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How to Stay Cool in High-Pressure Situations

THE RAPIST WAS ON THE LOOSE…

Neill*, a serial kidnapper and potential rapist, had absconded from his Home Detention address. There was no GPS monitoring on his electronic ankle bracelet, so we had no idea where he’d gone.

All we knew was what the forensic psychologist had warned us about when Neill was first released from prison – “If he absconds, he’ll probably end up raping someone.”

This is what we in the Department of Corrections called a “high risk situation.”

I was a Service Manager at the time, responsible for a team of Probation Officers managing some of the most dangerous criminals in the country currently out on parole. Our team was a high-risk speciality unit, and a large quantity of our caseload consisted of psychopaths, mass murderers, gang leaders, and incredibly unstable sex-offenders.

As the manager, it was my job to call the shots in this situation. We had just minutes to make some serious decisions. A wrong call could end up with the Department being bought into disrepute through an uncomfortable media lambasting, or even worse; the rape or murder of an innocent civilian.

My team were on the verge of panic.

We had similar situations happen fairly regularly, but rarely involving such a dangerous man. With my heart racing and fantasies of various catastrophes racing through my mind, I started to call the shots.

 

FIGHT, FLIGHT OR FREEZE

In situations like this, the brain is likely to engage in what is commonly referred to as fight or flight response. We’ve all had these experiences.

Maybe it was that time a brawl broke out in front of you and you were at risk of being dragged into it. Maybe it was the time you got called into your boss’ office to explain a large portion of money missing from the petty cash. Maybe it was that girl you were admiring at the bar suddenly turning on you and demanding loudly, “Did you just grab my ass?”

In these moments of threat, your brain-stem kicks into gear and you go into pure survival mode. All energy and resources are immediately redirected to the places most needed to either battle or flee.

Your vision and hearing become hypersensitive. Your heart starts thumping. Your hands sweat. Your limbs shiver and shake as adrenaline courses through your veins. A hot, sick feeling blooms in your gut as your digestive system completely shuts down.

Unfortunately, this immediate response can often be unhelpful.

Firstly, because it’s rare that the situation you’re in is genuinely life-threatening, which is what the fight/flight response is designed to deal with – this response is ineffective in dealing with anything else.

Secondly, even when the situation is life-threatening, a complete abandonment of rational thinking in exchange for blind reactional behaviour is unlikely to help (e.g. if you run away from a lion you will just trigger its instinct to chase).

And thirdly, most people experience both fight and flight responses equally, which means they freeze – pulled with equal force in two opposite directions simultaneously.

After 7 years of dealing with high risk situations at Corrections, I learned the hard way that fight or flight response alone is often unhelpful and leads to critical errors in judgment.

In the modern world, employing a strategy originally designed to protect us from invading tribes and wild animal attacks is hardly fitting for dealing with a surprising email or emotional confrontation with your partner.

So here are the 7 tips I learned along the way, that you can also employ and practice. I recommend practicing these in dealing with stress that occurs on a daily basis, because it’s rare to face high-pressure situations.

Practice where you don’t need it, so you’re prepared for when you do.

 

1) SLOW DOWN AND BREATHE

The adrenaline rushing through your system creates a sense of urgency. You will get a voice in your head basically screaming at you to “Act now!”

You don’t have to.

Even in the face of a potentially physical fight, it’s worth taking a second to consciously slow yourself down. Breathe in deeply and assess the situation. You often have much more time than you think you do, and the seconds taken to carefully get present will often save you hours of heartache and mistakes in the near future.

This is particularly relevant to a confrontation. When someone demands an answer from you, it doesn’t mean you’re compelled to comply. Be silent. Take your time. Reflect carefully on what is happening.

No one can force you to speak. Rushed words often come out either defensive or aggressive; both of which only serve to aggravate a conflict.

 

2) DE-PRIORITIZE ALL UNNECESSARY TASKS

As Stoicism teaches, the obstacle is the way. When a high-pressure situation knocks on your door, all other goals, tasks and ideas must be sent to the bench.

In the Corrections situation earlier, one of the first things I did was ignore my phone, email and calendar task-list. My mind was wiped of all other plans and replaced by a single objective: get this motherfucker into custody before someone dies. I immediately told my team to stand by and await instructions. Phones went unanswered. Clients were left to wait in reception. Lunch breaks were cancelled.

It used to blow my mind how some other teams would respond to these crises. One poor bastard would be sent off to try remedy the situation by themselves, while others would have cigarette breaks, or start scrolling through their emails.

The procrastination instinct kicks in hard during crisis time because your brain is desperately trying to reduce cortisol (stress) levels.

When a big fuck of an obstacle presents itself, make sure it becomes your world. Nothing else matters. Reserve all resources, attention and energy for dealing with it, until it is completely handled. Odds are, nothing else in your day matters more than this.

You can always catch up on the lower priority shit tomorrow.

 

3) LET THEM FINISH THROWING THE PUNCH

Often, you’ll start reacting before the situation has even been fully established. You’ll start reading the email and two sentences in you suddenly realize it’s hate-mail. Your heart starts pounding and your defensive reaction begins before you’ve even read the whole thing.

When something bad is happening, most of the time it’s helpful to let it finish happening before you react against it.

In his book Bravo 2 Zero, SAS commander Andy McNab describes a period of time after being captured behind enemy lines in Iraq. He takes his time to let the situation play out, to see where they’re taking him, and what they plan to do with him. This almost certainly saved him from getting shot to death.

Reacting before the situation is over can often fuel a fire that was going to burn itself out if you’d just left it alone. When someone blasts at you, let them finish what they are saying completely. If you drop a plate, let it fall and smash on the ground, instead of diving for it reactively and banging your head on the side of the cabinet.

As master dating instructor and actor Daniel Francis says, about emotional confrontations, “let them finish throwing the punch.”

I often found in Corrections that when someone had a go at me, just letting them keep going until they ran out of angry energy did most of the work for me. I just let the air out of the balloon completely, so to speak.

 

4) LET GO OF CONTROL

The fight response will pressure you into controlling a situation. You probably can’t.

I was at a party one time and a fight broke out. I saw a guy about to smash my friend in the face with a bottle, so instinctively I bear-hugged the guy and kinda threw him aside. Suddenly, it felt like a hail-storm had broken out. It took me a few seconds to realize that it wasn’t hailstones hitting me in the head – it was punches being thrown by about 5 guys.

There was literally nothing I could do. It took all my focus and power just to remain on my feet, and even that battle I lost. I went to my knees and boots started coming in. Fighting back would have been both pointless and aggravating in this situation. I’m no Bruce Lee – I was getting my ass kicked that night no matter what I did. So I just took it. Within a few seconds, the guys all ran off as Police intervened.

Sometimes you just gotta let the bull rampage through the shop. Fighting against it and trying to “win” will only panic you and will often escalate the situation. I see this most often in arguments. Somebody tries to win an argument that didn’t even need to happen in the first place. This escalates to shouting or even violence, when humble silence and willingness to lose would have prevented unnecessary harm.

There are times, of course, where fighting back is a must. But most often, you just don’t stand a chance against a superior force. As ancient General Sun Tzu says, never go into a battle unless you’re certain of victory. All the top army and martial artists will tell you the same thing – the best strategy in a fight is to run away. In real life situations, this often translates not as fleeing but more as waiting for a healthy opportunity to act.

Practice this in your daily stressful life. Notice what is directly under your control (not much) and allow everything else to just do what it does. Intervene where you’re powerful and just be a rock in the storm where you’re not.

 

5) RECOGNIZE HIGHER RISK OF ERROR AND FAILURE

In your heightened state, the emotional and survival parts of your brain start to take over. These parts have no interest in long-term success or reward, they just want an immediate conclusion. This is fertile ground for creating a serious fuck-up.

One thing I learned as a manager was to not completely trust myself during high-stress situations. I was humble about being error-prone. I assumed I’d miss something important and make a mistake.

There were two ways I dealt with this.

First, I assigned someone to play Devil’s Advocate and watch my back, looking for mistakes and questioning me. To this day, I use my girlfriend as a critic on all major business decisions. Second, I would always follow any decision-making with a back-up plan, made with the assumption that the first plan was going to go to shit.

Military personnel are also trained in this way – to assume that the worst will happen, and to make decisions according to that. There’s no room for hope or good luck in planning for war.

 

6) WORK AS A TEAM

Being a strong, independent person sucks for dealing with high-pressure situations. Sometimes that’s your only choice, but often support there for you if you are humble enough to ask for it.

I’ve seen good men commit suicide because they tried to deal with depression all by themselves. I’ve seen offenders commit heinous crimes because some Probation Officer tried to be a solo-pilot hero. And I’ve seen tonnes of people give up on creating a new social circle because they refused to find a good wing-man.

The best long-term solution to crises is to create a circle of quality support around you. In the workplace this is your team. At home it’s your family and flatmates. Out in the world it’s your friends.

Foster a culture in your circles of unflinching support. Give what you want to get – make sure you’re there for the people you care about before expecting them to be there for you. Find people who will die for you, and who you’d risk your life for.

This includes strangers. A couple of months ago, I stood up for a random dude who was being harassed by a scary tattooed fuckwit. I put my own safety at risk to protect a weaker person I didn’t even know. I did this to live by my values, but also to do my part for role-modelling – there were another 20 people around who could’ve helped but instead hid behind their phones.

If we all looked out for each other when it counted, the bad guys would be more afraid to act. Be the sheepdog who protects the sheep from the wolves.

 

7) INDECISION IS WORSE THAN WRONG DECISION

Make a mess first, then clean it up.

While rushing a decision is awful, doing nothing is even worse. Slow down and breathe, sure, but then get your ass moving. This may seem like a contradiction on earlier points but it’s not. There is a line between moving too fast and waiting too long. Crises are best dealt with on that line.

Once you’ve assessed the risks, make a decision and act on it. You will feel like you’re taking a risk because you are taking a risk. Make it a calculated risk, but not a delayed decision.

Time-limits on decision-making help here. Figure out the latest possible moment a decision must be made and commit to moving forward on something before that deadline. For the Corrections example earlier, I gave me and my team 15 minutes to brainstorm ideas – enough time to sort through issues but probably not enough time for Neill to actually kidnap and rape someone.

By the way, we managed to get him arrested just as he was about to kidnap someone with a screwdriver!

Measure twice, cut once. Make a plan, double-check it, then haul ass like it’s the last thing you’ll ever do.

 

As I said earlier, real high-pressure situations are relatively rare for most people who aren’t currently living in a warzone. When it does finally happen, you’ll probably be unpracticed and unprepared, leading to a painful freeze.

Try using what I’ve described here to manage the small stressors. Use it when arguing with your partner, deciding how to respond to a snarky email, or confronting your neighbour about his dog shitting on your lawn again.

Practice it often, and when the time comes, you won’t be frozen or panicky.

 

*name changed for privacy

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