Stress is an inevitable part of life. Whether it stems from work pressures, financial difficulties, relationship issues, or any number of other sources, we all encounter situations that feel overwhelming and threaten to make us lose our composure. While some stress can motivate and energize us, too much can quickly snowball out of control, undermining our relationships and performance. Learning to maintain composure in stressful moments enables us to think clearly, manage our emotions, and respond in productive ways. Today we will explore strategies that can help anyone stay cool under pressure.
Take a Break
One of the most effective ways to regain composure is simply to press pause. Taking even a short break of a few minutes allows your body and mind to reset. This could mean stepping away from an intense conversation or walking away from your computer to get a drink of water. A brief break provides distance that helps diffuse strong emotions like anger or panic. It also facilitates more rational thinking. You can use the time to take some deep breaths, splash cold water on your face, or go for a short walk. The goal is to interrupt the downward spiral and give your nervous system a chance to calm down. Even two minutes can make a big difference in terms of clearing your head, but longer breaks of 10-15 minutes are ideal for regaining composure in extremely stressful situations.
Get Some Perspective
Stressful situations can narrow our focus and amplify emotions in unhelpful ways. Another useful strategy is to consciously work on getting some perspective. This starts by acknowledging that losing your composure is normal and human. Beating yourself up will only add to the stress. If you find your emotions intensifying, try to take a step back and view the situation more objectively. Ask yourself how important the issue will be in a week or a year. Visualize yourself handling the situation in a calm and constructive way. Look for humor or absurdity in the situation. The goal is not to minimize the issue but rather enlarge your perspective. This helps put the stressor in context and reminds you that your reaction is a choice. It’s hard to overreact when you’ve zoomed out to view the big picture.
Focus on What You Can Control
It’s easy to get worked up over variables that are simply out of your control. In many stressful situations, there are aspects that can be influenced and others that cannot. Channel your energy into focusing only on what’s possible for you to control or change. For example, if you’re stressed about a work presentation, turn your attention to preparation activities within your control like refining your slides and practicing your delivery. Let go of unhelpful worries about the audience reaction that you cannot dictate. Whenever you feel reactivity surging, ask yourself “How is my response going to improve the situation?” If the answer is that it won’t, turn your efforts to what you can control. This helps prevent fruitless frustration and anxiety.
Use Coping Statements
Simple statements can help reframe your mindset and regain composure. When you feel overwhelmed, tell yourself “This too shall pass.” The emotion may feel intense and permanent in the moment, but reminding yourself that it is temporary and fleeting can diffuse reactivity. Other useful phrases include “Getting upset won’t fix this faster” and “Losing control will only make things worse.” Come up with your own set of coping statements that resonate for you. Have these cued up like a playlist you can access when needed. Say them aloud or silently to yourself. Hearing yourself express rational thoughts can help calm rising panic and anxiety. Over time, regularly using these coping statements will help train your brain to respond to stress more effectively.
Losing your composure now and then is inevitable. However, following strategies like pressing pause, getting perspective, focusing inward on what you can control, and using coping statements allows anyone to regain composure and manage stressful situations in a more constructive way. Try experimenting with the techniques summarized here to strengthen your ability to think clearly and respond productively in the face of life’s pressures and challenges. With practice, staying cool under stress just might become second nature.
Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.