How to Stay Calm in the Job Stress Storm

Joe Robinson is a board member of Take Back Your Time, author of Work to Live and Don't Miss Your Life, and stress management and work-life balance trainer.

You might remember the Jet Blue flight attendant who melted down a few years back after a passenger wouldn't apologize when his luggage came down on the attendant's noggin. The attendant went on the intercom shouting obscenities, grabbed a couple beers, and slid down the emergency escape chute. How many of you secretly cheered?

It may have felt good for a moment, but in retrospect, he would have handled things differently. When we act on fight-or-flight impulse, we do dumb things, because our brain isn't thinking, it's simply reacting with the raw emotion of a cornered animal.

Freak-outs don't solve the immediate problem and cause a bunch of others. Some people are much better at managing transient emotions than others, and that tells us something very important. That means that there is a way to manage pressure, because some are able to do it.

Eye of the Storm

Staying calm is a good idea because that's when we have use of all our faculties, when the 21st century brain, not our caveman/woman brain that thinks it's the year 150,000 B.C., is in charge. The storm may be raging all around us, but the goal is to avoid getting swept up in it, to stay in the eye of the storm, in it but not of it.

Letting the storms set us off isn't productive or healthy. As soon as the stress response goes off, we are not in control of our brain anymore. It's been hijacked by the raw emotions of the amygdala. Stress undermines intellect. We make decisions from fear, panic, or rage. Bad decisions.

With emotions on a hair-trigger, we send curt emails, snap at people, lose focus, and push any semblance of work-life balance further from reach. Stress suppresses the play equipment in our brains and locks in a danger signal that suppresses the immune system until you turn off the false signal. The reality is high-pressure situations are challenging, but they're not life-or-death as your ancient brain thinks.

Bend, Don't Break

The better course is to bend, not break under pressure, a concept in Eastern thought known as wu-wei. Flexibility, not rigidity, allows us to turn the aggression around. It's the same concept in martial arts like jiu-jitsu or aikido–turning the negative energy that comes at you to your advantage, in this case by keeping your ego out of the equation.

A good example of wu-wei is how two trees handle the pressure of snow on branches during the winter. The pine branch is rigid and can snap with the weight of too much snow. But the willow tree yields to the weight and bends. It has give.

It's the idea of doing through nondoing, not forcing things, making adjustments to how we think about the demands. Resentment and resistance are brittle and break like the branch of the pine tr

We can change the thoughts that turn demands into pressures our clueless ancient brain makes us think we can't cope with. The pressures are as out of control or as manageable as we think they are.

The definition of stress is high demands and low control over them. That's also the definition of being overwhelmed. When we feel we can't cope, that triggers the stress response, which causes everything to feel more overwhelming, since it exaggerates the threat. When you believe you can't cope, your ancient brain misinterprets that feeling as "I'm going to die." Off goes the fight-or-flight response.

We have to change the I-can't-cope self-talk when we are under the gun. What are your thoughts when you're overwhelmed?

•Too much to do

• Everything has to be done now

• I'll never get it all done

• I won't be able to cope

I won't be able to cope is the bottom line of all fear. I won't be able to handle it. What will happen? Apocalypse Now?

You CAN Cope

The solution is letting your brain know you can cope. That means coming up with another story than the one being supplied by the panicked brain. Yes, I have 200 emails, but I can handle it. It's not life-or-death and doesn't warrant your body's emergency system being activated.

The strategy we all need is Value Questioning. Don't feed the mental accelerators by making everything urgent. Qualify it. Ask two questions:

What's the urgency of doing it now?

What are the consequences of waiting?

Power of Patience

Patience is the key to staying calm in the storm. Patience is a word we usually hate to hear, because when it comes up, it usually means we've lost it.

It's really about self-regulation. Patience gives us impulse control. We're not children. We don't have to go off when something flares up. Patience is the exercise of maturity, managing pace, ego, and emotions.

Patience isn't passive. It's a state of active non-reaction. We have to call it up consciously, and use it to override our emotional reflexes–and put the 21st century brain back in charge of the runaway train.