Grace under fire
July 20, 2006 11:22 AM   Subscribe

How can I learn to keep a cool head in stressful situations ?

Everyone knows that in times of high stress/crisis/sudden emergencies/etc certain people have their sh*t together and coolly and calmly start dealing with the problem at hand while others (like me) either freeze to the spot or run around freaking out. How can I learn to be more like the cool, calm and collected types when these situations arise ?
posted by cobrien to Human Relations (21 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
It's a bit a bootstrap problem—you need to learn to stay calm enough to make a point of staying calm.

Take a deep breath and look at the situation as a problem. Remove yourself from the crisis—from the details that will pull at you emotionally and make muddle your judgement—and consider what needs doing. Are there clear steps that can be taken to start to mitigate/solve the crisis? Take them, or explain to someone else what needs to be done. Are there unhelpful things going on? Explain why they need to stop and how.

Crisis management is all about exerting the willpower to remove yourself from emotional involvement in the crisis. Looking at it as a problem to be solved rather than a shit that is happening to/around you makes all the difference.
posted by cortex at 11:34 AM on July 20, 2006

Do you drink a lot of coffee? I've switched to drinking green tea these days, and it's kept my spazz-outs to an acceptable minimum. According to my wife, anyway ;-)

Seriously, though, the buzz is just a bit more even-keel, and for that I am happy. Gimme crisis. I'm ready...
posted by diastematic at 11:55 AM on July 20, 2006

Even if you don't feel calm inside, act it. No-one will ever know.
posted by unSane at 11:56 AM on July 20, 2006

Part of being calm is in confidently knowing how to act in an emergency. I think it's bullshit to suggest that people are born with it or instantly know in the moment what to do. In my experience, people who have thought about potential situations and have determined their own actions beforehand are much more likely to act upon their thoughts instinctually when the time comes. Of course, there are people who immediately forget what to do and freeze, but I'd imagine that practicing (mentally) will help prepare you for anything.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 12:02 PM on July 20, 2006

Sometimes those of us that look calm & collected are really thinking "OHSHIT! OHSHIT!" on the inside.

Trust me on this one.


Oh, and take a breath and remember - it's not *your* emergency. Freaking out will only make matters worse. taking a deep breath is a good idea.
posted by drstein at 12:05 PM on July 20, 2006

First things first, understand that stress normally creates a feedback loop that makes us more stressed. Try to deveop a more balanced worldview in times when you are not stressed out. When the "f-it hits the sh-an" we always exhibit our worst personality traits. The time to work on making meaningful change in your life is when everything is going smoothly, not when things are going poorly.

Give yourself time to think about why and how you handle stress poorly. Spend some time each day in meditation and/or prayer. Work on cultivating peace in your soul by spendding 10 to 15 minutes each day on this. It's just as important as stretching is before you tax your body.

cortex is right to tell you to take a deep breath. Because breathing is an involuntary action, we tend to not be aware that during times of stress we aren't breathing enough. Everytime you feel stress levels rising start taking deep, slow breaths and try to focus on something else for a moment.

Best of luck.
posted by perelman at 12:05 PM on July 20, 2006

Flip the problem over. Why are you in so many high stress situations that you've even noticed the problem in the first place? Focus on taking steps to address problematic areas before they get out of control. This is why cops and fire fighters appear calm -- they've trained to deal with problems and they carry tools to deal with problems.

So ... let's say you'e been in a minor car accident.

You can freak out and run around ... Or ...

You can whip out the fire extinguisher, disposal camera, pencil, pad of paper, the little card you carry in your wallet reminding you what to do (treat the wounded, get the info, draw a sketch, etc).

Voila! You are an island of calm in a stressful situation. Why? Because you are prepared.
posted by frogan at 12:08 PM on July 20, 2006

Agreeing with both cortex and unSane. unSane's answer may sound goofy at first, but if you do this not only will no-one else know, but it'll actually help you not totally freak out. Getting worked up in these situations seems to be a sort of feedback loop for some people. If you can cut it off early and slow the mind down from racing, not hyperventilate, etc, that's gotta help.
On preview yeah, yeah, yeah.
posted by zoinks at 12:10 PM on July 20, 2006

Definitely practice. Whenever you see someone in 'trouble' be it at the side of the road, think about if you were in their situation what would you do. Obviously you'll never know the details, just make something up and sketch out a rough idea of what you'd do.

A morbid example: Rubbernecking delays on the highway and you pass a flipped car. If you had been the first to respond, what would be the most important thing to do? What would your next action be? What if you were in the car?

You'll never remember the details but thats OK because they don't matter. The important part is training your brain to look at situations like that in a critical way, to examine the options cooly and rationally. In a real emergency you sink to the level of your training and this constant informal scenario planning helps build up a little bit of training.

The next time you experience a chaotic scenario, try to go back and, without second-guessing yourself, see what you got right and what you got wrong and how you could have reacted differently.

On Preview: what SeizeTheDay said :)

On The Son Of Preview: Looking calm also helps others not get crazy themselves.
posted by Skorgu at 12:15 PM on July 20, 2006

For crises/emergencies? I ignore the gazillion things running around in my head, which include thoughts that only escalate stress levels (predictions of doom, fears that I won't or can't handle it, etc.) and focus on one question only: what needs to happen right now? I then immediately take action while focusing on the next step, and on, and on, until I am through it and it is safe to break down into tears/panic/what have you.

Calm has nothing to do with it, for me. I just redirect the adrenaline rush into that pinpoint focus.

(This from a former adrenaline junkie who used to confront life-and-death emergencies on a daily basis.)
posted by moira at 12:29 PM on July 20, 2006

If you can look outwardly calm and collected for the first 30 seconds of an emergency where others are losing it, people will pay attention to you, and tend to follow any suggestions you make. Looking calm is very effective in drawing calm from others, which immediately reduces stress in group situations. Cooperation from others is very conducive to rational thought.
posted by paulsc at 12:30 PM on July 20, 2006

I also want to note that having a balanced world view and remaining stress-free outside of crises didn't make a bit of difference, but that's just me.
posted by moira at 12:32 PM on July 20, 2006

Two more points -

I'm one of the calm ones. My stress reactions are usually delayed until after I've taken care of business. While some of this seems to be natural to me, a lot of it also has to do with a combination of confidence and preparedness. As others have said, brainstorming solutions to possible crisis situations is good. But I would highly recommend taking a good, thorough first aid class, and possibly an accredited outdoor/urban survival course. These will provide you with two of the most important mental tools available: knowledge and experience. I would also recommend finding a way to put yourself in a few carefully controlled stressful situations, such as whitewater rafting with a professional guide (or really any other carefully moderated "risky" activity), so that you can begin to trust yourself. Learning to expect a high level of performance from oneself is of the best first steps to accomplishing it.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 12:40 PM on July 20, 2006

I've been told I'm perfectly calm in real emergencies involving people needing doctors and things being on fire, but I freak out in mini-emergencies like having a catering service preparing a wrong order. Strangely, I actually react the same in both situations (immediate rushed reaction to fix things, contact the right people etc.) and while this looks crazy-stressed in dealing with the catering service for an event a week from now, it suddenly seems like "in charge" when finding doctors in tiny French villages. So I guess I turn my spazzed reactions into useful actions, and people don't notice that I'm actually stressed unless it's a minor thing that's not supposed to induce stress.
posted by easternblot at 12:45 PM on July 20, 2006

Easternblot and I have the same experience. I have a triage mentality when dealing with a lot of stresful situations and sometimes I do a poor job at differentiating or choosing when this is appropriate to do and when it is not.

For me, being calm in an emergency IS a way of shutting down. I remove all the emotional noise (usually it's good to pay attention to others' emotions, this response is a problem over time, but not an immediate problem), then try to remove the chaotic noise (hearing this usually keeps us alert to stimulus that is important, removing it when there is already stimulus to deal with is not bad) and my own personal noise (usually just OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT). The way I explain it to people is that the situation suddenly turns into a complicated math problem where a bunch of rapid choices need to be made in a decision tree. Part of the early set of choices are "ignore other people" and "ignore yourself" if whatever needs to be dealt with is complicated by those variables.

From there, it's mostly being able to

- assess what needs doing at that precise moment
- do that, get someone to do that, or figure out how to do that
- reassess immediately and figure out what needs to happen next
- repeat.

Some of it is being able to sense quickly what is happening and how that is or is not changing, part of it is being decisive and deciding to decide, and part of it is being able to convince other people that you're worth listening to. If you're not the person that others are listening to, try to be someone who can help that person with minimal intrusion of your own wants, needs or issues if they're not central to the task at hand. I literally think "I am a robot" and move to take or give orders.

A lot of this sort of behavior is what folks in the military do and why discipline is so important. You can argue about whether this is good or bad, but for many their job is to hear an order and go DO IT without all the dithering about how that situation affects THEM and second guessing what people are telling them. You can appreciate and understand the discipline angle without joining the army, and that might be a place to start as well, with exploring the idea of discipline and thinking about how it works in your own mind and organizations.
posted by jessamyn at 1:05 PM on July 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

posted by Ironmouth at 1:30 PM on July 20, 2006

I'm usually pretty calm in an emergency. I think cuz:

1) I have put myself in stessful situations a lot so I'm used to them. Stress that I'm not experienced with (public speaking for example) still makes me panic, while getting stopped by the police (which has happened to me with an odd frequency) doesn't wig me out mostly because I'm experienced with it.

2) I tend to feel like I need to be the responsible person in a given situation. I take calm charge because I feel that I have to. That has it's annoying sides too.
posted by serazin at 1:50 PM on July 20, 2006

Preparation. The paramedics or whatever can deal with emergencies because they have trained, trained and trained some more for the various situations they encounter. You freeze because your brain can't prioritize what it's seeing well enough to know what to do next. Through training, you can get past that because you will KNOW what to do without having to go through the whole decision tree in real time (it will already have been done for you through the training).
posted by Doohickie at 1:52 PM on July 20, 2006

I'm also one of those people who gets most calm under stress. I never really evaluated why, but the general feeling of it, from the inside, is that it's a matter of having to get stuff DONE and every other concern falls by the wayside (and then I freak out once it's all over). I think it may have something to do with having grown up the only halfway-sane person in a family where everything was constantly falling apart - just holding myself together, as a child, was probably a full-time job.
posted by matildaben at 2:45 PM on July 20, 2006

In my experience, there are 3 types of people in an emergency:
1. People who know what to do, then do it
2. People who want to help, but need to be told what to do
3. People who run around screaming

The people in the second group are very useful when they are directed to specific tasks. The people in the first group depend on these people. If it looks like someone is taking charge, ask them what you can do to help, then focus your attention on carrying out the task at hand. If nothing else, try to keep the people in the third group far away. This helps a lot. If you do this enough, you may find yourself becoming the person who knows what to do, then does it.
posted by kamikazegopher at 2:47 PM on July 20, 2006

Does no one read Kipling any more?
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:31 PM on July 20, 2006

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