The clock is ticking. Everyone's counting on you. Which wire should you cut? While most of us never have to deal with the life-or-death dilemmas of a bomb squad, everyday situations such as job interviews, public speaking, and family emergencies, can be every bit as stressful if we are not accustomed to dealing with them. Learning how to remain calm in times of stress will not only make things go more smoothly immediately, it can also, over time, help you lead a healthier, happier life. Here's how to keep your cool when the pressure mounts.
1. Identify the cause of your stress. Is your heart pounding because that idiot just cut you off on the freeway, or is it because of that presentation you have to give to your boss this afternoon? Think for a moment and try to figure out what’s really bothering you.
2Choose your response. Even if you’re powerless to change the source of your stress, you have the power to choose how you’ll respond to it. The appropriate response to stress should depend on what’s causing it: you can either shake off your stress (ignore it and let it go immediately) or face it head-on. In order to choose your response, ask yourself some questions.
- Does it matter? Yeah, it’s all small stuff, but some stuff is smaller than others. Consider how long the source of stress will affect you. That idiot driver will be gone in a moment if you just let him keep speeding down the road, but the death of a loved one may affect you for years.
- How much control do you have over the situation? You can’t control the rain that’s ruining your wedding, but you can control how well you do on your algebra exam tomorrow.
- Is the source of stress in the past, present, or future? You can’t change the past, but you can respond to the present and prepare for the future. Let your past troubles fade.
- Be mindful of and focus on the important things in your life. Your life is precious, so let not the extraneous things interfere with more important things in your life.
3. Shake it all off. If a situation is beyond your control, or if it just isn’t that important, stop worrying about it. Easier said than done? Just do it.
- Inhale deeply through your nose. In your mind, count to five seconds, and then exhale slowly through your mouth, for another five seconds. Repeat this breathing pattern until you feel comfortable with it.
- Think about something else. Get your mind off the stress by thinking about something that makes you happy, such as your kids or spouse (provided they’re not the cause of the current stress), or by concentrating on the things you have planned for the day.
- Visualize relaxing things, such as a deserted island or a country road. Close your eyes and try to picture even minor details about the imaginary place, and you can put yourself in that situation instead of the one you’re in.
- Get away from the cause of the stress. If you can physically escape the stress trigger, do so. Leave the room or pull off the road for a moment to put things in perspective.
- Get some exercise. Whether you go for a run, do calisthenics, do yoga, or lift weights, 10-20 minutes of physical exercise every day can relax you even when "nothing can".
- See also How to Get Rid of Anger and How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.
4. Face your stress source head-on when you're ready. Getting stressed is not going to resolve the situation. Sitting around worrying is a good way to procrastinate, but procrastinating will only prolong or intensify the stress. Facing your stress head-on is really just a way to shake off a bad situation that you cannot or should not ignore. If you can change the outcome of a situation that matters to you, the quickest way to overcome that fear or to empower yourself is to take action as quickly as possible. Once you’ve resolved the underlying problem, you can shake off the stress because it no longer matters. The steps below will help you. If you feel paralyzed, use the steps above to relax and temporarily distance yourself from the situation just long enough to be able to see it clearly.
5. Make a plan. Sometimes you can resolve a stressful situation right away with one action, but often you’ll need several steps, perhaps over a long period. Write out a plan with attainable goals and a time line for reaching those goals. Additionally, many stressful situations are avoidable. If you prepare ahead of time for important events and make contingency plans, you may not have to cope with as much stress later. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. See How to Be Proactive.
6. Take one step at a time. A complex problem can be overwhelming, even when you’ve got your plan mapped out, but remember: the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Just focus on one small goal at a time. See also How to Sustain Motivation when You're Struggling.
7. Be realistic. If you continue to experience stress because no matter how hard you try you can’t take the steps quickly enough, you probably haven’t set realistic goals. In a culture that values a can-do attitude, it can be hard to accept that sometimes you can’t do something, at least not within a given period of time. If that’s the case, revise your time line or lower your expectations. If you can’t do that, the situation qualifies as one which you can’t control. Learn from your experience, but let it go. And, if you find yourself constantly failing to meet someone else's unrealistic standards, read How to Stop Being a People Pleaser and How to Overcome Martyr Syndrome.
- Stress about future events is mostly caused by fear, and stress over things in the present is usually caused by a feeling of powerlessness.
- Focus on someone else who is in the same situation as you and try to tune in to that person’s calm. Remember that if he or she isn’t nervous, you probably don't have to be.
- Avoid Swearing / Shouting - Many people think that this calms them down because it releases bottled up energy / anger. This is a common misconception. YES. Release your anger. Do not hold it in all the time or you will explode! Do not take out your bottled up anger on those around you. Swearing only hypes you up more. You think you feel better but really, all you've done is put yourself in a destructive habit. If you need to shout, find a place of solitude and let out your anger. Cry. Do not punch a wall. Find a pillow or something that you won't cause any harm to and scream into if you must. Just avoid taking your anger out on others because then guilt will stress you even more. Talk about your problems as they occur; don't put it off! Taking care of the problem now, can eliminate the possibility of blowing up later because your anger was taken out a long time ago with civilized discussion.
- Its probably easier said than done but focus on what needs to be done. Panicking and acting over emotional is damaging to yourself which can make matters worse. Ending up in the hospital because of a stroke or heart attack is not the way you plan on taking care of the stressful situation.
- Inappropriate reactions to stress or an inability to cope with stress can shave years off of your life. It's true that not everything is possible, but it's impossible for anything to change if it needs your attention and you just sit there and slack off. Hard work is an achievement in itself.
- Getting in the habit of hitting things while angry might make you a violent or aggressive person. It's better to diffuse your anger than to try to take it out on other people or things. Never hit a person or other living thing, and make sure that any inanimate object you hit won’t hurt you.
- Don’t self-medicate. Alcohol and drugs may provide a temporary escape, but your problems will be waiting for you when you get back to reality. Besides, do you want an addiction problem in your life, too? You yourself may not care about it, or even be aware of it, but it will affect the people who love you.
- See a health professional immediately if you experience chest pain or dizziness.
- Don't blame everything on yourself. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, a problem may seem impossible to resolve. Giving up on the subject is not always a bad thing, but giving up on yourself and starting self-abuse methods is counterproductive.
Sources and Citations
- National Mental Health Association Factsheet on coping with stress
- Mayo Clinic The symptoms of stress
- Mayo Clinic Relaxation tips