be able to turn off the mental chatter and stay collected.
If you don't have a longstanding meditation practice to draw upon when you need it, you can try a technique that Forbes contributor Siimon Reynolds calls "the breath release." When you experience a stressful event, he writes, like an irritating phone call or a meeting that goes awry, try envisioning the situation. Then, take a slow, deep breath in and hold it. As you breathe out, picture all the stress leaving you. Do this three times in a row, and "you'll be stunned at how much your stress has been reduced," he says. Don't feel the need to limit yourself, either: Do the breath release throughout your work day whenever you feel yourself starting to spiral.
Catastrophizing is a hard-to-say phenomenon that's easy to do when you're on the spot. In essence, catastrophizing is assuming the worst from a given situation. It's amazing how quickly our brains can spin out in a matter of milliseconds, taking a minor hiccup in a high-stakes conversation and blowing it up into the certainty that your company will fail and you'll never work again.
If you catch yourself doing this, it's important to de-escalate. Remember to breathe. Getting plenty of oxygen into your lungs fuels your brain and circulatory system.
Now that you've taken a few deep breaths, the next step is to avoid giving space to negative thoughts, because dwelling only makes these thoughts more powerful. Relatedly, you don't want to fall into the "what if" trap, life coach Trish Barillas tells Fast Company. Instead, replace "what if" with "what is." "'What if' produces anxiety because it places everything in the future, and we know anxiety loves to plant its roots in the past and the future," she says. "What we can be certain of, however, is fact-based answers grounded in the present moment."
If you have the chance, try to write down any negative and self-defeating thoughts, and read them over. Have you used the words "never," "worst," "ever," or similar? If so, your statements aren't based in fact. Separating facts from conjecture will help silence negative thoughts and create the space for a healthier outlook.
Empathy isn't just about listening — it's about considering where someone is coming from. Practicing genuine empathy is a great way to put a situation in perspective and not take what's happening personally. If, for example, you're asked to explain why you've made a certain decision or taken a particular position, it's very likely that the person asking the questions isn't trying to attack you — they genuinely want to understand.
It took me a long time to learn to think this way. There have certainly been times since I founded my company, Jotform, when I've been inclined to get defensive or over-explain myself. If you've found you've been put on the spot in a tense context, Harvard Business Review contributor Amy Jen Su points out that empathy isn't about being passive or letting yourself get walked on.
"Recognize as you make more room for emotion that you are actually helping to discharge it," she writes. "By allowing the other person to vent, you also gain access to other important facts, assumptions, and constraints at play — all critical information for bridging the gap between you and the other person."
Practicing empathy also means not making assumptions. There is any number of reasons why someone might be coming across as argumentative or impatient, and they don't necessarily have anything to do with you. People have different styles of expressing themselves; they also have bad days. Keep this in mind if you're tempted to go into fight-or-flight mode yourself.
Being an entrepreneur means that you'll find yourself put on the spot a lot. Learning how to stay cool under pressure will make your life easier because being constantly anxious and on edge isn't good for anyone. But it will also make you a more effective leader and allow you to navigate whatever challenges you face with confidence.
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