How to keep your cool in high stress situation

Stress is a normal part of modern life, but if you often face stressful situations and feel panicked or overwhelmed trying to deal with them, you may benefit from learning the coping strategies that can help you remain calm.

Pressure can put the body into ‘fight or flight’ mode. This is an evolutionary tactic that releases hormones designed to get you ready to either fight or run from danger. Stress triggers these hormones, but they are not so helpful when the “danger” comes from giving a presentation at work rather than being faced with a wild animal.

What to do?

When faced with a high-stress situation, one that feels like a threatening situation, it can even feel like we do not have control over our response. As a leader, the more effectively you can self-regulate these reactions, the better you can lead and help other people. Recent research in the field of neuroscience offers insights into this process of self-regulation and how you can move from the fight-or-flight response to a higher state of openness that invites association, creativity, and thriving.

Positive emotions are linked with better health, longer life, and greater well-being. Don’t do overthinking as it eats up our valuable time and increases anxiety.
Theodosius Dobzhansky, a prominent evolutionary biologist, has refined Charles Darwin’s famous quote about evolution being a “survival of the fittest,” to add that: “The fittest may also be the gentlest because survival often requires mutual help and cooperation among the fellow creatures.” In Dobzhansky’s view, it is connectedness and collaboration that has enabled mammals and humans’ evolutionary success.
When we reach level three, our vision, hearing, voice, and mind begin to work in concert with our hearts. We can feel our bodies instead of the numbness we may think of levels one and two during a confrontation. We are not in the “tunnel vision” of fight or flight mode to read the faces and other people’s nonverbal signals more accurately. We see the bigger picture and connect with others around our common goals. Thus, our relational and learning capacity increases.

As a team leader, the more effectively you can self-regulate — incredibly moving from the frequently occurring level two to level three — the better you can lead and help other employees in your organization. 

There are three levels to response, according to the Polyvagal Theory:

The first level is immobilization. Under threat, a reptile, mammal, or human may collapse and mimic death. This is a natural and adaptive reaction to such a situation. For example, when a cat traps a mouse, the mouse may reflexively shut down and appear as if it is dead. Thus, the cat loses interest in the mouse, and the mouse can escape. This is a rare reaction in human beings, but it does happen.

Level two is mobilization. Under threat, the heart begins to beat faster. The sympathetic nervous system is activated, and the body produces cortisol and adrenaline and prepares for action. This is known as the fight-or-flight response. We become aggressive, or we flee away from the situation.

The third level of response is called engagement and connection. When we feel that we are safe again, we begin to function differently. At this level, a uniquely mammalian vagal pathway becomes functional and quiets the defensive features of both the fight/flight reactions and shutdown pathways. The body releases oxytocin. At this level, we are more open to others and experience a sense of connectedness that can lead to association and learning.

If you frequently find yourself feeling anxious or panicked, your fight or flight mode is probably being triggered too quickly, and it is helpful to learn how to calm yourself down when you are entering this state. You can do this in the following ways:

Understanding: The first one is knowing the biology behind these reactions and accepting that being at level one, two, or three is typical. Knowing where you are on the hierarchy gives you an option and the power to shift.

Awareness: When you feel challenged, notice the physical and emotional cues that signal you are experiencing anxiety. Do you feel a knot in your stomach? Or your heart racing? See these as signs of where you are in your reaction, likely level two.

Recall: Bring to mind previous experiences where you have successfully moved through uncertainty in the past. You might even write down what you did to navigate a difficult situation and use your success to give yourself hope that you can get through this one too.

Intention: With hope in mind, let go of the need to serve your ego by clarifying your highest purpose. Focusing on your preference will release oxytocin and help you shift to level three.

Trust the process: When you are at level three, it is much easier to explore and develop ideas with the other person. The interaction is a learning process — it will be challenging, but as long as you stay connected and do not move back to level one or two, you can get through it together. You can become an expert at making others safe and keep inviting them back into mutually beneficial conversations.

Self-regulation opens the way to collaboration and change. Understanding our biological reactions in high-stress situations gives us a path to follow to maintain our cool in high-stress situations. It is then our choice whether we walk this path or fight it. And the choice we make is often the difference between success and failure in our lives.

Recent research in the field of neuroscience, specifically polyvagal theory, offers insights into the process of self-regulation and how you can move from a “fight or flight” reaction to a higher state of openness that invites collaboration, creativity, and thriving. We should apply specific tactics that will help us be defensive when confronted by others.

Another one of us (Stephen) developed polyvagal theory, which explains how our nervous system regulates our behavior, both associative and defensive, using the vagus nerve, the major parasympathetic nerve in the autonomic nervous system. This nerve provides bi-directional connections between the brain and the heart, gut, and other organs in our body. It is part of some predictable response sequence activated when any such situation threatens us.

Tricks successful people use to stay calm in stressful situations:

They remain positive: Always stay positive. Have positive thoughts in every situation and moment of your life, no matter what. That will solve every problem and help you remain calm in high-stress cases. Always say positive things about yourself, in your mind, and also while speaking to others. Have a positive self-concept. Whatever you talk about yourself, your family members, and your work – they have a significant impact on your state of mind and the life you will lead in the present and the future. So, always think positively while you are alone, and speak positively while you are with people. As it’s rightly said: ‘Take care of your thoughts when you are alone, and take care of your words when you are with people.’

They get some sleep: Just because you have deadlines to meet and people to impress doesn’t mean you can sacrifice sleep to get the solution or any conclusion. Not only will losing sleep affect your health, but it will also make you less effective.

After having a good night’s sleep, you will be able to wake up fresh and energetic early in the morning, and you will be able to work in a good mood. A tired mind cannot think clearly, and it is hard to stay calm when you are living in a mental dilemma. We can only learn and adapt when we take rest properly.

They ask for help: Being afraid to ask for help is a sure-shot way to feel overwhelmed. Feeling overwhelmed is terrible enough without making yourself feel alone also. Take advantage of the people in your network who have skills and knowledge that you don’t have. More often, people are happy to help in any way they can. Feeling like someone supports you and gives motivation to you is a great way to stay calm. It is necessary to understand and address your feelings of being alone instead of trying to suppress them. So that somebody can help you feel better or make you know about how to be happy independently. Discuss your issues and feelings with your near and dear ones. They will help you to feel better and give you support.

They make a plan: Once you fully understand what you are up to, you can develop a step-by-step plan to get you to your goal. Successful people think about the final objective and work towards it. Nothing helps you stay calm like a clear plan of action.

They make jokes: It is not that people don’t feel fear. It is that they manage it through humor. Laughter releases hormones that calm you down and make you feel relaxed.

They relax: Taking time to step back from a situation and rest can help you redirect your thoughts and view things more clearly. Doing activities in your leisure time, such as taking a walk, reading a book, or watching a movie, will keep you cool. You will be much more effective at problem-solving once you have taken the time to rejuvenate your mind.

They identify what is stressing them out: Zeroing in on what makes you feel stressed out is the first step in overcoming the feelings of being stressed. Identifying the enemy allows you to figure out its weaknesses and which of your strengths are most likely to be useful to be put into action in a particular situation.

They avoid overthinking:

Don’t overthink anything. If any irrelevant thought comes into your mind, let go of that thought.
Learn to tame your mind, which is like a wild horse.
Stop over-thinking about anything. You will remain happy and relaxed.

There was a situation in a company which was very stressful for the employees. They were not getting their salaries after working for 4-5 months in a start-up company as the company had promised to give the money in time but didn’t keep its promise, so the employees were getting outraged.

They all decided not to stress and peacefully ask for their money in exchange for the hard work they had put in. So, they all tried to maintain their calm in that situation. They practiced all the methods to keep cool, as mentioned above in this article. Soon, they felt good and relaxed. Oxytocin was flowing, and they felt more mentally open. Instead of orienting to the problem, they focused on possibility and hope.

All the employees and managing directors kept a meeting. In that meeting, a conclusion was drawn that all the employees’ salaries will be given on a particular date of the next month, and all the employees and leaders were happy with that mutual decision.


The most important reason these techniques work is, it gives you something back—control. We may not be able to decide what happens to us in our lives, but as Viktor Frankl says, we can always choose our response to any given situation.