We’d all like to know how to stay calm under pressure. Sure, I could pull a bunch of research studies on it and just summarize those for you. But that always leaves the lingering question: “But does this stuff work in the real world?”
So who really knows about being cool as a cucumber under the most intense pressure imaginable? I’d read that when top bomb disposal experts approach a device designed to kill them, their heart rate actually goes down. Folks, I think we have a winner…
So I called a Navy EOD Team Leader.
Navy EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) isn’t like your average police department’s bomb disposal unit. These guys defuse torpedoes—while underwater. They disable biological weapons, chemical weapons…even nuclear weapons.
For security purposes our friend requested to remain anonymous. He’s been deployed in both Iraq and Afghanistan and faced some things that are—quite literally—the stuff of nightmares. Repeatedly.
So what can you and I learn from him? How do you stay chill, keep your focus and make tough decisions when facing the most intense pressure imaginable?
Let’s get to it…
Avoid “The Rabbit Hole” And Do A Threat Assessment
Something’s going wrong. You’re worried and your mind starts to race. Your old friend Panic is nuzzling up to you and wants to snuggle. Your brain starts asking, “What if X happens? What if Y happens? What if? What if? What if?”
Navy EOD techs refer to this as “the rabbit hole.” And if you go down it, things are going to get very bad very fast. Here’s our EOD Team Leader:
With any device that’s improvised we talk about “rabbit holes.” You can go down the rabbit hole of “What if they put in this? What if they included this bit of circuitry or this kind of switch or this crazy new device or circuit board or whatever?” The opportunities for people to construct new and ingenious and totally insidious IEDs is just infinite. It’s possible when you’re looking at the device to go down a rabbit hole of “It could be this, it could be this, it could be these 10,000 different things…”
You need to avoid going down the “rabbit hole” and do what Navy EOD techs call a “threat assessment.” That means looking objectively at the situation and asking, “What kind of problem is this?”
Think about a similar situation you’ve been in before that looked like this one. How did you resolve it? What worked? Maybe you’ve never been in a situation exactly like the current one, but that’s okay. Generalize. You’ve probably dealt with something that was kinda similar or you’ve seen someone else do it.
Leveraging experience is what makes the top Navy EODs able to stay calm and size up a terrifying situation before they’ve even approached the explosive device. Here’s our EOD Team Leader:
They develop this sixth sense about what’s going on. Some of the guys had seen and prosecuted 300 or 400 devices. It was amazing what they could tell you before they ever saw the device. “This device is probably just a pressure plate, maybe with an S and A switch. There’s a possible secondary back-up waiting for us if we were to go at it from this angle.” They would just be able to tell that from merely looking at the situation.
Leveraging your prior experience (or the experiences of others) is what allows you to wrap your brain around a very frightening scenario and see it as just another version of a problem you’ve solved before. And that allows you to keep moving forward when you’re scared.
(To learn a Navy SEAL’s secrets to developing grit, click here.)
Alright, you dodged the rabbit hole and you’ve done a threat assessment. But what mindset do you need to stay calm and focused before you act on this problem—or before you cut that red wire?
Emphasize The Positive And Focus On What You Can Control
Our EOD’s superior officer once told him a story about trying to defuse a mine while underwater—and realizing that he had become trapped, unable to move his hands or feet. What was the next thought that went through the chief’s head?
“I’m still breathing, so that’s good. Now what else do I have that’s going for me?”
That’s what you call “looking on the bright side.” Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney studied resilient people for over 20 years. They interviewed Vietnam prisoners of war, Special Forces instructors and civilians who dealt with terrible experiences like medical problems, abuse and trauma. And what was one of the things that kept all of these survivors going? Optimism.
By starting with the good, but staying realistic about the facts of the situation, our EOD’s superior was able to stay calm and focus on what he was able to control and start taking steps toward resolving the situation. Our EOD friend explains:
He’s like, “If you can wiggle your fingers, the line that’s wrapped around you or whatever situation you’re in, if you can do one little thing to make it a little bit better, then do that. If you can do another thing and then another thing, and then you can have cascading positivity as opposed to spiraling negativity.” You get to know the technical parameters of whatever job you’re doing and then you go, “Is this really an emergency? Yeah, but it’s really only an emergency if I can’t find a solution. What is my next step to make this situation just slightly better?”
Again: He was underwater, unable to move his hands or feet, and was next to an explosive device. But he didn’t see it as an emergency.
It was only an emergency if he couldn’t find a solution. Sound crazy?
You’re moving at 65 miles an hour toward a concrete wall. Scary? If that concrete wall is a natural bend in the highway and you can just turn the steering wheel of your car gently to the left, you wouldn’t be frightened. In fact, you probably do it all the time without thinking about it. Not an emergency.
Life and death stakes don’t faze you if you’re optimistic and feel you have some control.
(To learn how Navy SEALs and Olympians increase mental toughness, click here.)
So now it’s time to act. You need to get in there and solve the problem at hand. How do you keep your cool and stay focused when you’re in the thick of it?
The Secret To Calm And Focus Is Knowing The Next Step
We’re all scared of the unknown. Because then your brain turns to speculating. To worrying. And that takes you down the rabbit hole. The secret to calm and focus is simply deciding what you need to do next. That prevents the gap from opening up where the speculation and worrying grows. Here’s our EOD Team Leader:
When you have something to concentrate on, your mind can remain focused no matter what’s happening. If there is some kind of device and you need to do something and you’re clearly in a hazardous situation, you knew what the next step was. If you were sitting there and had no idea what to do, that would be really terrifying. When you have the next step in your mind, then that’s what you focus on.
Maybe what’s next is just a baby step. That’ll do. Maybe you are so out of your depth that the next step is “ask for help.” That’s actually a good one. You don’t need to fix everything in one fell swoop. You just need to know your next step and you can keep it together.
Now when you consider your next step, you want to think technically and specifically to resist panic. And be grateful you don’t have to face situations like our friend did—when you’re 130 feet underwater and your breathing equipment fails:
My dive rig was having a primary electronics assembly failure, meaning it was no longer actually providing me the oxygen that I needed to live. By definition this is an emergency, but when you know the way that system works, when you know that there’s the manual override, that you can provide yourself oxygen and you can actually manually drive the rig, then I know what I need to do to get myself out of this situation. When you think about it in those terms, which is to get away from the label of what this situation is and then get into what is technically going on here, then it’s a lot easier. Then you don’t get focused on the fear. You get focused on “What’s my next step?”
The ancient Stoics avoided negative emotions by focusing on process, not outcomes. And that’s what you want to do. Focus on your next step, and then the next step, and then the next…
I know what some people are thinking: “But what if I don’t know my next step? How do I get my calm back if I lose it?”
Our EOD friend has been there. And he’s been there with a bomb in front of him:
The only time I ever really felt crippling fear was the moment that I lost sight of what my next step was. We were in a situation where there was a device and it was way more dangerous than what we expected. I had not done a good job because I had not prepared myself for the worst case scenario. For the first time as an officer, I was like, “I don’t know what to do.” I was scared for my team. I was scared for myself.
What should you do when you’re lost for a next step and your brain is filled with anxious thoughts? There’s an answer—one that Buddhist monks and Ph.D. neuroscientists would agree on:
Just consider those racing thoughts in your head and ask yourself, “Are they helpful?” And then make a decision.
When I spoke to leading mindfulness expert Joseph Goldstein about how to deal with troublesome thoughts he said:
This thought which has arisen, is it helpful? Is it serving me or others in some way or is it not? Is it just playing out perhaps old conditions of fear or judgment or things that are not very helpful for ourselves or others?
And guess what our bomb disposal buddy did to resolve the situation? He’s no mindfulness expert — but he knows what works when panic sets in. See if what our EOD Team Leader told me sounds familiar:
Then I thought, “This is not helpful. None of this is helpful. What do I do now?” Then I thought, “This is what needs to happen. We need to make this radio call. The guys down range need to be conducting this action. We need to push this group here. We need to move this group.” Then all of a sudden, you’re back into your rational thought and away from any kind of selfish fear.
He asked if the thoughts were helpful. They weren’t. And so, to the best of his ability, he just made a decision on what his next step would be. And neuroscience research shows that making decisions reduces worry and anxiety — as well as helping you solve problems.
Via The Upward Spiral:
Making decisions includes creating intentions and setting goals—all three are part of the same neural circuitry and engage the prefrontal cortex in a positive way, reducing worry and anxiety. Making decisions also helps overcome striatum activity, which usually pulls you toward negative impulses and routines. Finally, making decisions changes your perception of the world—finding solutions to your problems and calming the limbic system.
(To learn the four rituals neuroscience says can make your brain happy, click here.)
Your problems have been defused. We’ve learned a lot. Let’s round it up and learn one last secret from our EOD friend that can help you be ready for challenges before they ever occur…
Here’s what you need to know about how to be calm under pressure, from a Navy bomb disposal expert:
- Avoid “The Rabbit Hole” And Do A Threat Assessment: Ignore the “What if?” questions. What’s a similar problem you’ve dealt with? Leverage prior experience to calmly size up challenges.
- Emphasize The Positive And Focus On What You Can Control: Take a second to think about just how dangerous driving a car actually is. But it doesn’t faze you. A feeling of control makes all the difference.
- The Secret To Calm And Focus Is Knowing The Next Step: Ignore thoughts that aren’t helpful. Make a decision. Focus on the next step and you won’t panic.
There’s a saying about bomb disposal:
EOD is the science of vague assumptions based on debatable data taken from inconclusive experiments with instruments of problematic accuracy by persons of questionable mentality.
Cute, huh? It’s an uncertain job with the highest of stakes. But it must be done. And so the people that do it can’t sleepwalk through their job. A mentor of our EOD Team leader once told him:
If you show up to work, you might as well bring yourself along.
EOD techs don’t walk around paranoid—that’s the rabbit hole. But they are engaged.
Want to avoid problems? Want to be calm under pressure when problems occur? Stay engaged.
That’s your next step.
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Eric Barker is the author of Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong. Eric has been featured in the The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wired and TIME. He also runs the Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog. Join his 205,000-plus subscribers and get free weekly updates here. This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.