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Caroline Beaton
Caroline Beaton

3 Ways to Stay Cool Under Pressure

Your ability to perform well depends upon whether you can keep calm.

  • I dislike myself.
  • I fear the worst.
  • I change my mood a lot.
  • I am easily disturbed.
  • I get stressed out easily.
  • I am full of doubt.
  • I feel threatened easily.

These are sample statements from the scale measuring the trait that most consistently predicts poor performance—neuroticism. Neuroticism is the tendency to respond to threats, frustration, and loss with negative emotions. Highly neurotic people blow things out of proportion, act compulsively, and exhibit paranoia. Clinically, neuroticism is associated with mood and anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and addiction. It's even correlated with cardiac disease, asthma, and irritable bowel syndrome.

Neuroticism compromises cognitive processing capacity and overall job performance. Emotional stability, by contrast, boosts creativity, working memory, and task performance. Unlike neuroticism, emotional stability is correlated with job satisfaction and general emotional well-being. Well-being is, in turn, associated with high performance across the board.

Emotional stability has increasingly positive effects on performance as a task gets harder and more complex. Neuroticism, on the other hand, has increasingly negative effects as pressure increases. Experiencing low levels of state neuroticism may be most beneficial in high-demanding tasks, researchers have found. In fact, one study discovered that low neuroticism can be twice as important for performance in situations requiring emotional stability.

We're all a little neurotic sometimes, but our success hinges on keeping calm when the stakes are highest. Following are three ways to remain emotionally level-headed under pressure:

Syda Productions/Shutterstock
Source: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

1. Channel your anxiety.

One study found that in situations requiring caution, self-discipline, and threat anticipation, people occasionally benefited from worrying. Interestingly, this finding only applied to individuals with high cognitive ability. Researchers speculated that their reasoning ability could act as an "intermediary between the situation and the emotional impulse." If you have expertise or innate ability in a given scenario, channel your anxiety toward constructive reasoning to better ward off helpless panic.

If you don't have experience, focus more on learning what you need for a situation to go smoothly. Julia Pimsleur, entrepreneur and author of Million Dollar Women: The Essential Guide for Female Entrepreneurs Who Want to Go Big, suggests, "Channel anxious energy into preparing. Every time you get nervous, prepare."

If you're nervous about a job interview, then, you shouldn't try to calm your nerves by just telling yourself that you'll do great. Instead, you need to learn about the interviewer, write down questions, research the company, and investigate the position. In other words, do everything you can to prepare.

2. Don't get ahead of the story.

Anxious people are more likely to jump to conclusions. This instinct can sometimes yield positive results, like enhanced emotional intelligence. Other times, it causes us to "go down the rabbit hole," or as Pimsleur illustrates it:

"She's going to reject my idea, and then I'm not going to get a promotion, and then I'm going to be out of a job, and then I won't be able to pay my rent, and then I'll have to move back in with my parents."

Sound familiar? Stop yourself. Ask, "Do I actually have that data yet?" Pimsleur describes receiving a letter from a civil action group in California threatening to sue her new company for $50,000. Rather than pulling her hair out, Pimsleur gathered as much information as she could. After three days, a lawyer told her that these groups rarely sue companies with fewer than 10 employees. Pimsleur's company had eight. "When we got to that piece of data, the problem went away."

Freaking out doesn't just compromise our clear-thinking capacity; it wastes time. "Really stop and think before you go into panic mode," Pimsleur told me. "You never get that time back."

3. Practice not reacting.

Research shows that rumination ruins well-being. Every day is an opportunity to take life as it comes. "The more you over-think things, the more you go into catastrophe mode—which can be your worst enemy, especially in terms of negative self-talk," Pimsleur says. Overthinking can be a particular problem for women, who at any given time have 30 percent more neurons firing than men.

Replace obsession with hope. One study (among dozens) found that more hopeful sales employees, mortgage brokers, and managers had higher job performance when measured a year later—even after controlling for cognitive ability. Hopeful executives also produce more and higher quality solutions to problems.

Rather than viewing a particular crisis as our life's defining catastrophe, we can see it as a chance to cope. "Build up this muscle of gathering data and not reacting, not going down the rabbit hole. These are great skills to have in life," Pimsleur says. Over time, we can accumulate stories of resilience and a personality that can calmly handle anything thrown our way.

A version of this article originally appeared on Inc.

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About the Author
Caroline Beaton

Caroline Beaton is a freelance journalist based in Denver. Her writing on psychology, health and culture has appeared in the Atlantic, Vice, Forbes and elsewhere.

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