How to more easily avoid a meltdown at work

For some elite performance coaches, “pressure” has replaced “stress” as one of the defining challenges in modern life as we are increasingly faced with constant demands from bosses, customers and clients to perform to a high standard every moment. Walking into a room about to give a presentation to dead-eyed bosses can conjure up feelings of dread and fear.

Nervousness is present in all walks of life and has been here throughout history. It is not always a negative influence as it can help to keep us on our toes and improve our performance. The problem comes when we begin to focus on what can go wrong and start to fixate on the consequences of a wrong move. It is little wonder that the heart starts beating faster and adrenaline spikes up when our minds begin to focus on how horrible it will be if we mess up rather than believing that we can be the champion.

What helps us to achieve optimum performance is to narrow our focus on one key thing, the one controllable element. When giving a presentation, attention should be focused on just one thing, perhaps the projection of your voice to the delegates sitting in the back row of the room. The wrong focus would be to worry about what the audience were thinking of you or whether you would be subject to heckling. The same principles apply in sport. For footballers about to take a penalty kick this would be about exclusively focusing on the contact between boot and ball.

With repeated practice, a skill will become more automatic, making way for that skill to be used without having to think it through. This is when someone has acquired “unconscious competence”; when they direct their focus on one tiny process it frees their unconscious mind to concentrate on the delivery, or performance of that skill.

In simple terms, experts and novices adopt two very different brain systems. “Expert-induced amnesia” is when constant practice enables a skill to become more automatic. Tasks can then be undertaken without conscious attention. Think of when you learned to drive a car. At first you needed to focus huge attention on shifting the gear stick, managing the steering wheel and manoeuvring the clutch. But after hours and hours of practice you perform these tasks without really thinking about them. It makes sense as your internal neural computer needs to act fast and decisively.

Novices wield the “explicit system”, when there is conscious monitoring of what they are doing as they build the neural framework supporting the task. This is what takes place when you are actually learning to drive. Things operate at a much slower pace.

Now, just for a moment, imagine if an expert was to suddenly use the “novice system”. It would not matter how good such an expert was because they would be at the mercy of the explicit system. This is exactly what occurs when you have a meltdown. You are not using your unconscious competence. You have reverted to being a novice. In practical terms this is when everything seems a struggle, when you can’t seem to think straight and when you think twice before doing seemingly simple tasks in case you mess up.

Here are six coping strategies for helping you to avoid meltdown at work:

1. Trick your body into thinking that you are not anxious

The symptoms of anxiety are not a sign of weakness. When under pressure, the key is to try to manage your anxiety so that you can take advantage of the high-octane fuel for elite performance. When you are about to enter a pressurising situation try to reshape your body position so that you adopt a power pose. This is anything that expands your physical presence where you hold it for at least two minutes. It increases testosterone (dominance hormone) by up to 20% and decreases cortisol (stress hormone) by up to 25%. This will help you feel more confident and less stressed.

2. Persevere

It is insufficient to simply sign up or start to do something. It is necessary to make a full investment and keep doing something, not just starting. You need to aim for regular progress on a daily basis. It is progress not perfection that matters.

3. Practice as if it was live

Undertake role play scenarios if you have to make a speech or undergo a job interview. Prepare as if it was a real event and ask someone you live with to provide strong challenge with tricky questions.

4. Employ empowering language to increase confidence

Positive talk self-affirmations will help improve your levels of self-esteem and self-confidence. These can be very helpful in order to perform under pressure. Use short potent statements that relate directly to the goals you are working towards.

5. Delay sensory shutdown

Sensory shutdown occurs in our minds and bodies when we are under extreme pressure. The key in avoiding meltdown is to delay its impact. You will get more oxygen into your body if you slow your breathing as well as reducing your heart rate.

6. You’re not anxious, you’re excited

Harvard research has found that relabeling ‘anxiety’ as ‘excitement’ is a way to ward off anxiety and improve performance. Anxiety and excitement have similar physiological processes – sweating, racing heart, butterflies. Labelling those feelings as ‘anxiety’ (‘I’m so anxious’) brings to mind everything that could go wrong. Relabelling them as excitement (‘I’m excited’) shifts the focus away from the potential threats and towards the potential opportunities and positive outcomes.

Counselling and psychotherapy can offer a private and confidential space to help you to better react to stress and pressure in your life. You need not be deterred by the experience of falling apart. You can learn to cope with high intensity moments through a combination of self-awareness, perseverance and a willingness to be tenacious in the face of adversity.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
London SE1 & SE26
Written by Noel Bell, MA, PG Dip Psych, UKCP
London SE1 & SE26

Noel Bell is a UKCP accredited clinical psychotherapist in London who has spent over 20 years exploring and studying personal growth, recovery from addictions and inner transformation. Noel is an integrative therapist and draws upon the most effective tools and techniques from the psychodynamic, CBT, humanist, existential and transpersonal schools.

Show comments

Find a therapist dealing with Anxiety

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals