It isn’t easy to stay calm under pressure. Too often, we psych ourselves out thinking about all the little things that could go wrong. But keeping your cool during stressful situations doesn’t have to be a struggle. Whether you’ve got an exam or an interview for your dream job coming up, here are 11 tips and tricks to keep you feeling zen on your big day.
1. MAKE A LIST OF YOUR FEARS.
Afraid you’ll forget the last line of your speech, or the most important facts on a final exam? Make a list (written or mental) of your fears and worries ahead of time, and think of possible solutions—so that even if something does go wrong, you’ll be prepared. Often, the mere act of breaking down a high-pressure situation into its component stressful parts will help you realize there’s actually less to be afraid of than you thought.
2. GET ENCOURAGEMENT FROM A LOVED ONE.
Ask a friend, family member, or significant other for some positive encouragement. A recent study found that people who had loved ones describe a time when they were at their best, just before facing a challenge, had improved problem-solving skills. Being reminded of our “best selves” can help us feel more confident and perform better in the moment.
3. PRACTICE AHEAD OF TIME.
Feeling prepared is one of the best ways to stave off anxiety. While practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect, it will make you more confident in the moment. To ensure you get the most out of practicing, however, make sure to practice deliberately. A groundbreaking 1993 cognitive psychology study found that just putting in hours of effort isn’t enough to master a skill—targeting and addressing your weaknesses is just as, if not more, important than spending a long time practicing. For example, if you’re rehearsing a big speech, don’t just memorize what you’re going to say. Thinking about—and practicing—performance elements like intonation, eye contact, the emphases you’ll put on different words, even the specific way you plan to hold the microphone, will help calm your nerves and make you feel like a master of public speaking.
4. DON’T OVERTHINK IT.
Sometimes, even after you’ve practiced something to perfection, when it comes time to perform you can get in your own way by overthinking. Try to clear your mind, and trust yourself. Banishing distractions can help you enter what sports psychologists call a “flow state”: a heightened state of calm concentration that helps athletes stay in the moment and remain relaxed. “Flow states” are said to transcend conscious thought, and, though the term is most often applied to professional athletes, can be experienced by anyone who’s fully absorbed in what they’re doing.
5. TRY TO HAVE FUN.
A small attitude adjustment—seeing your high-pressure moment as a challenge rather than a threat—can help you feel more ambitious and less fearful. And, if you find your positive mindset slipping, stop and remind yourself of all the things you have control over in the situation. Cognitive behavioral therapists believe that feelings of control can help boost confidence levels, and serve to remind people that they’re able to shape the outcome of a situation.
6. REMIND YOURSELF THAT (SOMETIMES) IT’S OKAY TO FAIL …
Okay, this one doesn’t apply to genuine life or death situations, but for most of us, failure isn’t the end of the world. Mess up that job interview? Eventually, you’ll have another one. Failure is disappointing, but it’s a part of life. And, counter-intuitively, acknowledging the possibility of failure can help take some of the pressure off—making it more likely that you’ll succeed.
7. … AND THAT ANXIETY IS NORMAL.
There’s a whole range of phobias associated with high-pressure situations: “fear of public speaking,” “stage fright,” “performance anxiety”—and they’re all totally normal. Some scientists believe the fight-or-flight response we have in high-pressure scenarios may have had beneficial evolutionary origins, helping early humans recognize socially perilous situations.
8. TUNE IN TO YOUR SENSES.
Stress isn’t just psychological, it’s also physiological. It helps to be mindful not only of the thoughts stressing you out, but of how your body is feeling. If your heart is beating too fast and your throat is dry, taking a few deep breaths and grabbing a glass of water can make a big difference.
9. BRING A GOOD LUCK CHARM.
It might sound silly, but studies have shown that a little superstition can actually bring real luck. It’s all about increasing your confidence, which in turn will make you more likely to succeed. Plus, once you’ve experienced success once with your good luck charm, it’ll serve as a reminder of that success—and your ability to prevail under pressure—during future stressful events.
10. BUILD A MEMORY PALACE.
Lots of high pressure situations involve memorization: Whether you’re taking a test, delivering a dramatic monologue, giving a speech, or trying to remember the names of the people you’re about to meet with, worrying about a lapse in memory can make a trying situation even more stressful. If you’re worried about remembering a long list of facts or names, imagine putting each one in a separate room in a familiar building, along with an associative item. So, for instance, if you’re going to a dinner party with new clients George, Janet, and Jim, think of an image connected to each of their names (for example, George Washington’s wooden teeth for George), and place each item in a familiar room (the kitchen of your childhood home, for instance). Imagine walking through each room and seeing the items there to help you keep track of each name.
11. MEDITATE FOR TEN MINUTES.
A 2010 study found that students who meditated for just 10 minutes before a test scored almost a grade higher on average. Since stress can deplete some of our brain’s processing power, meditating before a high-pressure situation can calm us down and also keep us mentally sharp.
Nobody knows the importance of keeping your cool under pressure like the pint-size geniuses on Lifetime’s Child Genius: Battle of the Brightest. Tune in to the season premiere on Thursday, January 7th at 8/7c to see how the competitors stack up.