You step into the room, and you feel the tension in the air. You’re about to give a presentation to a group of people. You take a deep breath, and you start.
You’re about to have a difficult conversation with a colleague. You invite them to a meeting, and you begin the discussion.
You’re in a networking event, and you’re nervous. You walk up to a group of people, and you introduce yourself.
Undoubtedly, we’ve all been in situations like these. Whilst all of them are intimidating and stressful, they’re also opportunities for growth, as long as we can maintain composure and perform to the best of our abilities.
In order to learn the most out of such situations and perform better over time, I’ve developed a routine for handling stressful situations. I’ve already discussed the preparation stage of the routine, and today I’m sharing the techniques that I use during the stressful situation to perform well. Finally, next week I will wrap up the series by discussing the retrospective, which happens after the stressful situation.
Of course, what I’m about to share applies to me, but might not necessarily apply to others - still, I hope that it will inspire you to design your own routine for handling stressful situations!
The techniques to perform well in stressful situations
These techniques are meant to be used while in the proverbial “fire pit”, i.e. during the stressful situation. They’re meant to help maintain composure and perform well. Not all of the techniques can be applied in every situation, and some of the techniques require upfront preparation.
I’ve learned about character invention from Sahil Bloom’s blog post The Magic of Character Invention. The idea is to create a character that steps into your shoes just before you’re about to head into a stressful situation. Sahil provides a story of how Beyonce uses character invention:
By the late 2000s, Beyoncé was already a global superstar. Few were aware that she had struggled with nerves and anxiety throughout her career, dating back to her days performing as a child.
In 2008, to combat these struggles, she created Sasha Fierce, an alter ego stage persona that embodied the fearless, brave characteristics that she would need to perform at her best in front of millions.
When Beyonce steps on stage, she becomes Sasha Fierce. This doesn’t require any physical transformations, it’s all in her head. She’s still Beyonce, but she’s also Sasha Fierce. As Sahil puts it, it’s simply “flipping the switch”.
I use character invention a lot, but I don’t give my characters names. I just think of them as “me, but with a different mindset”. For example, when I’m about to give a presentation, I think of myself as a fearless and well articulated presenter. This puts me into the zone, and I am able to perform while 100% focused on the activity at hand.
Awareness of the feelings
This technique is a game changer, and it works well for when we are stressed out from a more passive experience. For example, I often struggle in social situations where there’s a lot of people around me. Even if I’m not the centre of attention, I feel anxious and I experience the spotlight effect.
In this kinds of scenarios, I try to be aware of the stressful feelings that I’m experiencing. I “zoom out” of my head and observe the feelings I am experiencing, while trying to find out where they originate from, and why. I try to spot the negative self-talk or worries. Most of the time I realize that these stressful feelings are unjustified, and that I should just enjoy the moment. This allows me to relax.
This kind of awareness cannot be used during a stressful situation where we need to be active, such as giving a talk, because all of our attention should be on the activity we are performing. Additionally, I think that being too self-aware during a presentation can have a negative impact of overthinking. However, the technique can be very useful if we experience nervousness before a stressful activity by “zooming out” and calming ourselves down.
Open body language
The HealthyGamerGG YouTube channel has a great video on how to stop letting social anxiety control you. Even if we don’t struggle with social anxiety, the advice in the video can be used to deal with stressful situations.
One of the main points of the video is that we should have an open body language. This means that we should stand up straight, with our shoulders back, and our chest out. We should also have a relaxed face, and a smile. This is a very powerful technique, because it makes us feel more confident.
Even if we aren’t confident at the time, standing confidently can actually make us confident. Similarly, smiling can put us in a good mood.
Whenever I’m feeling stressed, I try to check my posture. Am I closed off? Am I slouching? Am I frowning? If so, I try to correct my posture and smile. It feels forced, but it helps me feel more confident and relaxed, while reducing stress. Eventually I gain enough self confidence that the posture acutally feels normal! I think it’s remarkable how we can use our body to change the way that our mind thinks and feels.
Micro exposure / stepping out of the comfort zone
This technique is based on the idea of gradual exposure to stressful situations, which is a technique used in cognitive behavioral therapy.
For me, it’s not so much a way to deal with stress, but more of a way to grow and become more comfortable with stressful situations in a controlled environment.
For this, we need to have a stressful situation that often repeats. Giving a talk in an annual conference is not the right situation for this technique, because it occurs too seldom. However, giving a talk in a daily team meeting is perfect - it happens every day, and it gives us enough time to reflect.
Let’s say that for instance I feel very anxious about greeting all the participants in the daily team meeting, and asking them how they are. I feel like I’m going to mess up, and that I’m going to be judged. I’m afraid of the spotlight effect.
In this case, I can start by greeting just one person. Then, I can greet two people. Then three, and so on. I can gradually expose myself to the stressful situation, and become more comfortable with it over time. Eventually, I will be able to greet everyone in the meeting without feeling anxious.
But here’s the catch - not only am I now a master at greeting people in the daily team meeting, but I’m also more comfortable with greeting people in other situations. And it goes even further - because I’ve been able to conquer the feeling of anxiety in a situation - as small and uninteresting as it might be - I’ve grown as a person and I’ve gained a little bit of confidence. I can now use this confidence to get the ball rolling and conquer other stressful situations.
Some other examples of situations where this technique can be used:
- Small talk with the bus driver when entering the bus
- Ordering food in a restaurant
- Asking for help in a store
The situations might look trivial and simple, but I think those micro exposures can really add up to a lot of growth over time.
This too shall pass
There may be a point during a stressful situation where we feel like giving up. Our character is not working, we’re not feeling confident, and we’re not performing well. We might feel like we’re going to fail, and that we should just give up.
In these situations, I remind myself that this too shall pass. Originating from a Persian adage, this phrase means that “all conditions, positive or negative, are temporary and time will pass”. Taking it a step at the time, as long as I keep pushing forward, I will accomplish what I’ve set out to do.
Not only does this phrase help me stay motivated and raises my spirits, but it also helps me stay calm. It reminds me that I’m not the only one who has experienced this problem, and that I’m not alone. In fact, this is good - problems are a normal part of our everyday life, because solving them gives life meaning. We often look back at the moments when we struggled the most and pushed through as the most meaningful moments of our life.
These are the techniques that I use to maintain composure and perform well during stressful situations. I hope that you found them useful, and that they will inspire you to design your own routine for handling stressful situations. Stay tuned for the last blog post in the series, discussing the aftermath of performing in a stressful situation.
This blog post is a part of the series “Handling stressful situations”: