Staying Calm In Stressful Situations

Stress leads to mistakes, increases in bug reports, and pull requests not being accepted. When under stress we don’t perform at our optimum. We tend to focus too much on the problem and not how to solve it or what to do to reduce the issue if it can’t be solved right away.

In times of high stress people tend to regress to behaviors used in childhood when facing an emotional threat. For some this may be running and hiding under the bed whereas for others it means getting defensive and arguing. To the uninitiated the ability to stay calm in stressful situations appears as an inborn trait that only a select group of people possess. However, science, specifically the science of the brain, has shown evidence that remaining calm under pressure is a skill that can be learned.

Stress can be motivating or debilitating. Some people naturally thrive under pressure, they wait until the last possible minute to get their work done because they enjoy the challenge. Others have learned how to work under strain because they have found themselves in that situation and have a desire to succeed or they take on more than they can handle and either have to fail or learn to be successful under stress. No matter the reason, there will be times you find yourself in a stressful situation. Use these techniques to not only survive the situation but to be ready for when it comes and you will be able to thrive even in a stressful environment.

Episode Breakdown

Understanding Your Response to Stress

Do You Fight or Do You Flight?

When under stress our bodies go into an acute stress response also known as fight or flight. This is a physiological reaction to a perceived threat, real or not, that involves the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. Physical symptoms of an acute stress response can include dilated pupils, tunnel vision, dry eyes, pale or flush skin, sweating, increased heart rate, quick, shallow breathing, dry mouth, and muscle tension. Emotional manifestations include but are not limited to fear, anxiety, and aggression. When under stress people have shorter fuses and tend to react rather than respond. Since many times these reactions are not appropriate for the stress inducing situation (public speaking for example) the body doesn’t get a release and can end up in a feedback loop that creates chronic issues (such as depression, heart disease, GI disorders, and lots more) due to sustained stress response.

Understand the biochemistry behind stressful feelings.

The human body is a system of checks and balances that regulates itself through feedback loops. Long term stress can create or occur because of a dysregulation of the system designed to prepare you for dealing with dangerous situations. Your amygdala is the part of the brain that recognizes danger and releases hormones that tell hypothalamus to get ready. The hypothalamus then signals the pituitary gland to release hormones that then have the adrenal gland (on top of the kidneys) to release cortisol. Cortisol sometimes gets a bad rap as the “stress hormone” when in reality it is the over stimulation of the adrenal glands or too much cortisol that is the problem. In the right amounts cortisol helps to regulate blood pressure, reduce inflammation, regulate your blood sugar, and boosts energy when needed.

Label the emotions you are feeling.

In order to avoid a reaction that could get you into trouble or issues with chronic stress you need to break the feedback loop that is sustaining the stress. Psychological and neurological research has found that labeling emotions takes the stress inducing anxiety out of them and actually reduces the amount of stress hormones produced. By giving your emotions a name and a label you are taking back control of the situation. Many times stress comes from lack of control, labeling how you feel returns control to you.

See stress as a way to highlight your values.

Another thing that stress can do is to show you where you place your values or what is important to you. If something is not important you will not be stressed about making sure it goes well, but if you care about something such as your career then you may stress about giving a presentation at work. When you experience the signs and symptoms of a stress reaction, after you’ve labeled your emotions and know what is going on, ask yourself what your body is telling you or what is it about this situation that you care about. Knowing this about stress can not only help you identify areas of value, but also help you to know when you may have stressful events coming up so that you don’t overload them. For example, if you have a crush on someone and care about your career you might not want to schedule a first date the night before a job interview.

Prepare Ahead of Time

Take care of your body.

Environment is one of the biggest variables in determining behavior. Different environments are set up for different types of success, you don’t go to a NASCAR race to try and study biochem just like you wouldn’t go to a library to practice Skillet songs on your guitar. Your body is the immediate environment of your brain so you want create an internal environment promoting healthy responses to stress. To prepare your body you need to look at what you put in, what you put out, and how you recuperate. “You are what you eat” may be a bit cliche, however what you eat does affect who you are and can even affect how you respond to stress. Exercise reduces stress! Bottom line here, there’s no way around it, being active is going to set you up to better handle stressful situations. A lot of people think they are too stressed or have too much to do to exercise, yet making the time to get some activity in each day will reduce stress and anxiety so that you are better able to focus during working hours. How you sleep is much more important than how much you sleep. Eight hours is a recommendation based on average sleep patterns, however some people need more or less. The idea is to get the most out of sleep by maximizing your time in REM or deep sleep.

Cultivate an attitude of gratitude.

Gratitude means having a readiness or willingness to thank someone, return a kindness, or show appreciation. Research by Robert Emmons of the University of California Davis found that practicing gratitude significantly reduced levels of cortisol, some even by up to 23% of previous levels. Another study at UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center found increased levels of mood elevating neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine when subjects practiced gratitude. Having an attitude of gratitude means turning this willingness to thank someone or to show appreciation into a regular thing, make a positive habit out of it. To start working toward this habit spend some time each day writing in a “gratitude journal” the things that you are thankful for that particular day.

Train your mind.

Just like you can train your muscles by lifting weights you can train your mind through meditation. More than just sitting cross-legged and saying “Ohm!”, meditation can involve active imagery, progressive relaxation, breath awareness, and even body movement such as yoga or TaiChi. Training your mind improves vagal tone, or the strength of the vagus nerve which is part of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system…the part that works opposite the sympathetic. A study at Harvard even showed growth in the hippocampus, the area of the brain that regulates emotion, and reduced volume in the amygdala.

What to do in the moment

Use breathing techniques to take back control.

Interrupt the feedback loop that increases stress by forcing your body to behave as if it were not stressed. Deep breathing is the opposite of what your body is expecting when the sympathetic nervous system is active since it is preparing for quick shallow breaths. Consciously taking deep breaths that involve your diaphragm will stimulate a parasympathetic response that acts to calm down the stressful feelings. To do this slowly breath in until you feel you abdomen rising then exhale even slower than you inhaled, count while breathing and try to get yourself to where your exhales are twice as long as the inhales.

Reset your focus on solutions, don’t catastrophize.

Instead of focusing on the problem that is causing the stress look to the solution to that problem, be it working overtime, asking for help when you are over your head or stuck, or even finding a new job. Realistically looking at the worst case scenario can help you to put the stressful situation into perspective. Understand that there will be things that you cannot control such as your boss, coworkers, or even the traffic on the way into work on the morning of an important meeting. Focus on what you can control, so if you know you have an important meeting in the morning get to bed early and then set your alarm to go off well before you need to be up and if going into the office leave with more than enough time to get there. Set yourself up for success. When stressors come randomly or unexpectedly, like a sudden major issue in production, start with finding the things you can do to mitigate the situation then look at the more difficult or near impossible tasks.

Re-label your emotions.

Now that you know what it is you are feeling you can break the emotional side of the feedback loop by re-labelling and changing the meaning of the emotions you have already identified. A researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Esther Sternberg, recommends renaming the emotions to change the connotation from negative to positive. In this method fear would become anticipation, worry would instead be concern, dread is seen as caution, flustered is another way of being excited, and alarmed is just a cautious curiosity. By renaming your emotions you take control of what you can in your brain and then convince the rest to follow suit. Using this successfully takes a little practice especially since at first it feels like you are trying to trick yourself into not being stressed.

Tricks of the Trade

Practice poverty. – Seneca

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