Let’s say you’ve got a presentation to give at work. You spent weeks putting together the research. Practiced on anyone who would listen. Set up early and made sure everything was ready.
You launch into your talk and then Bam! Out of the blue, your boss hits you with a “I don’t think this is quite right…”
All of a sudden, your heart starts pounding. Your palms go slick and you feel your face heating up and turning red. The last thing you’re thinking about is staying calm.
If you haven’t been in this exact situation, I guarantee you’ve been in one just like it. As Mike Tyson famously said,
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
But what can we do?
To be truly productive at work, we need to learn to control our emotions and handle unexpected stress. And what better place to learn than from the world’s most stressful profession?
Here’s the best tips we found from bomb disposals experts on how to stay calm on the job.
The moments leading up to the stress bomb: Preparation and practice
It may sound unbelievable, but study after study has shown that when bomb disposal experts come face to face with a piece of equipment that could end their life, their heart rate actually goes down.
When your life is literally on the line, there’s no room to get overwhelmed by stress. Most of us would kill for that level of zen-like calm during a stressful situation. So how do they do it?
Andy Torbet, a 5-year bomb disposal veteran in the British armed forces explains that controlling your stress response comes down to being confident in the skills and tools you’ve acquired:
“The effort and stress should come before this point, in the months spent getting good enough to do this job, in the weeks spent preparing for this operation and in the last few minutes sorting out the plan.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t be blindsided by unexpected questions or issues.
However, Torbet says these should be handled as much as possible in advance, by thinking through every negative scenario and coming up with a contingency plan for each. In the army, they call this Threat Assessment: Identifying and understanding what could threaten your success beforehand and dealing with it.
“If my main source of breathing gas fails on a deep dive to 50 feet but I have the perfect back up system to hand and bail out onto so I can safely ascend is that a close call?
“I’d say no. I’d already identified the potential risk and had put a system in place to deal with it before it ever happened so when it did it seems like all just part of the plan.”
In your work environment, this means looking at your project or decision from an outsider’s perspective. Where could they potentially poke holes? Can you identify these issues beforehand and be prepared to talk about them?
The first 15 seconds: How to stay calm in the face of unexpected stress
Now, as we said before, despite all the time you put into practicing and training, unexpected issues can still arise. When this happens, Torbet says you need to first recognize and accept that you’re in a mental state of stress.
Our bodies react to stress the same way we react to physical danger. So you might feel your palms start to sweat, your heart rate rise, or even become slightly jittery from the adrenaline.
This is a good thing. The faster you can identify the signs of stress, the quicker you can put yourself in the right frame of mind to deal with it in a calm and collected way.
Torbet suggests taking a second to detach yourself from the situation until you have your stress response under control. At work, this could mean pausing to take a few deep breaths, stepping away from a conversation over IM or email, or asking to physically take a short break while you collect your thoughts.
What to do once the stress bomb goes off: Staying calm and making the right decision
If you can’t get away and you have to deal with the stressful situation on the spot, there are still some exercises you can borrow from the bomb disposal experts to help you stay calm.
When writer Eric Barker interviewed a Navy EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) team lead (who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons) he provided this 3-step plan for dealing with moments of extreme stress.
Step 1: Avoid the “Rabbit Hole”
When you’re faced with a stressful situation and have to make a choice, it’s easy to fall into the “What if” game. You feel panic rising and your brain starts running through every possible scenario.
And while this might seem like a good way to solve the problem it’s actually taking you further away.
EOD’s call this the “rabbit hole,” and teach that to get out of it, you need to stop your mind from spiralling out of control:
“Think about a similar situation you’ve been in before that looked like this one. How did you resolve it? What worked? Maybe you’ve never been in a situation exactly like the current one, but that’s okay. Generalize. You’ve probably dealt with something that was kinda similar or you’ve seen someone else do it.”
If you’ve been at your job for any length of time you’ve certainly had to defend or justify your choices in the past. Don’t let your brain run wild. Instead, think back to those moments and see how you can apply what you learned to the situation you’re in now.
Step 2: Emphasize the positive and focus on what you can control
Once you’ve stopped the rabbit hole spiral, you need to home in on what you can actually control. Which is harder than it sounds. Our brains are wired to look out for threats, which means it’s all too easy to focus in on the negative rather than the positives.
Barker’s EOD tells the story of his own superior officer who found himself trying to defuse a mine underwater when he became stuck and couldn’t move his hands or feet.
Rather than panic about what he couldn’t do, however, he chose to focus on the positives:
“If you can wiggle your fingers, the line that’s wrapped around you or whatever situation you’re in, if you can do one little thing to make it a little bit better, then do that. If you can do another thing and then another thing, then you can have cascading positivity as opposed to spiralling negativity.”
Rather than feeling attacked or blindsided by a question or negative feedback, focus on what you can control. You can’t be expected to know everything all the time. So let go of that expectation and start with what you do know and go from there.
Step 3: Make the choice and know your next step
Now that you’re in control and staying positive, the final step is to make a choice. Neuroscientists have discovered that making decisions can actually reduce worry and anxiety and can even change your perspective of the world. Which is exactly what the EOD explained:
“When you have something to concentrate on, your mind can remain focused no matter what’s happening. If you were sitting there and had no idea what to do, that would be really terrifying. But when you have the next step in your mind, then that’s what you focus on.”
But what do you do if you don’t know what choice to make?
If you’re totally lost, it’s time to return to step 2. But this time, listen to the thoughts racing through your head and ask each one: “is this helpful?”
Slowly, you’ll weed out the distractions that are just there to derail you.
“Then all of a sudden, you’re back into your rational thought and away from any kind of selfish fear.”
Our brains work better when we have something to focus and concentrate on. So shift your thinking from “what’s happening?” to “where do we go next?”
Following up and staying committed to your choices
You’ve done a good job so far, but you’re not quite out of the woods. It’s easy to question yourself when you’ve made a choice under duress. But what every bomb disposal expert agrees on is that you have to avoid the dreaded “what if?”
“What if?” questions compound fear and take you out of a positive mindset. If you can’t seem to shake them, it’s a good idea to call a trusted friend or mentor for support.
Not only will this help keep you grounded, but someone who isn’t emotionally invested in the situation will be able to see the dilemma from a different perspective. You might even come up with new ideas just from talking about the issue out loud.
Stressful situations can come up at any time in work and life. But we don’t have to be blindsided by them. As the British writer James Allen explains:
“The more tranquil a man becomes, the greater is his success, his influence, his power for good. Calmness of mind is one of the beautiful jewels of wisdom.”
Stay calm. While your choices might not be life and death, you can learn a lot from those who face life-threatening situations every day. If they can make it, I’m sure you can too.