Mental Health

Stress at work: control it and you can beat it

A trader reacts after the closing bell of the New York Stock Exchange on November 5, 2008. U.S. stocks plummeted on Wednesday, a day after Barack Obama's historic victory in the U.S. presidential election, as a fresh batch of dismal economic data underscored the massive challenges awaiting his administration.  REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (UNITED STATES) - RTXAAW0

Eric Potterat reveals his best advice for combatting stress at work. Image: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Shana Lebowitz
Strategy Reporter, Business Insider
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"When one examines the elite cohorts on the planet — whether you're an elite athlete or an elite military member — it's pretty clear that the way that they handle stress is not by accident."

So says Eric Potterat, the former head psychologist for the US Navy SEALs.

Potterat, who is now the scientific adviser at Thync, which produces wearable technology that helps reduce stress, told Business Insider about eight techniques those elite cohorts typically learn.

He said the overarching theme behind all of them is that stress is under your control. Meaning that even if you can't entirely avoid external pressures, you can decide how you react to them.

"If you control stress, you control performance in any environment," he said.

Potterat thinks that anyone —not just elite performers — can learn these techniques and start making them into habits. We've rounded them up below, along with details on how you can implement them in your daily life.

1. Develop a performance routine

This is a routine you practice either the night before or the day of the high-stakes situation.

Maybe you listen to a certain song or wear a lucky article of clothing. It's about getting into that peak-performance mindset.

As Kristin Keim, a sports psychologist who trains Olympic athletes, previously told Business Insider, routines go back to that idea of controlling what you can — even if it's just what color shirt you wear.

2. Break down big goals into smaller pieces

Potterat said we're often affected negatively by stress because we're overwhelmed by the entire feat we have to accomplish.

That's why it's important to use what Potterat calls "segmenting": chopping up big goals into smaller pieces. "If you're thrust into a seemingly overwhelming, stressful situation, the best thing you can do is just kind of manage one step at a time and focus on what's controllable," he said.

For example, say you're about to give an important presentation at work. You can make the situation less intimidating by breaking that presentation into manageable pieces, Potterat said. Focus on getting through three minutes at a time.

"Good coaches and athletes know this inherently," Potterat added.

3. Visualize success

When Potterat talks about visualization, he means using as many senses as possible. So say you're an elite swimmer. What will the competition feel, smell, and even taste like — both before you win and when you win?

If you're heading into a job interview, don't just rehearse your answers to commonly asked questions — imagine what the meeting room will look like and what the chair you sit on will feel like. That way, you'll feel less overwhelmed and more confident when you walk in.

"The reason visualization or imagery works as a stress mitigator," Potterat said, "is because the first time your mind sees it in reality, you've been practicing it already."

4. Control your arousal levels

When you get nervous, your body typically displays a fight-or-flight response. Your blood pressure increases, your arteries get tighter, and your heart rate shoots up.

You can kickstart the relaxation response through "tactical breathing," or taking slow, deep breaths. It's what Potterat calls the body's "built-in brake system," and it's a way of convincing your body and mind that you're relaxed instead of anxious, so that all those stress symptoms start to disappear.

All it takes is five minutes before that big presentation, even if you have to hide in the bathroom.

5. Engage in positive self-talk

Positive self-talk is not, Potterat said, about telling yourself "everything is okay."

Instead it's about managing your negative, destructive thoughts when you're in a stressful situation. Again, it goes back to what you can control — maybe not your coworker's performance, but what you think about your coworker's performance.

When you catch yourself catastrophizing — deciding you're going to perform terribly and there's nothing you can do about it — ask yourself if there's anything you can do about it.

6. Do some contingency planning

In the days or even weeks before a stressful event, Potterat recommends coming up with as many contingency plans as possible. So not just a Plan A and B — a Plan C, D, and E, just in case.

Imagine situations in which "something we didn't predict or didn't think could happen happens." That way, if the unpredictable does happen, you can handle it with confidence.

Interestingly, five-time Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps told The Washington Post that he visualizes different scenarios in which something goes wrong: "If my suit ripped or if my goggles broke, you know, what would I do?"

At work, you might envision your computer malfunctioning during your presentation or one of your coworkers jumping in with a trick question.

7. Compartmentalize

"Sometimes bad things happen," Potterat said. "Maybe you'll blow a presentation or whatever it may be. The worst thing you can do is just to kind of get caught up in that moment."

Potterat said elite performers learn to put the negative experience "in a box until the performance is done and then we'll re-investigate or re-look at what went wrong later."

So if you fumble part of your presentation, keep going. Don't dwell on your mess-up, which will only sabotage the rest of it.

8. Cultivate self-awareness

"You'd be surprised how little we are all self-aware in the midst of stress," Potterat said.

Some people don't eat well or sleep well; others consume too much caffeine or alcohol. "We're really not aware of those things that are not helping the stressful situation," Potterat added. "They're only making it worse."

Take a look at your own habits when you're under pressure and figure out which ones are only exacerbating the problem. If you're staying up all night and then drinking eight cups of coffee to deal with the stress of an upcoming deadline, you might want to find some healthier coping mechanisms, either on your own or with the help of a professional.

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