“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” — Charles Swindoll
Are you tired of feeling overwhelmed and anxious when faced with challenging situations or high-pressure tasks?
Do you wish you could perform at your best, even in the most stressful environments?
If you practice how to remain calm under pressure, you can manager stress better and perform better in work and life.
The good news is that you can learn to practice how to remain calm, just like elite athletes do, to improve your performance under stress.
As a high-performance coach at Microsoft, I’ve helped countless individuals learn how to deal with stress better through a variety of techniques, including stress management, mindfulness, visualization, breathing techniques, and a positive mindset.
In this guide, I’ll share with you some of the most effective methods for practicing calmness and unlocking your full potential, even in the most challenging situations.
So, whether you’re an athlete, a business professional, or just looking to improve your performance in daily life, read on to discover how to practice calmness and perform better under stress.
The Yerkes-Dodson Human Performance Curve
Don’t work harder to achieve less. The big idea of the Yerkes-Dodson human performance Curve is that you perform better at medium levels of stress.
Here is a simple whiteboard sketch of the Yerkes-Dodson performance curve.
Here are some key notes about the curve:
- The Yerkes-Dodson performance curve is a psychological concept that explains the relationship between stress and performance. It was first described by psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson in 1908.
- The curve typically takes the shape of an inverted U, with performance increasing as stress levels increase, but only up to a certain point. After that point, as stress levels continue to increase, performance begins to decline.
- The Yerkes-Dodson curve illustrates that there is an optimal level of stress for any given task. If the level of stress is too low, performance is likely to be poor because you lack the necessary energy and motivation to perform well. On the other hand, if the level of stress is too high, performance is likely to be impaired because you become overwhelmed and anxious.
The Yerkes-Dodson curve has important implications for various fields, including education, sports, and business. It suggests that you should strive to achieve an optimal level of stress before engaging in a task to maximize your performance.
Additionally, it highlights the importance of stress management techniques and finding ways to control and manage activation levels to avoid negative impacts on performance.
Moderate Activation is Optimal for Performance
A moderate level of activation is considered optimal for most tasks, as it promotes alertness, motivation, and focus without causing excessive stress or anxiety.
To make the Yerkes-Dodson curve more actionable, imagine stress on a scale of 1-10, where 1 is low and 10 is high:
- Low Stress, Low Performance: If stress is too low, say a 1, 2, 3 or 4, it’s not enough motivation or activation for better performance.
- Medium Stress, High Performance: If stress is in the mid-range, say 5, 6, or 7, you can performance better.
- High Stress, Low Performance: If stress is too high, you can feel overwhelmed and anxious and perform worse.
What this means is that when you feel your stress is too low, you need to dial it up. And when your stress is too high, you need to dial it back down.
How To Lower Your Level of Activation If It’s Too High
This is the more likely scenario given the challenges people are facing so I’ll cover this first.
If your level of activation is in the upper range, say about 8, 9, or 10, then you need to bring it back down. You want to get it back into the 5, 6, or 7 range to avoid getting overwhelmed and to perform better in a more sustainable way.
You can do this progressively and incrementally. For example, if you’re at a 9, try to bring your level of stress down to a level 8. If you’re at 8, try to bring it down to a 7. With practice, you’ll be able to sense and respond to your stressors better.
By directing your attention towards your breath and capturing your thoughts, you can cultivate the abilities required to handle and alleviate stress, ultimately enhancing your performance in various areas of your life.
Here are some simple ways to practice reducing your level of activation when it’s too high.
Practice Mindfulness to Respond to Stressors Better
Practicing mindfulness is a technique that can help lower your level of activation and build your awareness, enabling you to respond more effectively to stressors.
Mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment, without judgment or distraction.
By practicing mindfulness, you can become more aware of your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations, and learn to observe them without becoming overwhelmed or reactive.
This increased awareness allows you to choose between mental and physical strategies to manage stress.
For example, if you notice your mind starting to race or becoming fixated on negative thoughts, you can use mental strategies such as positive self-talk, visualization, or cognitive reframing to shift your focus and calm your mind.
Alternatively, if you notice tension or discomfort in our body, you can use physical strategies such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or stretching to reduce tension and promote relaxation.
By practicing mindfulness regularly, you can build our awareness and learn to choose the strategies that work best for you in managing stress and anxiety. This can lead to greater emotional resilience, improved well-being, and enhanced performance in all areas of your life.
Mental Strategies to Deal with Anxiety
If your awareness tells you that anxiety is the problem, your mind is racing, then come back to right now, and focus on the one thing you want to refocus on.
Mental strategies refer to the techniques and methods that you can use to train your mind and improve your mental state.
These strategies are designed to help you manage your thoughts and emotions in a more productive way.
For instance, if you observe your mind starting to race or getting caught up in negative thoughts, you can employ mental strategies such as positive self-talk, visualization, or cognitive reframing to redirect your attention and ease your mind.
Positive self-talk involves using affirmative statements to replace negative thoughts, while visualization involves creating mental images of calming or peaceful scenarios.
Cognitive reframing involves reinterpreting negative thoughts or situations in a more positive or realistic light.
These mental strategies can help you regulate your emotions, reduce stress, and improve your overall mental health and wellbeing.
Physical Strategies to Deal with Stress
If your awareness tells you that your body is stressed, then use your breathing to calm your body down.
Physical strategies are techniques that you can use to help alleviate stress by targeting physical symptoms such as muscle tension, fatigue, or discomfort.
For instance, if you notice feelings of tension or discomfort in your body, physical strategies such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or stretching can be used to help reduce physical tension and promote relaxation.
Deep breathing involves taking slow, deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth, focusing on the sensation of the breath moving in and out of your body.
Progressive muscle relaxation involves tensing and then releasing each muscle group in your body, starting from your feet and working your way up to your head, to help you become more aware of your body and release tension.
Stretching involves performing gentle stretches and movements to help release tension and increase flexibility in your muscles.
These physical strategies can help reduce physical symptoms of stress and promote relaxation, which can lead to an overall reduction in stress levels and improved wellbeing.
Take 500 “Nice Breaths” a Day
To remain calm under pressure, it’s recommended to practice taking nice, deep breaths throughout the day.
Dr. Michael Gervais is renowned for his work with the Seattle Seahawks, the Red Bull Stratos team, and numerous Olympic athletes. His expertise lies in understanding the immense potential of the human mind to achieve extraordinary feats.
Dr. Mike suggests taking 500-1,000 deep breaths daily to help reduce stress levels. When taking a nice breath, it’s important to follow a simple formula of inhaling for 4-5 seconds, holding for 5 seconds, and exhaling for 10 seconds.
By taking a deep breath down into your lungs and feeling the tension at the top before exhaling, you are sending a signal to your brain to rest and activate your digestive system.
Dr. Mike recommends taking the deep breaths in the space below your ribcage and above your hips for maximum effectiveness. While the optimal time for breath work is 20 minutes a day, you can still reap the benefits by taking one-minute breaks throughout the day to practice deep breathing.
By incorporating this practice into your daily routine, you can improve your ability to remain calm under pressure and reduce stress levels.
How To Raise Your Level of Activation If It’s Too Low
If you stress or level of activation is too low, say in the 1, 2, or 3 level range, you can learn how to raise it to perform better.
You can achieve this level of activation through techniques such as goal setting, positive self-talk, and visualization.
Here are some simple examples of how to raise your level of activation to improve your performance.
Here are example ways to raise your level of activation using goal setting:
- Start by setting clear and specific goals for the task or activity you want to perform. Make sure your goals are achievable and relevant to the task.
- Break down your goals into smaller, manageable steps that you can work towards.
- Write down your goals and keep them in a visible place where you can see them regularly.
Example: If you want to improve your running performance, set a goal to run a certain distance or time within a specific period, such as running a 5k in under 30 minutes in the next month.
Here are example ways to raise your level of activation using positive self-talk:
- Use positive and encouraging language when talking to yourself about the task or activity. Focus on your strengths and past successes.
- Use affirmations, such as “I can do this” or “I am capable of achieving my goals”.
- Avoid negative self-talk or self-criticism, as this can reduce your motivation and confidence.
Example: When preparing for the running event, use positive self-talk such as “I have trained hard for this, and I am capable of achieving my goal” or “I am strong and capable of finishing this race”.
Here are examples ways to raise your level of activation using visualization:
- Imagine yourself performing the task or activity successfully in your mind. Visualize yourself achieving your goals and feeling confident and successful.
- Use all your senses to make the visualization as realistic as possible.
- Visualize any potential challenges or obstacles you may face and imagine yourself overcoming them.
Example: Before the running event, visualize yourself running the course, feeling strong and confident, and crossing the finish line with ease. Imagine the sights, sounds, and smells of the event and how you will feel when you achieve your goal. Visualize yourself overcoming any potential challenges, such as hills or fatigue.
Practice Calm for Better, Sustainable Performance
Practicing calmness is a valuable skill for anyone looking to perform better under stress.
By adopting techniques such as deep breathing, mindfulness, and positive self-talk, individuals can reduce their stress levels and improve their ability to handle pressure. It’s essential to remember that these skills take time and practice to develop, so be patient and persistent in your efforts.
By prioritizing calmness and focusing on what you can control, you can unlock your full potential and perform at your best, even in the most challenging situations.
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