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Using self-regulation to manage high-pressure situations

Using self-regulation to manage high-pressure situations

Hannah Winter, Sandstone associate and sport and exercise psychology consultant, looks at how to manage emotions during stressful situations

We all react to pressure in different ways and often our ability to cope with pressure can vary greatly from day to day. Pressure can lead to several physical feelings such as stomach butterflies, sweaty palms, tense muscles, nausea, restlessness and hyperactivity (or, for some, lethargy). These symptoms are all part of what is called the ‘stress response’ – otherwise known as fight or flight. This is typically experienced when we feel success in a situation would have positive implications for our careers or lives and where failure would have negative consequences.

An evolved response

This stress response is designed to help us. It evolved to make sure we respond quickly to dangers to our survival. Joseph LeDoux, neuroscientist and author of “The Emotional Brain” described this evolutionary point neatly…

“….early on (perhaps since dinosaurs ruled the earth, or even before) evolution hit upon a way of wiring the brain to produce responses that are likely to keep the organism alive in dangerous situations. The solution was so effective that is has not been messed with much…evolution seems to have gone with an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ rule when it comes to the fear system of the brain.”

The challenge we face now, however, is that our brains are not designed for 21st-century living. As a result, this stress response can get triggered by comparatively minor challenges. That is, our brains were designed to help us avoid predators, but now our innate skew towards negativity is not effective for us in the modern world where we are much less likely to face real danger.

Optimal performance

This is not to say that all stress is bad. Far from it. The stress response can be helpful for optimal performance. It allows for oxygen to rapidly get delivered to muscles and the brain – allowing us to perform physically well and make key decisions. The problem is these processes have been designed to help us in critical, short periods of time – when we are dealing with an immediate threat.

In modern society, many of us spend far too long in a stressed state than is good for us. Whether that is in response to urgent deadlines, difficult clients or colleagues, long commutes, high-pressure meetings and pitches or an inability to switch off. Over long periods of time, this can have serious consequences for our health. The key is learning how to change and control the way you feel – something called self-regulation – so that you are not in a constant state of stress. Being able to manage emotions can be key in ensuring the stress response only shows up for you when it is helpful. Below I look at three tips for self-regulation. The first two strategies are focused on being able to relax, and the third is a technique designed to facilitate a more positive interpretation of your stress response:

  1. Progressive muscle relaxation: this technique can be used to manage stress and decrease muscle tension. It involves tensing and relaxing large muscle groups starting from the top of your body and working your way down. Tense each muscle group for 10 seconds and then relax it for 10 seconds before moving onto the next muscle group. Practice this daily for a week and notice any improvement in your ability to self-regulate. The idea is to relax the body to facilitate a more relaxed mind. It shows what an absence of tension feels like and that muscle tension can be reduced when given the appropriate focus. Notice whether your mind and body become calmer. Using this technique, you can become better at recognising more quickly when unwanted tension in your body is building up and release it quickly.  
  2. Controlled breathing: for this technique breathe in for a count of four. Hold your breath for a count of four, exhale for a count of four and pause for a count of four. Repeat this at least five times. This strategy helps lower stress levels, calm the nervous system and helps take your mind away from distracting thoughts by focusing on the counting.
  3. Reappraise your stress response as helpful. Research from Dr Jeremy Jamieson from Harvard University has shown reappraising stress symptoms enables people to view their anxiety as beneficial for performance and in turn performance is improved. Next time you are faced with a stressful situation at work, rather than trying to change what you think about the situation (i.e. trying to tell yourself the meeting isn’t that important), focus instead on telling yourself your feelings of anxiety are helping to prime you for optimal performance.

As will all skills, these strategies take time to learn and master. But once they are mastered, they can be extremely helpful in managing high-pressure situations at work. Developing the right resources and coping strategies for self-regulation can support your ability to work in high-pressure environments and reach your potential.