How to Keep Your Composure Under Stress
As a young banker, I managed to secure a meeting with Gareth – the powerful gatekeeper for all banking business at one of the most iconic companies in the Chicago area. It was also going to be my first ever meeting as the lead banker on an account.
Even though I had spent the whole week preparing, I was pretty nervous as Gareth ushered me and a colleague into his office.
Despite my nerves, the meeting started well and my confidence grew as we went through our pitch book. But then it happened. Garth leaned forward and asked me a question I hadn’t anticipated.
Caught off guard, I started blathering out an answer. Any answer. With my brain flooded with stress hormones, I couldn’t think straight. I don’t remember what I said, but it felt like I was drowning.
After what seemed like an eternity, my colleague jumped in to provide his perspective. I had never been so happy to be interrupted! That 60-second interruption was crucial for me to regain my composure so I could finish the meeting strong.
Just as a “break in the action” helped me regain my footing in the meeting, the same concept can help you in times of stress too whether it’s the sudden stress of being put on the spot or the slow-burn of constant stress from living in uncertainty, ambiguity and change, which has become our new norm.
Indeed, life in the “new normal” is filled with even more stress than ever
Yet, you can still thrive in the new normal as long as you have strategies to combat its negative effects and create a better future for yourself and the people you care about.
To help you do that, I’m going to share with you one of my favorite strategies to help you stay composed no matter what’s going on around you. I call this the “Pattern Interrupt”.
Having a “break in the action” creates a helpful pattern interrupt
Think of it as your safety valve from stress. One that helps you get back on track and stay positive. Like calling a timeout when your basketball team is struggling or rebooting your laptop when your screen is frozen.
Similarly, when you find yourself in a negative pattern of thinking or behavior, you need to interrupt that pattern to get back to a more constructive situation. One where you can tap into your best self again. Sort of like snapping out of a trance and remembering who and where you are. Or hitting the reset button.
Being able to pattern interrupt yourself is key for success in the new normal
Knowing how to stop the negative pattern and give yourself some breathing room to regroup and regain composure means you can show up as your best self no matter what happens around you.
In these stressful times, being able to perform at your best is a true differentiator. While others fall into the trap of getting mired in the negatives, you’ll be able to make good decisions, think strategically and create better outcomes for yourself and your team.
You’ll have better interactions with stakeholders and build stronger relationships with clients. And you’ll be able to spot rich opportunities to set yourself up for success and show you’re ready for the next level in your career.
There are two kinds of situations where pattern interrupts are crucial
First, when there’s a sudden stressor like being put on the spot in a meeting or being pressured into making a decision when you don’t have all the facts. And second, when you’re under ongoing stress like uncertainty about your job prospects or having too much to do and too little time to do it.
If your stressful moment is sudden and you don’t have a colleague to help you buy some time, then the key is to manage your brain in the moment by doing something physical. So if you’re able to get up and have a change of scenery, then do that. That’s why people talk about how helpful it is to go for a run or take a walk outside when you’re stressed.
But let’s say you’re in a meeting and can’t just get up and leave
The good news is you still have options. First and foremost is to breathe. Slow, rhythmic breathing has been proven to reset your brain and the beauty is you can manage your mental state on the spot without anyone else knowing.
One of my former colleagues Gail was a great role model for this. Whenever something stressful was going on, she would pause and take a few deep breaths. Most people thought she was just thinking, but instead she was breathing so she could think clearly. No wonder Gail always seemed so cool and collected and came up with good solutions!
You could also sit up straighter, stretch or roll your shoulders all without leaving your chair. And if you’re in an in-person meeting with refreshments on a side table, you could get up and pour yourself a glass of whatever’s on offer.
When you’re facing ongoing stress, pattern interrupts are even more important
For ongoing stress like the situation most of us are facing these days in the new normal, the key is to anticipate and build breaks into your day before you really need them. If you wait until things feel desperate, it takes longer to recover your energy.
So build breaks into your schedule so that you’re not working non-stop for hours at a time. Even a five-minute break every hour or two can do wonders for your mental state. And carve out larger blocks of time when you can engage in activities that energize you.
Think about what you enjoy doing, like looking at art, reading a novel, listening to music, chatting with friends, being in nature or dancing in the kitchen (my personal favorite!). Then build a few into each day or week. You can think of them as rewards for doing a focused period of work.
But what if you don’t know when to fit pattern interrupts into your day?
There’s no one right way or right time for pattern interrupts. It really depends on you and your situation.
A great way to start is by simply noticing when you’re falling into a negative pattern of thinking or behavior. Check in with yourself regularly to see when you feel stressed, negative, disengaged or fatigued. What’s going on to make you feel that way?
Once you start noticing how you’re feeling in the moment, you’ll be better equipped to know when to interrupt yourself and even anticipate what you can do to prevent those situations in the first place. Experiment with various timings and rhythms and discover what works best. The more you practice the better you’ll become.
Just don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re immune
No matter how strong and resilient you are, you’re still human. And human beings can’t keep grinding out work hour after hour without needing a break. Everyone needs breaks. Even machines need maintenance and downtime.
So if you’re thinking that you can just “tough it out” until things are back to normal, realize this: things aren’t going back to the way they used to be. That’s not how life works. So this is the time to make adjustments to how you operate and keep making adjustments as things unfold.
The new normal is challenging and it’s crucial to keep your composure
And introducing pattern interrupts is one of the strategies that can help you stay composed and keep your bearings in the face of uncertainty and change.
Whether the forces that challenge you and put you under stress are sudden and in-the-moment or longer-term, you can get back to equilibrium by introducing a pattern interrupt to reset your brain and yourself when you need to.
Just as I needed an interruption to regain my composure in an important client meeting, well-timed interruptions can be helpful for regaining your composure when you’re in stressful times too.
So don’t let stress and worry about things beyond your control distract you from reaching your full potential. You’ve worked too hard and have too much value to add to the world to let the current environment get in the way of your success.
Instead, adopt pattern interrupts (and other strategies) to set yourself up for success.
So, what kind of challenges are you facing and what kind of pattern interrupt would most help you keep your composure so you can thrive in the new normal?
Leave a comment and let me know.