The first step to retaining poise under pressure

Do you have a strategy for retaining your poise under pressure?

If not, here’s what likely happens when you’re in a high-stress situation: That event becomes the trigger for a reaction commonly known as the “flight or fight” response.

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As your body gets flooded with the “stress hormone,” cortisol, your heart rate increases, your breathing gets rapid and shallow, and your muscles tense. In addition, your amygdala (the emotional region of your brain) begins to override your pre-frontal cortex (the rational decision-making part of your brain). In other words, you literally lose your ability to think straight.

Learning to unlink a trigger event from this self-defeating reaction is the first step in retaining your poise under pressure. Here’s how to do that:

At the moment you’re aware that you are in a stressful situation, pause and mentally say the word “stop.” Instead of automatically reacting to the trigger event, pausing gives you the time needed to take back control.

During the pause, do one or more of the following:

Breathe deeply. Take a slow deep belly breath and then exhale fully. Count slowly to five as you inhale, hold for a count of one, and then exhale to another slow count of five.

Give yourself a quick pep talk. Use phrases like: “I’ve got this,” “I’m fine,” or “I can handle it.”

Relabel your emotions. Your brain uses words to interpret events. So the words that you attach to emotions have power. If you use intense words (I’m anxious, I’m frightened) to describe how you feel in challenging situations, you intensify the stress reaction. Relabeling your emotions with more positive words (I’m excited, I’m alert) helps you to keep calmer in a pinch. This is easier to do than you might think, as the same physical reactions — rapid heart rate, muscular tension, and so forth occur — in fear and excitement – so your brain is already primed to make the switch.

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., is an international keynote speaker and leadership presence coach. She’s the author of “The Silent Language of Leaders” and creator of LinkedInLearning’s video series: “Body Language for Leaders.” For more information, visit

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