Learn How To Stay Calm During Pressure and Manage Expectations

By Khothatso Kolobe

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Pressure can lead to catastrophic mistakes in business if handled incorrectly. Let’s prepare ourselves never to crack under pressure because our life might depend on it, one way or the other. Our guiding light into this important neurological journey is David Rock’s Your Mind at Work.

Before we get down to business, you have to meet The Director, your director. This is a character of paramount importance if you are going to keep your cool in moments of turbulence.

The director is a metaphorical expression for a portion of your awareness that can watch your life and take decisions about your response to situations.

This concept is used far and wide in multiple disciples that have been influential across time. From time immemorial, individuals such as Socrates learned about it and said “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Presently, various thinkers refer to it as self-awareness, mindfulness, metacognition or meta-awareness.

Do not get threatened by the big words. The overarching matter involves thinking about your thinking, being aware of your awareness. It is the ability to observe yourself in third person and be as objective as possible.

In doing it, you might find yourself saying to yourself, Khothatso buddy, I understand its winter but three consecutive cat washes are a health and cleanliness hazard.

It is noteworthy that paying attention to your director builds on his strength and power. By paying attention to your director, you can easily get to the stratospheric levels of being able to counsel yourself about depressing situations.

I feel like we have collected enough ammunition to enter the pressure battle field.

Scene 7: Derailed by Drama

The common trait to work is too many important things happening at once. Being overwhelmed is not a sign of weakness. This ushers us to talking about your limbic system. It keeps track of your emotional relationship to thoughts, objects, people and happenings. It controls how you feel about the world while also driving how you behave, often without you even being aware.

The limbic system controls our toward responses, which are attached to primary rewards. Similarly, it manages our away decisions from primary threats. Toward emotions are more subtle, displaced with ease and harder to build on in comparison to away emotions.

This should explain why many people stay in their comfort zones, avoid change and never take risks. Imagining things going wrong is a downhill slide. It is harder for positive emotions to build on each other (upward spirals), than for negative emotions to pull you into a downward spiral.

Considering the nature of the limbic system, one can painstakingly deduce that it makes people susceptible to hauntings from past traumatic events. To clarify, I am sharing a tale about my father. It had always troubled me that a grown man could fear a rat until he explained that as a boy, he was in the fields herding cattle and hunting for rats.

He decided to pour water into holes so that the rats surfaced and he would get his meaty snack. To his dismay, what surfaced was a gigantic cobra that sent him the other direction like a bat out of hell. With the interpretation of the limbic system in mind, it is clear that the sight of a rat is a hot spot that raises a horrendous memory. In actuality, he does not fear rats. Rats just trigger the cobra demon in his past.

The over arousal of the limbic system makes prefrontal cortex functions to suffer. You get one at the expense of the other. The over arousal of the limbic system creates a number of problems. Your director disappears and you have a likelihood of responding negatively to your circumstances.

Associate professor of psychology at Stanford University, James Gross has developed an intelligible model of what happens before and after an emotion arises, as well as when it is experienced.

He elaborates that before an emotion arises, there are choices from situation, selection, situation modification to attention deployment.

Once emotions have kicked in, you have an option to express your emotion, suppress it or employ the two fold cognitive change that entails labeling the situation or reappraising it (changing your interpretation of the event).

The damage control approach I deem best once emotions are already in motion is to express them. This is feared by most people in business even though research shows that it is helpful. From there you can label the emotion, which is called symbolic labeling. This serves to switch between your limbic system and your prefrontal cortex as they have a seesaw relationship. It means a switch from frantic to focused in a blink of an eye. The last option is of course reappraisal.

Remember this, a lot of people are getting paid a lot of money to stay cool under pressure.

Scene 8: Drowning amid Uncertainty

I want to be sure that it is the right decision. How many times have you heard people say it? And you would think people would know better than to even mention being certain because uncertainty is a fact of life. Bearing in mind that people want a sense of security, a lot of money is made by those who provide a considerable amount of certainty before decisions and during execution of such decisions.

Jeff Hawkins, inventor of Palm Pilot and more recently, founder of a neuroscience institute explains the brain’s predilection for prediction in his book On Intelligence. He wrote that prediction is not just one of the things your brain does. It is the foundation of intelligence. You do not just hear; you hear and predict what should come next. The same applies for seeing.

Uncertainty is compared to a limitation of creating a complete map of a situation and leads to discomfort. It becomes clear why we make appointments, agreeing on time and place of events. This is linked to how the brain thinks ahead of time and makes future forecasts of situations.

Autonomy is an identical twin to certainty and gives perception to control. A sense of autonomy strongly influences rewards and threats as confirmed by a study of British civil servants. It found that low level, non smoking employees had more health problems than senior executives. This does not make sense because it is easy to presume that executives work under stressful circumstances. It seems that perception of choice supersedes diet and other health factors.

The ability to make choices is supreme because it reduces autonomy and uncertainty threats. Making a choice shifts you from an away to a positive towards stance. This in turn allows you to take responsibility. You make active choices and respond adaptively to incoming data.

Going deeper into cognitive reappraisal, reframing or re-contextualising as it is alternatively called. This can be summed by an assertion that every dark cloud has a silver lining. Human beings are able to prevail from insurmountable challenges through positive reappraisal.

Look at it this way, your emotional responses mainly flow out of your appraisals of the world, negative appraisals can be replaced by positive reappraisal. This is the fundamental message by Kevin Oschner.

Having discussed external reappraisal at length, let’s look within. Your missed opportunities, irreversible errors, important things you forgot. All these also stir up limbic activity. A common response to letting yourself down is to suppress it, brush aside the internal frustration. There are situations that you stretched your mental capacity beyond its limit unknowingly. For those, you are not to blame. It was your brain.

As for messing up equipped with the knowledge we have just shared, I do not even have to say it.

Scene 9: When Expectations Get Out of Control

The expectation of a positive reward over stimulates the limbic system, thwarting the focus from your prefrontal cortex. This means even with a winning hand in a card game, you can make mistakes that you would not normally do on account of over excitement from the expected reward. Such mistakes, even in real life, are costly. Too costly.

Creating and maintaining the right expectations is the key to happiness since your director is in control rather than you only dodging challenges as they rise.

It is wise to consider goals in addition to expectations. Goals are self created maps for valuable things. Pursuing them can activate a general toward mental state as the brain automatically bends toward events, information and people you value positively. The downside of expectations is that you see the expected and miss the unexpected.

With adherence to the view that unmet expectations produce a threat response, the smart thing to do is managing them and avoiding not to meet them. Pay attention to them, activate your director then keep them low. Under expect and over accomplish. Under promise and over deliver. That is the way to remain joyful.

A lesson from research by Barbara Frederickson is that happy people perceive a wider range of data, solve more problems and come up with more new ideas to take in a situation (why am I being defined here?). Furthermore, it is advised that you should live with more novelty, create opportunities for unexpected rewards and be optimistic.

How do you stay cool under pressure?

  1. Label your emotions to heighten a sense of certainty and suppress limbic arousal.
  2. Reappraise both internally and externally to maintain positive emotions.
  3. Manage your expectations, beware of what they are and replace them where necessary.

Tomorrow, we enter Act 3 and talk about collaborations.
Everything accomplished in life that is worthwhile is a group effort. Am I right? We will see tomorrow.


Khothatso Kolobe. I am just a creative willing to do and be anyone and anything to make a positive impact. My creative history is available on my Facebook and Instagram (@artzoniac). A multi dimensional being accomplishing universal good.

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