How Successful People Remain Calm

01 Jul 2015

This stress has the ability to negatively affect how we react to things, how we behave in certain situations and how we treat and engage with people.

In this article we are drawing on Dr Travis Bradberry’s work How Successful People Remain Calm, which provides useful research and strategies on how to remain calm and manage our stress.

The ability to manage your emotions and remain calm under pressure has a direct impact on your performance. TalentSmart has conducted research with more than a million people, and found that 90% of top performers are skilled at managing their emotions in times of stress in order to remain calm and in control.

Research has shown that stress can cause havoc with one’s physical and mental health. The tricky thing about stress (and the anxiety that comes with it) is that it’s an absolutely necessary emotion. Our brains are wired such that it’s difficult to take action until we feel at least some level of this emotional state. In fact, performance peaks with moderate levels of stress. As long as the stress isn’t prolonged, it’s harmless.

Prolonged stress however increases your risk of heart disease, depression, and obesity and decreases your cognitive performance. Fortunately, though, unless a lion is chasing you, the bulk of your stress is under your control. Top performers have well developed coping strategies that they employ under stressful circumstances. This lowers their stress levels regardless of what’s happening in their environment, ensuring that the stress they experience is not prolonged.

Here are 10 effective strategies that successful people employ when faced with stress. Some of these strategies may seem obvious, but the real challenge lies in recognising when you need to use them and actually doing so, in spite of your stress.

They Appreciate What They Have

Taking time to contemplate what you’re grateful for isn’t merely the “right” thing to do. It also improves your mood, because it reduces the stress hormone cortisol by 23%. Research conducted at the University of California found that people who worked daily to cultivate an attitude of gratitude experienced improved mood, energy, and physical well-being. It’s likely that lower levels of cortisol played a major role in this.

They Avoid Asking “What If?”

“What if?” statements throw fuel on the fire of stress and worry. Things can go in a million different directions, and the more time you spend worrying about the possibilities, the less time you’ll spend focusing on taking action that will calm you down and keep your stress under control.

They Stay Positive

Positive thoughts help make stress intermittent by focusing your brain’s attention onto something that is completely stress-free. You have to give your wandering brain a little help by consciously selecting something positive to think about. Any positive thought will work to refocus your attention. When things are going well, and your mood is good, this is relatively easy. When things are going poorly, and your mind is flooded with negative thoughts, this can be a challenge. In these moments, think about your day and identify one positive thing that happened, no matter how small. If you can't think of something from the current day, reflect on the previous day or even the previous week. Or perhaps you’re looking forward to an exciting event that you can focus your attention on.

They Disconnect

Given the importance of keeping stress intermittent, it’s easy to see how taking regular time off can help keep your stress under control. When you make yourself available to your work all the time, you expose yourself to constant stress. Disconnecting from everything gives your body a break from a constant source of stress. Studies have shown that something as simple as an email break can lower stress levels. Technology enables constant communication and the expectation that you should be available all the time.

They Limit Their Caffeine Intake

Drinking caffeine triggers the release of adrenaline. Adrenaline is the source of the “fight-or-flight” response, a survival mechanism that forces you to stand up and fight or run for the hills when faced with a threat. The fight-or-flight mechanism sidesteps rational thinking in favour of a faster response. This is great when a bear is chasing you, but not so great when you’re responding to a curt email.

They Sleep

I can’t say enough about the importance of sleep to managing your stress levels. When you sleep, your brain literally recharges, shuffling through the day’s memories and storing or discarding them (which causes dreams), so that you wake up alert and clear-headed. Your self-control, attention, and memory are all reduced when you don’t get enough—or the right kind—of sleep. Sleep deprivation raises stress hormone levels on its own, even without a stressor present.

They Squash Negative Self-Talk

A big step in managing stress involves stopping negative self-talk. The more you ruminate on negative thoughts, the more power you give them. Most of our negative thoughts are just that—thoughts, not facts. When you find yourself believing the negative and pessimistic things your inner voice says, it's time to stop and write them down. Once you've done that you will be more rational in evaluating their validity. You can bet that your statements aren’t true when you use words like “never,” “worst,” “ever,” etc. If your statements still look like facts once they’re on paper, take them to a friend or colleague you trust and see if he or she agrees with you. Identifying and labelling your thoughts as thoughts by separating them from the facts will help you escape the cycle of negativity and move toward a positive new outlook.

They Reframe Their Perspective

Stress and worry are fuelled by our perception of events. You can’t control your circumstances, but you can control how you respond to them. So take a minute to put the situation in perspective. If you aren’t sure when you need to do this, try looking for clues that your anxiety may not be proportional to the stressor. If you’re thinking in broad, sweeping statements such as “Everything is going wrong” or “Nothing will work out,” then you need to reframe the situation. A great way to correct this unproductive thought pattern is to list the specific things that actually are going wrong or not working out. Most likely you will come up with just a few—not everything—and the scope of these stressors will look much more limited than it initially appeared.

They Breathe

The easiest way to make stress intermittent lies in something that you have to do every day anyway: breathing. When you’re feeling stressed, take a couple of minutes to focus on your breathing. Close the door, put away all other distractions, and just sit in a chair and breathe. The goal is to spend the entire time focused only on your breathing, which will prevent your mind from wandering. Think about how it feels to breathe in and out. This sounds simple, but it’s hard to do for more than a minute or two. If staying focused on your breathing proves to be a real struggle, try counting each breath in and out until you get to 20, and then start again from 1. This task may seem too easy or even a little silly, but you’ll be surprised by how calm you feel afterward.

They Use Their Support System

It’s tempting to attempt to tackle everything by yourself, but to be calm and productive you need to recognize your weaknesses and ask for help when you need it. This means tapping into your support system when a situation is challenging enough for you to feel overwhelmed. Everyone has someone at work and/or outside work who is on their team, rooting for them, and ready to help them get the best from a difficult situation. Identify these individuals in your life and make an effort to seek their insight and assistance when you need it. Something as simple as talking about your worries will provide an outlet for your anxiety and stress and supply you with a new perspective on the situation. Most of the time, other people can see a solution that you can’t because they are not as emotionally invested in the situation.

Remember that the ability to manage stress in your life is vital if you would like a balanced and productive life. We encourage you to use the guidance provided in this article to take control of stress.

Author: Dr Travis Bradberry

Editor: Kim Elliott

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