Like water off a duck’s back
August 26, 2013 7:09 PM   Subscribe

You are chill. You’re not a worrier. Being under pressure hardly ruffles your feathers at all. How do you do it?

I’m not talking about appearing to be calm when the shit is flying in the general direction of the fan, I’m talking about people who just “let it all roll off” and don’t get too bent out of shape on the inside.

Maybe you’ve got too much to do at work, deadlines are looming and your boss is breathing down your neck. Or customers are piling up at your register and starting to get huffy. Perhaps you’ve got guests staying for a couple of weeks, your house is much too crowded for comfort, people are starting to bicker and you can’t seem to get ahead of the mess.

The specific problem isn’t important… the issue is, you have what seems like an impossible task or situation and there is a good chance there will be unpleasant consequences if you can’t deliver as expected.

But you, you take it all in stride. How do you do it?

Do you have a philosophy of some sort that you invoke in these cases? A personal motto you live by?

Mental tricks, psychological techniques, some sort of positive self-talk?

Simply don’t give much of a shit?

I worry and stress all the time, about everything, and I can't even imagine what it would be like to be the sort of person who can deal with a high-pressure situation without getting bent out of shape about it. So I'd really like to know, what goes through your mind when you find yourself in a pressure-cooker situation?
posted by Serene Empress Dork to Grab Bag (38 answers total) 107 users marked this as a favorite
I say to myself "In 100 years, none of this is going to matter."
posted by MaryDellamorte at 7:18 PM on August 26, 2013 [14 favorites]

Mindfulness meditation practice, yoga, exercise, and therapy. It all takes a lot of practice. Months/years really.

I recommend taking a few breaks in your day to meditate. is a good resource. It has guided meditations as short as two minutes.
posted by sweetkid at 7:20 PM on August 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

I was a theatrical stage manager for 10 years. This means that I indeed had a number of shit-hits-the-fan moments, coupled with the fact that the stage manager is absolutely not ever supposed to freak out and panic.

I couldn't quite tell you what exactly went through my mind when I was faced with a problem - it's sort of a weird zen state. The only way I can explain it is that I simply didn't have the time to expend on worry - one issue I had to face was a sound effect that crapped out on us, but the actor covered for it, and I had only three minutes to fix it before it had to happen again (in such a fashion that they couldn't cover for it). My brain just went straight to a FIX PROBLEM NOW mode simply because I had no time to waste on doing the Kermit flaily arms and worrying.

But also, knowing that this was just theater was also reassuring. One time early in my career, when I did get overstressed about something and left a somewhat frantic message for the company manager, when he called me back he first said to me in a very quiet and soothing voice, "okay, first of all, EC? No children died." And that became a mantra of sorts. Yeah, my job was important and such, and a lot of people were relying on me, but The Fate Of The Free World Itself was not at stake, and the very worst case scenario was only going to result in people being embarrassed, rather than human life being at stake.

So that weird combination of "you don't have time to panic" combined with "but even if it does go to shit you won't have killed anyone" helped total freakouts from happening.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:25 PM on August 26, 2013 [6 favorites]

I’m not talking about appearing to be calm when the shit is flying in the general direction of the fan, I’m talking about people who just “let it all roll off” and don’t get too bent out of shape on the inside.

1. You don't really know what's going on inside those oh-so-calm people.
2. Feeling stressed, anxious, terrified, angry, _________ (fill in your own blank) does not actually prevent you from taking the action you would prefer to take in those situations.
3. The skill which disconnects the urgency of emotion from the ensuing automatic behavior is mindfulness -- catching yourself, recognizing that you're about to go down the well-worn path of reactive behavior, and making a conscious decision to act differently instead. It's a simple skill but requires a lot of real-world practice and/or meditation to get good at.

Give all the shits you want. Don't worry about your worry. If your real concern is the fact that you get bent out of shape, visualize how you would conduct yourself instead if you were your ideal self. In that split-second when emotions rise, catch yourself before you get flustered (this is the tricky part), then choose to imitate that model version of yourself instead, as if you were acting as a character in a movie.

It won't feel right at first. It'll feel fake. That's what it feels like to change. The part(s) of you that don't want to change will kick and scream about how insincere it all is. Ignore them. Press on.

Fake it till you make it.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 7:25 PM on August 26, 2013 [12 favorites]

I think you have two different scenarios to consider here, the immediate stressor which is when you are supposed to be somewhere by 10:00, but it is 5 til 10 and the baby needs changed, you have to gather five different things to leave the house, and you still have to drive across town. I'm not so good at those kinds of stresses at all. My only good way to handle them is to anticipate and plan in order to not be leaving the house at five til in the first place.

However in other situations I can be very Zen. Mostly because I've been in really odd situations before and I'm not too concerned about what other people think. Currently I live with my son, my husband and two cats in a very small very old RV. This RV currently doesn't have hot water or any way of cooking food other than a microwave. However, I've spent time in Africa without electricity and with about five changes of clothes so in perspective I don't think it is that big a deal. We are buying a house and this is just my Laura Ingalls Wilder dugout and the house is just going to be extra awesome when we move in. (which is not to say that I'm not really tired of showering at the Y because I am).

So Zen in my case is perspective and also knowing that I have control of the end in sight.

I've also been very calm when I've dealt with work situations where kids were just acting crazy. Mostly, I stayed calm because I had several steps that I used when ever confronted with kids that needed dealt with. I would close the door to the hallway and I would turn off the lights and as cliched as it is, I took a deep breath before responding.

I should give the disclaimer that when I was breaking up fights I didn't follow those steps, but I've broken up enough that I may have given the outward appearance of semi-calm (can it be calm when you are yelling at people to break in up? Well, I was in control of myself I guess) when I wasn't.
posted by aetg at 7:39 PM on August 26, 2013

Part of it is biological: people in high-stress occupations tend to have lower cortisol levels when unstressed and higher neuropeptide Y levels when stressed. I don't think the causal relationships are known yet, but it's probably true that some people actually feel less stressed. If you read the first link, they do self-report that way.

Another part of it is just practice. In EMT school they talk a lot about reversion to habit under stress, and there's a lot of time given to drilling relatively simple operations until we can do them without thinking. This also has the effect of letting us focus our limited mental capacity on the few important decisions. I imagine police, fire, and military MeFites could say a lot more about this.

(This is pretty domain-specific, though. It turns out experienced cops still freak out when confronted with serious medical emergencies, and I'm sure the reverse is also true.)
posted by d. z. wang at 7:42 PM on August 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

I see two answers to your question. First, learn how to be somebody who tends not to worry very much. The advice above (yoga, mindfulness, fake it until you make it, think about the big picture) sounds like it will help with that.

Second, practice/rehearse/drill the hell out of a stressful situation before you actually do it. Experienced firefighters barely see their blood pressure increase because they've been in the fire many times before. The more you practice something stressful, the more prepared and less worried you will be.

Looking back on my own experiences, I can confidently say that the second strategy just works. I almost fainted the first time I gave a talk (not fun), but, many talks and many many more hours of teaching later, I'm calmer standing in front of an audience than sitting as a member of the audience.
posted by eisenkr at 7:45 PM on August 26, 2013

A few things I have learnt and use to remain calm when I am highly stressed or something has just gone wrong:

1. Death free/No perfection necessary: No-one will die if this goes wrong (unless you're a Dr then... maybe?) and remember you are only human, perfection is not possible all (or any) of the time.
2. Actively manage the risks: i.e think about the possibilities beforehand and have back up plans or ideas of what you can do if something does fall over on you.
3. Don't be defeated: Rather than giving into the stress attack, throwing your hands in the air go into Fix It mode and problem solve as fast as you possibly can.
4. Control: I cannot control other people's reactions, words, actions just my own so I have to manage myself only. I cannot take on other's stress!
5. Move on: don't re-live it over and over, don't beat yourself up, just keep going.
6. De-brief:You might need to do this before 'Move On' but I find them interchangeable. Talk to others involved, have a team meeting, chat to your friends, kids, dog about what happened, how you can do better next time and chalk it up to a lesson learnt.

I've made them sound a bit formal here but you can run through these steps in any order, at any time and just with yourself. Most of my calmness comes from practice and recognising that I am only one person, am going to to make mistakes and that's okay.
posted by latch24 at 7:57 PM on August 26, 2013 [23 favorites]

Not caring about what people will think helps me.

Also, what overeducated_alligator just said - take a deep breath and imagining what your ideal self would do, then doing that however fake it feels.
posted by greta_01 at 7:59 PM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I recommend getting cancer. It puts things into perspective right quick!

All joking aside: I started realizing (even before I got sick) that worrying and fretting and freaking out are all choices. And for me, they were choices that often gave the illusion of doing something constructive or productive ("planning for the worst," "making contingencies," etc.) when in reality they were doing no such thing. They were simply serving to stir up panic and feelings of helplessness, anger, confusion, etc., but they never actually resulted in any positive or useful decisions, actions, etc.

So I started looking at the moments in which I was worrying, and would ask the question: is there anything concrete I can do about this, right at this moment? If the answer was "yes," (which it only rarely was) then I did that thing. If the answer was "no" (which it more typically was), then I decided to let it go as much as possible until I could do something concrete. My mantra in those moments has usually been "whatever happens, I can handle it."

Post-treatment, I had a very vivid epiphany that I did not save my own life in order to have it ruined by work or by stress. And really, it doesn't take cancer to make that decision. We all get exactly one, finite life; no one's going to be on their death bed and wish they'd worried more about work or the neighbors or politics or whatever, you know? So I try to use mindfulness and compassion to manage my own anxieties whenever they crop up, while not shouldering anyone else's anxieties that they're not managing themselves. And I really do try to keep my internal freakout meter calibrated pretty heavily to the IS IT CANCER? NO? THEN IT'S COOL side of things.

(And even re: cancer -- at some point, that just had to be cool, too. I mean, we're all mortal; we're all going to die. I would prefer not to die from cancer, but there was a point at which it was actually a surprising relief and gave me great peace of mind to stop fighting the idea that maybe the cancer would kill me. This didn't mean that I sat down and got ready to die, but that I did let go of the idea that somehow the universe owed me the "right" outcome. This was actually really liberating, and made me strangely cheerful and engaged in my own treatment in the best way.)

As you can probably tell, I mostly come at all of this from a Buddhist perspective. Two things that have helped me a lot over the years are In the Face of Fear and Getting Unstuck.
posted by scody at 8:28 PM on August 26, 2013 [28 favorites]

"Don't sweat the small stuff. And it's all small stuff."

Seriously. Unless it's literally a life or death situation, it's just not that important. So you miss a deadline. So what? It's only a job, if you get fired, there are other jobs. As long as you're still breathing, you're ok.

Also, I think it's easier to not sweat the small stuff if you've had some truly horrible things happen to you in the past, because then everything else seems trivial in comparison.
posted by MexicanYenta at 8:29 PM on August 26, 2013

Demystify your anxiety. State to yourself, exactly, the nature of the problem, what may happen, and what, if anything, you are to do about it. When you're reacting to actual things, rather than feelings, most seem smaller, if not trivial. If you catch yourself feeling anxious, ask yourself exactly why. Specifically what can you do about it? Specifically, what are the likely outcomes. Contain the worry. Sometimes, you'll find your are anxious about nothing in particular, like realizing you can't remember that thing because there's nothing you forgot!

Don't let any worry, dread or fear be un-articulated. Tie it to the actual thing in the world, and it will seem tangible. Even if what you have to do will be easy, it will be something you can grapple with. Now it's an intellectual issue. You can at least turn panic and dread into mere annoyance. ("Aw man, x means I have to do y. Y sucks!" instead of "I'm never going to get this done, I suck a this job, and I'll never get another one in this economy. I need health insurance!")

Don't let anything loom. Looming is the action of a nebulous specter; it will fill up the back of your mind, and cast a shadow on everything. But actual deadlines can't loom. You know right where they are, and what you have to do and when. Most things that loom are things you actually can't do anything about right now.
posted by spaltavian at 8:32 PM on August 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

Even if you are stressed, if you're in front of people who take your example you have a powerful incentive to slow down, be seen to talk with agents of pressure calmly, and make decisions without agonizing.

Now and then people ask me "what's the worst that could happen?" I always say "everyone dies horribly". Which is palpably not in the result set of problems that happen in my business, so they already know that the very worst thing that could happen, won't. Then they're already on the way to providing themselves with a more rational answer. "The test equipment breaks" is the worst one we've come up with and everyone has the sense not to be that close to the test equipment when we're running.

I worry a lot, and that is helpful to me. What things do I need to do to make sure my colleagues are safe? I do those. What things to they need to know? Everything, so I tell them. Running disasters in your head is *productive*, when you do something about them in advance and everyone is well-informed. What works for me is to be a step ahead of whatever is threatening, and act on it.
posted by jet_silver at 8:35 PM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I lost my sister to cancer a few years ago. That experience really changed my perspective. In the moment of bad news, worse news, unintelligible news, I discovered that dealing with the facts was more productive than worrying about things I didn't know or had no control over. So in stressful situations I employ the strategy I used for the five years she was fighting leukemia: what's the problem - what's the first step towards helping solve it? Then what's the 2nd? And so on. I never hypothesized about what we didn't know. I just focused on the diagnosis in front of us - the known, not the made-up.

As for the problems of daily life: I accidentally backed into a wall - meh, no big deal. Toilet overflowed? Messy but not the end of the world. Screwed up at work? Apologize, fix it, learn from it. Move on.

In the aftermath, family is important. Being happy, living life, finding fulfillment. Unless it's life and death, it's not life and death. Life is too short to worry all the time.
posted by buzzkillington at 9:04 PM on August 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm not globally like this - some types of situations push all my buttons, while others just don't bother me. I think that exposure and practice make me more serene. For longer-term stuff, I tend to plan in terms of contingencies, and don't let myself get too emotionally attached to my first choice. Also, If I've dealt with a hairier situation successfully, then I have confidence that the current one will turn out OK.

* Traveling: I have confidence that I can figure it out, and don't mind winging plans when need be. It helps that travel is often chaotic, but pretty low-stakes (at least where I'm willing to go!), so I just expect things to change. I've cheerfully hopped on a plane to Italy with no idea where I'm going to sleep that night. Miss my plane back home? Oh well! That's 2 more days to explore! Robbed in Argentina? Well, I wasn't raped or murdered, and I still have a credit card in the sole of my shoe.

* Whitewater rescues: I was pleasantly surprised by how calm I was in the one case I was involved in where messing up carried with it serious risk of somebody dying. My emotions kind of detached, and the analytic part of my brain took over. I've had a lot of practice with less fraught rescues, and have done an assortment of wilderness medicine and swiftwater rescue courses. The combination of these helped a lot - it had been drilled into my head that I needed to SLOW DOWN and think before acting, and I remembered the drill.

* Career-type stuff: I'm in transition on this one. I used to be ridiculously anxious about it. At some point in the last year my mindset flipped and I have NO IDEA how it happened. Rather than worrying about all the ways that I'm deficient, I've started putting myself out there with the attitude of "Here's who I am, this is what I want. I have no idea if I'm good enough for this, but I'll be damned if I'm going to talk myself out of even trying." This way is so much more fun - I'm spending energy figuring out how to chase my dreams, rather than wasting that energy worrying. Also as I get more practice at navigating these situations, I find them less stressful.

* People herding/event planning: I can't seem to keep my serenity. The last time I tried to herd a large group, it ended successfully but with a friend ordering me to drink a beer. And this should be the easiest/lowest stakes/most fun of the lot!
posted by Metasyntactic at 9:35 PM on August 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

I try to see the absurd side of things. I can worry and fret like billy-o before the event or activity, but I've gotten through more difficult, even frightening situations by looking for the goofy stuff and pointing it out. I've had my camera crews shot at in Belfast, menaced in Compton and crash-landed in Belize, and somehow stayed sane by saying something inappropriate and funny. Something silly comes into my head and pops out of my mouth--if I can make someone laugh, even myself--how bad can it really be?
posted by Ideefixe at 9:39 PM on August 26, 2013

I deal with some things extremely well. Others make me a mess. It depends on what it is.

1) Skill and experience: It may look hard to you but I know I can do this. I have done it before. No sweat.

2) Callouses/innurred: I have a chronic medical condition. Lots of people die from it, often at young ages. I have been on lists where death and suffering were common. Some people think I am an insensitive bitch because what stresses them no longer stresses me.

3) Subject Specific: When I paid accident claims, reading medical records bothered me less than most of my coworkers. Run of the mill accidents were not gory enough to get a rise out of me. It was rare that I read anything which disturbed me. But I sweated quota every single minute I was at work (the number of claims I needed to do per day).

4) Tracking/Count your blessings: I either try to track things that need to be done so I can try to meet goals or I mentally list what is going right to help reduce my stress.

5) Focus on what can be done: Lots of people focus on what they have no control over because it scares them the most. I refuse to go there. My life is too high pressure to tolerate such habits. I do what I can do and accept that some piece of it is a matter of luck/fate/whatever. Either the road will rise up to meet me or I am doomed. I put my blinders on and do what I can do and accept that it may not be enough but it is all I can do. So far, I haven't died so the road has apparently met me partway.

6) Let it go: So 10,000 fucktards have crapped on me and made life unnecessarily hard. But THIS guy is not any of those people. He deserves to be given a fair shake. He might handle it different from all the fucktards I wish would go die in a fire. Let that shit go. Don't bring it to the table with this new person. It is the single most powerful thing I can do to increase the odds that it will finally work in spite of a jillion soul-searing, agonizing, scarring failures that make me wish I were dead. This approach works. I have done this before. Take some deep breathes. Judge not. Let it go before trying again with someone new.
posted by Michele in California at 9:49 PM on August 26, 2013

"Ain't no sense worryin' about the things you got control over, 'cause if you got control over 'em, ain't no sense worryin'. And ain't no sense worryin' about the things you don't got control over, 'cause if you don't got control over 'em, ain't no sense worryin'.”--Mickey Rivers

I think part of it is just perspective. Like I have been in a foreign city where I don't speak the language, the airline lost all my luggage, and I have no idea where I'm staying or how I'll be getting to the new job I'm starting...and everything worked out relatively fine. I mean, I didn't die. I spent way too much in a cab into town and found the office and pounded on the door until someone got annoyed enough to come out and help me. I had to wash my clothes in the sink and was kind of damp and annoyed for my first day. But my luggage turned up and I didn't have to sleep on the street and I was okay, you know? It just proved to me I could handle it if the shit went down. And with work stuff, I've been laid off so many times that getting fired is just a who gives a shit situation now. I know EXACTLY how to be unemployed, it's already happened. And even worst-possible-case, if I am going to die and there's something I can do about it, why am I not doing that thing? If I'm going to die and there's nothing I can do about it...welp, no point in worrying. I can hold my shit down and handle my business, experience has taught me this.

Part of it is recognizing when you are the source of the problem. My wife spends every morning in a whirlwind of disaster, to the point that it stresses me to even be awake when she's getting ready...but it's because she's determined to sleep until The Last Possible Minute and then she takes a minute too long in the shower or spaces out doing her hair and she's behind and has to flail and scurry around and she has to make her lunch because DUH you don't make it the night before, you make it in THE MORNING DUH JEEZ I know how to handle my routine GOD and then she has to start the dishwasher because YOU DO THE DISHES IN THE MORNING because that's The Time To Do The Dishes. And the whole time she's in this dizzy whirl of frantic activity, I'm serenely eating breakfast and shaking my head, because I, too, hate spending my morning in a panic, but I solve that by getting up 30 minutes earlier than The Last Possible Minute and making my lunch the night before.

Likewise, I used to be really, really into politics, like I'd be the one crashing into threads to snark about drone strikes and lurching in to loudly berate everyone for not being sufficiently socially sensitive, and then I realized not only was I an annoying sanctimonious prick, I was also angry all the time about things I could do nothing about. So I just...stopped. I let it go. I quit paying attention to it. And I am so much happier and less stressed and stick to things I can actually do something about rather than just being all mad and posting about HOW MAD I AM LOOK HOW ENGAGED I AM Y'ALL RRRRRRRGH!

That's the biggest thing I see with my stressy friends is they engage completely. Like they read a story about something and they get worked up and enraged, then they post all over Facebook about it and get into angry debates with shitty people they stay friends with for some reason and then they argue on Twitter and post angry things on their blogs and message boards and they're in constant, fighty red alert mode (but, importantly, it never motivates them to actually go out and do anything other than warring for internet justice, because going out and doing something might help with the stress), so naturally when something else comes along they're in RRRRRGH FIGHT MODE and spending all that time in fight mode is emotionally exhausting, so of course you're not resilient when the bumps and bruises of life come along.

That's another thing: I rigorously gatekeep the people I allow in my life, both my social media life and my actual life. If you're a negative person or an asshole, you don't get past the guards or you're quietly shuffled elsewhere where I will never see you or encounter you. I know people have shitty opinions and do terrible things, I just don't see a need to wallow around in it and be reminded of it constantly. If you're a friend that flakes all the time or constantly cancels or is unreliable, I may not send you An Official Notice Of Friendship Termination but I damn sure won't make plans with you anymore.

That said, I got comfortable with doing things by myself, so if all my friends flake or are busy, I go have fun anyway rather than sitting around being stressed or angry, because I am awesome.

Some of it is just self-care. For example, when I'm working an event that has lots of moving parts, I'm frequently I'll eliminate all the hassles I can so all the Fucks I Can Give are ready for the event. Like I'll make sure to wear comfy shoes and clothes, make sure I eat regularly because when I am tense and hungry I turn worse-than-Stalin in my imperiousness, pay extra for the decent seats on the airlines, stay in a decent hotel and make sure to get sleep as much as reasonably possible, etc. And if nothing else, I'll make sure everything I can control is as buttoned up as possible, so if other people screw it up, well, I did my part.

Some of it is finding potential stressors and figuring out how to make them not stressful. A friend of mine is terrified of flying but refuses to learn anything about planes, so as far as she concerned, they're magic boxes full of screaming babies and disease, so of course it's terrifying when we hit turbulence and the magic box is bouncing all over the sky. I took flying lessons long enough I know how everything works and I even did emergency stuff like spins, stalls, and that kind of thing. Once you've actually been in a plane plunging towards the earth with all the warnings blaring and smoothly handled it, a bit of turbulence is just an annoyance. If a rube like me can handle it, the professional guy at the front should be able to handle it, but I also know what all the weird sounds and smells are and that kind of thing.

Exercise helps considerably. Part of stress is tension and it's impossible to be both tense and relaxed at the same time. After a couple hours at the gym, my muscles can just barely tense for like, walking, much less sitting around being irate.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:00 PM on August 26, 2013 [8 favorites]

I never get too upset about what's happening in my life, in terms of my work and art. I try to keep it all in perspective. What's the worst that can happen here really? etc. I try to recognize that this is all part of it - and if I want to keep moving forward, which I do, then I have to accept this feeling - and I have to accept that failure is possible. Failure leads to learning, which leads to moving forward.

But also keep in mind this type of thinking can go both ways.

I'm the type of person that also doesn't get too ecstatic about things. So if you want the highs you have to take some lows too.
posted by miles1972 at 1:22 AM on August 27, 2013

I used to be one of those people, and honestly, I would not have been able to answer your question. I did not have a strategy, because that would imply that I saw stuff happening around me as a potential problem and tried to avoid that problem. But actually I never saw most things as affecting me at all. I guess I mostly lived in my own head and that was a nice place to be. I got depressed a few years back and had a pretty hard time, and my head was no longer a nice place to be and I started paying more attention to the world around me, and also catastrophising about external things, and exaggerating how much they might impact my life, and while I now have that mostly under control, I think I am nowadays more average in my flusterability. My zen superpowers have gone :(

My brother is still like that, and I think it honestly does not ever occur to him that other people around him who are angry or stressed or running around like headless chickenses might be thinking about him at all. So he doesn't think about them either, and certainly doesn't do the whole "what if they think X of me?" or "what if they expect me to Y?" shit that I now engage in. He just goes on about his business. If his business is what is crazy and stressful looking, he just does one task at a time, and if he doesn't finish, or doesn't make a deadline, it never occurs to him that someone might blame him, because he did what he could.
posted by lollusc at 1:45 AM on August 27, 2013

I feel you. I recently posted a similar(ish) question:

Since then, upon the advice of many who answered, I have been doing the Take Ten free meditation course (I've doubled back and started again from the beginning since reaching the end of the course).

It has been surprisingly helpful although not something you realise at the time. I was recently having an annoying interaction with a family member, and instead of losing my temper, I mentally took a step back, registered my annoyance, and then replied calmly and extricated myself from the conversation.

Similarly, I have found it easier to handle a couple of worrying situations that have come up. I just take this mental step back, acknowledge to myself that yes, I am worried about something, and simply the act of accepting and not fighting my worry tends to help with the fight-or-flight reaction, the tension and internal mental drama. Because you're not in the thick of the worry, you know? You're on the outside, looking in. And meditation really helped with that mental 'stepping back'. I've realised that this is the same as 'mindfulness'. I didn't know what it was!

But if I said that it was easy I'd be lying. The meditation really, really helps though; do try it.

Also, accept that you might just not be a calm person. And that's OK. Worrying is a survival trait and is there for a reason. If we were still cavemen, you'd be one of the ones who avoided getting eaten by sabre-toothed tigers. (So would I; we could hang out!) Accept yourself for who you are.
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:31 AM on August 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

My girlfriend and I are basically exact opposites concerning dealing with stress and crises. She will get heated, panic, and flail around a lot, while I feel like I take a much more collected approach to dealing with them. Where the difference lies, I think, is in our mindsets towards problem solving - she has to have as much information as possible and pick the best solution out of all possible solutions (which first means finding all possible solutions), and I tend to be more of a "shoot first and ask questions later" type of person.

That isn't to say that either method is better or worse (and in fact, given plenty of time to sit and reflect on a problem I'm sure hers is much better), but when there's a time-limited problem then I feel that action - any action - is better than no action. And actually doing something feels better than waiting for more information to come in, because it's just going to be idle time feeling helpless and increasingly inundated.

As far as the "nobody's died" mantra, I HAVE been in a situation where I could have gotten myself and my father killed if I had panicked and not acted rationally. In that case (and other non-life threatening situations), I can agree with others above that a certain detachment takes over. The thought that generally fills my mind during situations like these is, "What needs to happen right now?" Forget the larger problem as a whole focus on what small step you can take immediately to get you out of immediate danger, then deal with what happens after that when you get to it.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:19 AM on August 27, 2013

I'm generally calm, and these are some examples of my mental disposition that helps me be this way:

* I keep in mind that yesterday's frustrations never bother me today so much. I actively think about whether the present situation is going to bother me tomorrow.
* I manage IT operations and basically deal with broken and urgent stuff all the time. It doesn't help anyone for me to get in a tizzy. I just focus on working the problem, not how the problem makes me feel.
* Anger or feelings rarely contribute anything to the solution. I think some people choose to be a part of the drama, but I want to be part of the solution. My feelings and emotions just delay my time getting to what needs to be done.

I guess my approach is pretty much to suppress the anxiety because it seems a bit artificial in modern society. If a sharp toothed predator is chasing me down I'll get anxious about that, but I refuse to let people push my buttons because the foozit isn't interfacing with the whatzit. In a shared mental construct we have decided that first world obligations and expectations are important, but deep down we know they aren't.

As an aside, doing this can really piss some people off. There are a few cases where I have to play along with the game and give off a bit of emotional energy for people who will just make matters worse because they can't understand that I work the problem without acting like I care about it. I find this extremely presumptive of them, but I think they don't realize they have been playing their assigned role of drama for the corporation so long that forgot that they had a choice.
posted by dgran at 7:19 AM on August 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Very small, practical tip: Follow Buddhism Now on Twitter. Regardless of whether Buddhism appeals to you, they tweet some wonderful, practical, calming thoughts throughout the day. They often arrive at the perfect time, for me.
posted by jbickers at 7:40 AM on August 27, 2013

Just enjoy the ride.

I worked with an engineer from another company. We were testing the equipment his company provided in the lab when it literally started smoking and shaking. I panicked: "OMG, this is terrible!" The other engineer was almost gleeful: "No, no, we are learning something!"

I've remembered that reaction for many years. When others are freaking out, I just try to ride the wave and be conscious of the things I'm learning along the way.
posted by Doohickie at 7:43 AM on August 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: These are some fantastic answers, ya'll. :)
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 8:21 AM on August 27, 2013

Regular (daily) yoga and meditation practice has changed my life in this regard.
posted by corn_bread at 9:25 AM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

When I'm in a crunch, I try to use every organizational skill I possess. Lists, prioritization, getting help from others, delegating, and just plain working my tail off. On a good day at work, I can manage stuff with no sweat, but when it gets crazy, I have to use all the tools I can.
posted by theora55 at 11:58 AM on August 27, 2013

scody: I really do try to keep my internal freakout meter calibrated pretty heavily to the IS IT CANCER? NO? THEN IT'S COOL side of things.

Yes, this. (I was going to say something similar, but in poorer taste.)

"Ain't no sense worryin' about the things you got control over, 'cause if you got control over 'em, ain't no sense worryin'. And ain't no sense worryin' about the things you don't got control over, 'cause if you don't got control over 'em, ain't no sense worryin'.”--Mickey Rivers

posted by RedOrGreen at 1:14 PM on August 27, 2013

I ask myself, "Ok, so if this goes all the way south, are they going to write about it on your tombstone? 'Here Lies Kythuen, Who Failed To Produce a Community Health Care Brochure On Deadline Like She Promised...'"

Odds are, the answer is no.

And now, thanks to EmpressCallipygos, I'm going to be adding "Will any children die?" to my repertoire. :)

Plus, I learned a while back that work stress is generally a result of poor planning. So I plan the HELL out of my own work, well in advance, leaving nothing to chance. And if someone else's poor planning results in a tight deadline or a stressful situation, or if something happens that couldn't be anticipated, I can always tell myself I did everything I could to prevent it, and it's not my fault. If it's not my fault, if there's nothing I could have done, then there's no point in ME being all tense about it; my job is just to do the next thing that needs to be done to make it better.
posted by kythuen at 3:03 PM on August 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

My father taught me this attitude. One thing he often says is: "Past results are the best predictor of future results." Have you had this experience before? Did it turn out OK? It probably will again.

Also, "Worry is wasted mental energy." Summed up in this awesome flowchart.
posted by huckit at 3:38 PM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mindfulness meditation + improv (which I refer to as "extreme mindfulness meditation"). Both AskMe-recommended, both worth the price of admission a hundred times over.
posted by stuck on an island at 3:44 PM on August 27, 2013

Not only will a lot of things not matter 100 years from now, a lot of things won't matter an hour from now, or 8 hours, or 24 hours.

I worry and stress all the time, about everything,

IME, people who worry a lot seem to have kind of a hard time differentiating between things they CAN control, and things they CAN'T control - or at least seem to spend just as much if not more time & effort worrying about the things they can't control.

And that's a waste of time & energy.

There are things in this world you absolutely can't control - but you CAN control your response to these situations and events.

I do live sound production for concerts & other events, and of course during the months when it's not snowing (and even occasionally when it is snowing . . . .), a lot of these events take place outside.

I can't control the weather. Unpossible. No way, nohow, never happen. Worrying ahead of time about whether it will rain or not or how hard and how long is an awful lot of effort for absolutely zero return.

I can PREPARE for rain - bring a hat and a raincoat, bring tarps to cover equipment, keep a close eye on the weather radar on my phone, look for dark clouds, sudden drops in temperature, if rain looks & feels very very likely I unfold the tarps & position them so a quick swoop will cover things, if it feels & looks imminent I tell the band to stop playing and prepare for rain, I know where the electrical power is so I can turn off or disconnect quickly (water & electricity don't play well together).

Worrying about "What if it rains?" is pointless. Worrying about "What will I do if or when it rains?" is useful. There is a difference.

A big part of both "fake it til you make it" and "learning from experience" is, well, actually thinking about how you responded to stressful situations once they're over and you're in a calmer frame of mind. And not just what you did wrong, but what you did right, because you probably did at least a few things right, and you want to repeat those things the next time a situation occurs. If all you do is wipe your brow and go, "Whew! Got though that one by dumb luck and the skin of my teeth!" you'll wind up just as stressed the next time disaster looms.

And then as you get a few situations under your belt, and you get through them, a few things happen:

You gain confidence, because at the end of the day everyone survived and the job got done. It may have been difficult, but if you got through it once, you can get through it again.

You gain perspective on the difference between things you can control and things you can't control. Once you understand & recognize the difference, it's easier to stop worrying about things you can't control.

You gain some perspective on, well, your perspective - YOU may have felt like you were in the middle of World War 3, but others around you may have thought a situation was just business as usual, or may not have noticed anything going awry at all.

It can also help, I think, to do some people-watching as you go about your day, and observe how the different ways they react to stressful situations can lead to different results. Lines are getting long at the store? The cashier who puts her head down and focuses on the task has the fastest-moving line, and the one who cheerfully calls out, "Sorry about the delay, folks, holiday weekends can be pretty crazy" has a bunch of mildly-amused customers who aren't so huffy about the wait. While the cashier who's panicking is making mistake after mistake, slowing things down even more, making the people in the line more and more annoyed.

And if you can recognize that calmer reactions can get better results, you can resolve to put more effort into figuring out how to be the calm person solving problems, not the panicky person creating more problems.
posted by soundguy99 at 5:09 PM on August 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I tend to be more unflappable when I've gotten enough sleep, fed myself appropriately and have been exercising like I should. Also if I'm too hot (in the literal sense) it can exacerbate a stressful conversation and I start spiraling into panic attack abyss. Always have important discussions near air conditioners!
posted by pwally at 8:28 PM on August 27, 2013

Maybe you’ve got too much to do at work, deadlines are looming and your boss is breathing down your neck. Or customers are piling up at your register and starting to get huffy. Perhaps you’ve got guests staying for a couple of weeks, your house is much too crowded for comfort, people are starting to bicker and you can’t seem to get ahead of the mess.

Become self employed. Worry that you won't be able to cover basic needs for your family or even be deeply in debt if things don't go well at work. Get job with deadlines and boss, realize you will still have a check coming for at least a weeks work even if you get fired that day, and relax.

Alternately, save up money to cover expenses while finding a new job, and if your boss breathing down your neck gets to be too much, know that you can walk out right then and your boss will have those troubles all to themselves. Tell boss they have two choices, they can quit breathing down your neck and let you work, or you can walk right then.

Customers? Get job serving customers who bring groups of 16 screaming children that throw spaghetti everywhere, while additional large groups with more people than the place can hold show up and complain about having to wait. How easy those few people bickering at the register seem after that.

Have guests for a few weeks who are visiting a dying family member that you are the primary caregiver for. Mess becomes the last thing on your list of concerns, but you still clean up from the backed up sewer, because no one else has done it, and the bathroom does need to actually work.

Getting cancer was on the stressful side of things, certainly, but unlike scody I drew no great epiphanies from it. Not panicking is a habit you can develop.

what goes through your mind when you find yourself in a pressure-cooker situation?

My lower bound for what constitutes a pressure-cooker situation is way up there, and frankly I don't really feel like those come up to often these days. (Except for needles. Awful.) Just one foot in front of the other I suppose, either work on solving the problem or realize it isn't a problem that needs to be solved -- sometimes, nothing much happens if the "problem" isn't solved. Occasionally solve problem while thinking about how much I hate having to do the thing I'm doing, complain about necessity of doing it.

I do stress about low pressure things, if they are things I really dislike doing. For those, just getting them over with helps. And it's OK to think about how much you hate doing the thing and wish you didn't have to do it. Sometimes you can distract yourself during the worst part. (ex: ask the phlebotomist to talk to you about something else.) Being able to joke about things afterwords helps too, and sometimes you need friends with a certain sense of humor to do that with.

If you have some regular source of daily stress, have a routine to unwind from that, or it builds up.
posted by yohko at 9:00 PM on August 27, 2013

I really just think I'm wired that way.

It's a blessing and a curse, though--I'm an improviser by nature, which means that I'm awesome when unexpected shit comes up or makes contact with fans because I can roll with the punches and adjust on the fly without discombobulation. But it also means that unexpected shit comes up a lot.

My brother is the opposite--a serious planner who frays under unexpected pressure. Since he can't possibly plan for everything, he is frequently bent out of shape by the old vicissitudes and vagaries. But he prevents an awful lot more of those than I do because he does plan a lot of shit out.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 2:35 AM on August 28, 2013

I think I am just wired this way too. I consider myself pathologically calm - there are probably times that I don't get stressed or worked up enough. (And even so, there are things that stress the heck out of me - my specific phobias, or when I just have way too many things going on and I just get overloaded.)

How I deal with the things that do stress me out depends on the circumstances. With pregnancy anxiety my mantra was not to worry about something until I had something concrete to worry about - it didn't work perfectly, but it helped. With flying, I tell myself a lot of things, like planes are statistically very safe. I also practice deep breathing and don't drink caffeine on the day of flight.
posted by semacd at 10:45 AM on August 28, 2013

Sometimes I get stressed out and flustered by work situations, and then something really big happens, like trying to sort out relatives with mental health issues, and work seems like an oasis of calm in comparison! It is really about the relative importance of events, and realising that most of this stuff is trivial - so how can you do that?

Well first,
I'm still going to have food, and a roof over my head, and hey, worst case I have a tent, which means I'll still be more sorted than a lot of people in human history. Awesome. I'm sorted and secure.

Better, is - Do something occasionally/semi-regularly that does get your adrenaline pumping - say rock climb, and then fall (while harnessed) from the top, or some kind of sport or martial art, or give a speech if that kind of freaks you out. You're not aiming for scared, but heart pumping and excited - it has very similar physiological effects, but one is more fun.
See, your brain judges things by their *relative* importance. If you're not doing anything that wigs you out even a bit, it judges the biggest stress you have at the moment, even if it's just a frequent low-level stress, as the BIGGEST STRESS YOU ARE EXPERIENCING.
So, bam, shake it up occasionally to reset that relative importance scale.
People assume people in stressful jobs do fun adrenaline-junkie hobby things because they're adrenaline junkies, but I often wonder if it's the other way round - e.g. the hobby allows them to treat their normal everyday life as less-stressful.

Secondly, the *number* of things I have to worry about, stresses me out more than the *size* of the issue I am worrying about. If there is one big thing, then awesome, I have a clear priority, and frankly everything else can go hang. There's a real clarity to having that, and you can totally be calm and collected once you have that one thing to get sorted. People often get flustered when they can't decide which thing is the priority, and that's when they tend to failboat.
Also, if I have a bunch of things to stress about, I think they just churn round and round in my head, on rotation, as my brain tries to make sure it doesn't forget any. As soon as you get past 4 things, this starts to happen.
That's when the amazing civilised trick of having lists and calendars comes into it's own. It has to be a trusted list. You have to know that you will be reminded of the Important Thing, whether because it's a list you frequently check, something is actually going to start beeping at you, or you put it on a huge whiteboard you then stapled to your face, for your brain to trust that you can take it off the mental merry-go-round/reminder/churn list.
It is your job NOT to worry about things, except when you are scheduled to worry about it. Every time you do worry about stuff you can't yet do anything about, you are wasting your mental energy you need to cope with stress later. That's what people are doing when they nut on about 'GTD' etc. They know what their next action is (even if it's 'google for possible solutions to this problem', and they know they're going to get reminded to do that.
Every single item you take off that mental churn list is that little bit more mental energy to deal with life around you.

Trust that you can deal with shit. That you'll help yourself, and ask for help, and that food/shelter/etc is sorted.
Priorities man! Actually, priorities, I'm going to bounce back to my first point - shelter. I'm generally calm in a crisis, and yet a boyfriend years ago was fascinated that he'd finally seen me a bit stressed out (I was still coping fine) - because 7 of us were going to be homeless in the near future, which was going to stretch our social coping mechanisms a fair bit.
And - yes? Roof over ones head, this seems to be a fair thing to get worried about? Thing is, he'd get stressed all the time, about someone saying something mean, or the car, or something not installing, blah blah blah, and while he was worried about the homeless thing, it's like he reacted to everything like it was doom, and was used to me telling him not to spazz out (I didn't tell him not to spazz out, I was much more soothing and sympathetic). But honestly, some things are a bigger deal. Check out maslows hierarchy. Bottom rung? That's important.
In the western world, we generally don't deal with it. I have a mental game called 'Survive!'. I survive, my friends and family are surviving? I'm winning!
I get bonus points for surviving in comfort. When a camping trip/festival/night out with drunken people has really gone wrong, I get everyone to play basic-level 'Survive!' with me, and we make sure everyone is warm, sheltered, fed, watered, and not injured/ill. Social dramas take distant second place to the game of survive.

Finally - social stress.
Make sure game of survive has been played before you try dealing with social drama (are you/they hangry? Tired, dirty, cold, ill?). It also puts things back into their relative level of importance.
Life will go on. You just be as professional as you can.
Sometimes I go into the bathroom if I've really picked up on the tension, and just run my hands under cold water as I mentally let go of other peoples issues.
posted by Elysum at 8:21 PM on August 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

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