How to stay calm in stressful situations
Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows. It empties today of its strength —Corrie Ten Boom
This week, I almost missed my flight.
30 minutes before take-off and 15 minutes before the gate closed, I arrived at the airport. As I wasn’t checked in yet (I forgot to check in online and online check-in isn’t possible when takeoff is in less than 1 hour), I first had to get my boarding pass before I could go through the security check. Luckily, the employee at the counter was professional and didn’t blame me for anything. He just called his colleagues at the gate whether I could still be check-in even though I might be at the gate a few minutes after gate closing. Eventually, everything went well. There were even 2 groups of people boarding later than me.
My younger self would have panicked from the moment he knew that he was late, however, I kept calm. I knew that stressing out myself wouldn’t help me in this situation. In fact, I felt no difference at all. On my 30-minute drive to the airport, I continued working as usual, writing some emails and working on a few slides.
There are various situations in life in which we stress out even though we could stay calm, e.g., writing an exam or waiting for our own presentation to start. But why do we stress out in the first place, why is it actually counterproductive, and what we can do to stay calm more often? That’s what today’s blog article will be about.
Stress is usually triggered when we experience something new, unexpected, or threatening, or when we feel we have little control over a situation
Stress is our body’s and mind’s signal that the respective situation is important
Even though stress provides helpful energy and focus, too much stress in certain situations is a bad thing
First, ask yourself whether your stress response is helping you in any way in the current situation. Write the answer down
Second, ask yourself what you should do in this very situation to make the most out of it
Third, actually do what you identified as the best thing to do
Why we stress out
Many different situations or life events can cause stress. It’s usually triggered when we experience something new, unexpected, or threatening, or when we feel we have little control over a situation. And it manifests in various ways: The heart beats faster and stronger, sweat production increases, the mind becomes blurred, and focus is lost.
Stressful situations trigger so-called fight or flight responses. As you might have experienced by yourself, most of this happens to us without our consent. That's because the sympathetic nervous system as part of our autonomic nervous system (ANS) drives this fight or flight response, and the ANS is mainly working by regulating the body's unconscious actions.
Acute stress can be counterproductive
Even though I’m a great fan of stress as it provides energy and focus, too much stress in certain situations like an exam is a bad thing. For instance, if I had stressed out when I was late for the flight, I would have wasted precious minutes at work. The same goes for other situations in which too much acute stress leads to an adverse outcome.
Stress is our body’s and mind’s signal that the respective situation is important. While in many situations that’s quite helpful, e.g., we have to work on an important project, in many other situations stress makes us so aroused that we can no longer handle it.
To perform optimally in every area of our life, hence, we have to learn to better make use of stress, i.e. let our body experience stress responses when we need them and calm ourselves down in case we experience too much of it.
How to calm down
When I experience too much acute stress, I follow a 3 step process to calm myself down:
First, I ask myself whether my stress response is helping me in any way in the current situation. Most of the time the answer is no. Too much stress is almost never a good thing. Yet, we need to tell ourselves that being stressed isn’t bad at all but a sign that the situation is important to us. When I was late for my flight, I ask myself this very question and wrote my answer down. By writing down the answer, I reinforced the effect and was immediately calm again.
Second, I ask what I should do in this very situation to make the most out of it. During the drive to the airport, I knew that I should make efficient use of the time and continue to work. Before an exam or presentation, I should practice the relevant contents to get my brain ready to perform.
Third, I actually do what I identified as the best thing to do. In case my stress level rises again, I repeat step 1 and remind myself that stress is a sign that the situation is important to me.