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4 strategies to regulate your emotions in stressful situations

Control your system's emotional responses to stressful situations in four ways.
By Harrison Monarth |


You’ve just gotten some bad news—very bad news. An emergency management meeting has been called. Your boss—or worse, the board of directors—wants to discuss what happened and why you didn’t fix things before the problem escalated.


This is the kind of event that can easily spiral out of control. The pressure is on, you are heading toward a world of doubt and doubters and your blood pressure is rising. Why wouldn’t you lose your cool?



Most of us have been through some sort of critical performance review. We’ve been called out, challenged and reprimanded when our decisions and actions bumped up against the expectations and agendas of those in charge. The downsides of such moments are obvious.


Related: 4 ways emotional awareness enhances leadership skills


But there is an upside, too: How we handle our emotions in these fraught situations sends powerful clues about how we manage the pressures of leadership. If you can navigate this minefield without blowing up, you just might arrive on the other side looking better than ever.


Stanford University psychologist James Gross, a leader in the study of emotion and emotion regulation, details a series of strategies to modulate emotional responses. Drawing on neuroscience, these include:




1. Situation selection

Whether the situation is real ("This meeting is happening!”) or imagined (“My boss has a scowl on her face. She’s probably upset with me!”), you might try to avoid the situation temporarily until your intense emotional reaction subsides and you can face the music with a clear head.


Such postponement strategies include rescheduling the meeting, excusing yourself from the meeting or simply staying out of your boss’s sight. Remember: these strategies buy you time to calm down so you can engage your prefrontal cortex and respond effectively. They are not “fixes” for the situation itself.



2. Situation modification

Consider ways to blunt the hard edges of the situation. Inject humor to lighten the mood or modify the agenda by making certain points salient that wouldn’t otherwise have arisen. Changing the venue to a less threatening environment—your office instead of the boss’s office, or even a coffee shop—may also soften the situation, and so may suggesting a walk instead of a sit-down meeting to discuss the issues.



Related: 4 steps to pick yourself up from a tough situation



3. Attention redeployment

Diverting attention away from the most stressful aspects of the situation—“the skeptics in the room” or “critical facial expressions”—and focusing on other content, such as the value you’re contributing or the progress you’ve made or solutions to problems you’ve generated, can reduce intense emotional reactions and allow for greater focus and clarity on what matters.


To redirect your focus on “the bright side” in this way will turn others’ attention to those positive elements as well.




4. Cognitive change

This last strategy offers the greatest opportunity to regain your equilibrium and respond effectively.


When the boss lashes out in a tirade, rather than reacting with anger and escalating the situation, remind yourself that he or she acts this way toward everyone. Or maybe remember that he or she is worried about meeting budget projections this month. This “reappraisal” can quickly connect you to your prefrontal cortex and stop that debilitating emotional trigger.


Likewise, by acknowledging your reactions in that initial emotional period, you can weaken the alarm system. Label what is happening—“I can feel the anxiety coming”—and the amygdala is less likely to take over.


These kinds of adjustments, which depend on emotional distance and inner self-appraisal, may be tough to employ at the beginning. To improve this skill, regularly evaluate your reactions to situations. Why did the boss bother me so much? Why did I lose my cool so quickly? How can I reframe this to better manage my emotions? Can I benefit from outside coaching?



We live in challenging times, where creative disruption is common and change is a constant. In such a climate, you can easily encounter high-pressure criticism, and those situations are in addition to “ordinary” stressful events such as an important presentation to influential stakeholders. How you adapt to the consequent emotional turbulence can make the difference between being a rising executive leader and an also-ran.


Whatever your inherent temperament, keep in mind that each of us possesses the capacity for emotional self-management. Train yourself in those skills now, because when that bad news comes from the board of directors, you seldom will have much notice.


Related: 4 ways to get your gut to shut up and your brain to speak up when making decisions



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This article also appeared on Minor edits have been done by the editor.


Photos from Thinkstock


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