Seizing the moment: Tips for staying calm under professional pressure

How does the old saying go? Pressure yields diamonds. A little bit of pressure on the job can be a positive, but just like so much else in life, moderation is key. The right amount may produce diamonds, but too much pressure will lead to no more than dust. 

Whether it’s a big presentation in front of the entire office, or a pivotal project with an unrealistic due date, we’re all familiar with feeling overwhelmed at work. While some people thrive on pressure and enjoy rising to meet steep challenges and seemingly insurmountable odds, no employee should feel like every single task is do-or-die

Even the absolute cream of the athletic crop can’t help but see performances suffer if they lose their composure. A study published in the scientific journal Psychological Science tracked the heart rates and performances of archers participating in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Scientists found that archers with a higher heart rate before taking a shot tended to perform worse than other competitors.

Those findings just go to show that no one, not even elite athletes, are totally immune to the effects of psychological stress and pressure. The mind races, palms become sweaty, and what was easy beforehand in preparation suddenly feels impossible when it’s time to perform. Luckily, there are a number of strategies that can help curb feelings of overwhelming stress and performance anxiety. Even better, many are intended specifically for workplace pressure. Here are a few tips for staying calm under pressure on the job.

Goofing off is good

Let’s say you have an important meeting in the afternoon with a major client. You’ve performed the research, double-checked that all of your data is accurate, and rehearsed what you’re going to say endlessly. In other words, you’re well prepared for the call. Still, the meeting is hours away and in the present moment you find yourself ruminating over all the ways the chat could go wrong. 

Research published in Work & Stress suggests in such scenarios it can be helpful to break up the day with a few fun distractions. Head to the breakroom for some foosball or look up a funny video on YouTube. Study authors explain short, silly activities help take our minds off of work worries and promote a more positive mood in general. That positivity, in turn, helps us face stressful moments and assignments with more self-assurance.

Go for a new high score

While plenty of recent research tells us smartphones usually lead to more anxiety and stress, surprising and noteworthy findings published in JMIR Mental Health report mobile shape-fitting games (Tetris, etc) can serve as a relaxing distraction from the pressures of life and work. Interestingly, such online games even appeared more helpful at promoting relaxation than mindfulness apps. The next time you’re feeling overwhelmed after a tough day at work or while reading an unexpected email, taking a minute or two to go for a new high score on your game of choice may go a long way toward calming your nerves.

Pedaling relieves pressure 

If you’d prefer to quell feelings of anxiety and pressure before even stepping foot in the office, consider investing in a new bike. One study published in the International Journal of Workplace Health Management found that using a bicycle to commute is associated with feeling calmer as one walks into work. You don’t have to be a commuter to try this approach either. Even if you work remotely from home, consider taking a short (or long, time-permitting) bike ride in the morning before your workday begins, or during a lunch break. 

Embrace excitement 

As nice as it would be to scream out “serenity now!” and instantly feel calmer, that’s just not how our bodies work. The more the human mind fixates on something, the harder it is to attain in many cases (falling asleep, for example). It’s natural to try and force relaxation and calmness in the face of a stressful event or on the eve of a high-pressure performance, but in more cases than not that just leads to even more anxiety.

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests it’s a better idea to take advantage of all that nervous energy instead of extinguishing it. Researchers explain prioritizing excitement over calmness before a stressful endeavor improves subsequent performance by helping us focus on the potential positives of the situation as opposed to all the opportunities for things to go awry.

Boost your ego

A huge ego is hardly an attractive personality trait in most scenarios, but we all need a certain amount of self-confidence in order to succeed in this world. A research project published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin reports self-affirmations can help tremendously in terms of both calming nerves and improving performance ahead of a stressful event. Remember, there’s a reason you were assigned the important project or big presentation in the first place. Taking a minute to remind yourself of your most desirable skills and prior achievements is an easy way to find some self-assurance before a major moment.