How to Keep Your Cool in the Pressure Cooker

It would be nice to up and leave any time something stressful happened, wouldn’t it? To just slap a Post-it on your computer that says, “Gone. Will be back…eventually.” And then skip down to the park or the gym or the movies for some much needed R&R.

For most of us, though, ducking out is simply not an option—if you want to keep your job and relationships intact. You have to stick it out, especially when your job requires you to be in a certain place for a certain period of time. It’s like you’re in a pressure cooker: The heat and tension can build up, and there’s nowhere for them to go.

The key to coping with stress while you’re in the pressure cooker—and dealing with the stress of being in there—is to focus on what you can control. And that comes down to two things: your emotions and your mind.

Become aware of your thoughts—and manage them
When you let your thoughts run recklessly around in your head, stress in the pressure cooker is going to feel overwhelming. Say a customer is taking a difficult tone with you, while at the same time you’re feeling ragged after a rough night with your toddler. You might think, “I cannot take one more minute of this. This jerk should know better than to yell at me!”

(Read more on thinking traps and how to get out of them.)

If that thought stays in your mind, your stress (the impatience, the body aches, the dull anger, the feeling of being trapped) will build and build. What you need to do is become fully aware of the what the thought is, how it’s affecting you, and where it’s coming from. Then you can neutralize it and move on with your day with less difficulty (and without needing to run from the building).

At meQuilibrium, we call this process Trap It. Map It. Zap It.

TRAP IT. Notice when your body and emotions start to signal stress. Is your heart beating faster? Are you suddenly exhausted? Snapping at coworkers? Fighting the urge to eat six candy bars? By bringing these emotions and sensations into awareness, you’ve trapped them and taken away some of their power to derail you.

MAP IT. Now trace the feelings to the thoughts causing them. Trust me, there is always a thought in there! What thought or story flashed through your mind that created these emotions? Was it that you work harder than anybody, so it’s not fair that you get the jerky phone call? Was it that you’ll never get your kid to sleep before 8 p.m., so you’re doomed to exhaustion?

ZAP IT. Challenge that thought. Is it true? Is this one phone call going to last all day? Does everyone really work less than you? Don’t let that thought get off so easily. Once you loosen the mental glue, you can both decide how upset you get in the moment and take simple measures to regain your balance, such as deep breathing or simple stretches.

(Read more on how to pick yourself up when workday stress has you down.)

Hit pause
Sometimes, of course, the pressure cooker won’t allow you to reflect on your thoughts even for a few minutes. In that case, use the Trap It step to bring awareness to the painful or troublesome emotions and sensations. Are you hunching your shoulders more than usual? Are you stewing over something a coworker said? Are you angry at the technology you use to do your job? Mentally flag it. Jot down a note. Remind yourself that while you can’t deal with whatever’s going on right this second or react exactly as you’d like to, you can and will address it later when you’re not in the cooker anymore.

Whether you’re at a desk, in a control booth, or on the phone, what happens in your body and your mind is up to you. You can use that power to keep your cool no matter how hot the pressure cooker gets.

Connect, don’t shut down
The thing about being in a pressure cooker is that you’re probably not there alone—which can feel like it makes things worse, but it can make things better, too. When you feel the temperature rising, whom can you connect with in this moment, and how? It may be as simple as a shared eye roll or a quick email to that person (“How are you doing—you ok?”), or maybe, if appropriate, making a light joke to keep your and others’ spirits up. You’ll make other people feel acknowledged, which is an immediate tension reducer, but you’ll also feel better because you’ve made it a priority to help boost other people. And what goes around, comes around—in a great way.

Lastly, remember why you’re doing this and what it’s for. You have a purpose in that pressure cooker, and it’s vital to the team, the company, and the customers, too. It may not feel like a picnic in there, not today anyway, but you are performing a critical role. Focus on what you’re really doing from a higher perspective: Supporting your team? Solving people’s problems? Not to mention serving as an example for other people and your family? What you do matters, and so reconnecting to that—and the people who matter—can help ease the pressure, and help you let off some steam.