How to stay calm under pressure
From breathing exercises to power poses, these are the best tips on how to stay calm at work
It is entirely normal to feel nervous in these circumstances. Even actors and politicians who spend their entire professional life in the public eye get the wobbles. Luckily, though, there are a multitude of simple methods, tips and tricks that, if implemented correctly, can help you to stay calm under pressure and ensure that you deliver your optimal performance on the day.
1. Be prepared
One of the key ways to pull off a successful presentation, interview, performance, or speech is to prepare well in advance and tailor it to your audience. Research your subject, write down everything you need to say and then rehearse until you can talk clearly and confidently with minimal referral to your written work. However, don’t be afraid to take a memo card with key bullet points into the arena with you if necessary. If a wave of panic crests, this will help trigger your thread and get you back on track.
2. Get there early
Nothing is more stressful than being in a rush. Running from a crowded tube will leave you physically dishevelled and mentally cluttered. Allow plenty of time to get to your venue, so you can familiarise yourself with your surroundings. Where possible meet and greet people that might be attending your presentation, or important meeting, as this will bring a degree of normalcy to the occasion and help you to feel at ease.
3. Try the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT)
Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) is a way of releasing blockages within the energy system that can cause anxiety and emotional upset. Using your fingertips, tap on various energy meridians – these are specific points located directly beneath the skin around the head, face and chest – to effectively realign the natural balance of the body and instil calm and confidence. Each tapping point relates to a specific organ of the body: for example, the point under the eye relates to the stomach meridian and releases the body from fear, anxiety, worry and nervousness, allowing calmness and a feeling of security. The EFT system is easy to self-administer and very effective in combating the symptoms of stress in high-pressured situations.
4. Learn how to breathe properly
Anxiety can lead to fast, shallow breaths that will exacerbate your jangling nerves. Take a few minutes to practise an easy but effective breathing exercise to induce a feeling of serenity:
- Stand up to your full height with shoulders square. Close your eyes.
- Breathe in deeply through your nose to the slow count of five, drawing the air to the very bottom of your lungs so that your stomach swells a little.
- Exhale gently through your mouth to the count of five. Repeat this for two minutes.
5. Do some physical exercise to release the endorphins and relax the body
The day before your big day, take some vigorous exercise (preferably in the afternoon or after work). This will ensure your body is physically fatigued and your brain stops racing, and should help you to get a good night’s sleep. On the day, just before you are due to perform, try a couple of very simple physical exercises. By using strong muscle contractions in the hands and feet, you can focus your mind and create a healthy feeling of relaxation:
- Clench your toes tight and count to ten, then relax for a few seconds.
- Repeat three or four times.
- Do the same exercise with your hands. Ball them into tight fists, hold, then release.
6. Essential oils
The physical symptoms of stress can be extremely uncomfortable and include sweating, fidgeting, dry mouth, racing heart and flushing. Lavender oil is known for its calming properties and will help to ease many of these symptoms. It works to moderate breathing, soothe palpitations and stimulate the memory. Add a few drops to the palm of your hand, rub your hands together, cup them over your nose and breathe in the aroma just before your moment in the spotlight.
7. Positive affirmations
Banish self-deprecating thoughts and ‘big’ yourself up with positive mantras. In her recently launched book, ‘How to Own the Room’, (about women and the art of brilliant public speaking), Viv Groskop suggests some confidence-building affirmations: ‘although I’m nervous I will perform well’ or ‘I feel a little uncomfortable but I’ve got this’ work well when spoken out loud before a nerve wracking occasion. Your audience are not looking to criticise you – they simply want to hear what you have to say. Ask yourself what would be the very worst that could happen if you were to fluff your lines – it will never be as bad as you imagine.
8. Power poses and dressing the part
Confident body language will help to promote a healthy and positive state of mind. In her TED talks of 2012, American social psychologist Amy Cuddy discussed non-verbal expressions of power and dominance, claiming that empowering physical poses using strong, open stances of the body can actually shape what goes on in the mind. Look like you own the room and the chances are you will also feel like you do. Make direct eye contact with at least five people in the audience if you are speaking to a crowd, or hold your hands behind your back. Try out a few different postures and see what works best for you.
Wear clothes that you feel comfortable in, but also project a positive statement about you. Bright colours, power heels and a lick of lipstick can all do wonders for making you feel good about yourself.
9. Drink water and avoid alcohol or caffeine the night before
Avoid alcohol and caffeine the night before as they will only exacerbate feelings of anxiety. Keep a glass of water at hand to prevent a dry mouth when speaking in public.
10. Keep calm and carry on
If you lose concentration mid-sentence, don’t panic. Give yourself time to regain your composure. Be honest and simply say: ‘I got a bit distracted there, please let me re-gather my thoughts’. Don’t underestimate the power of vulnerability.
Practice makes perfect
If you are one of the many that dread the pressure of performing in public, avoiding it only serves to heighten your fear – the more you expose yourself to it, the less it will haunt you. Take small steps to acclimatise yourself to speaking in public – when you are next asked to give a few words at a friend’s birthday party, jump at the opportunity; be a little more assertive at work, contributing more vocally at the morning meeting; offer to do a reading at the kids’ carol service. You may actually grow to like the limelight quite a lot.
Everyone’s anxiety trigger points are different. So, assess where you feel the least at ease in such situations, and take note accordingly. If, however, your performance is consistently undermined by the symptoms of anxiety consult your doctor, who may refer you for a few sessions of hypnotherapy, acupuncture or CBT, all of which serve well to treat the underlying causes of stress.