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Strategy, Innovation, Leadership and Security

How to thrive under pressure

GeneralEdward KiledjianComment

Your body is a miraculous creation that is able to quickly adapt to different situations often without you even realizing it. When working in pressure situation, your body reacts by making physiological changes [for the worst] that also impact how you think. Truth is pressure is the new normal and you must learn to deal with it or it will crush you. 

Here are simple steps to help you conquer any pressure situation:

Be in the moment

As an IT professional, I have seen the effect of extreme pressure on experts handling large and complex IT outages or security incidents. Even the most expert professional can find themselves in a vortex of destruction. If I notice people going down the wrong path, I try to help them centre themselves and concentrate on this moment. 

I ask them to sit down and find an object they can concentrate on. I ask them to find a small spot on that object and to stare at it. I ask them to then be mindful of their breathing. To concentrate on long inhalations, to hold it and then to do a long exhale. I ask them to keep looking at that spot and to feel their body breathing. To feel their chest expanding and contracting.


When you are under stress, your body releases cortisol. This is what fuels the fight or flight response and isn't ideal when the situation requires deep thought and solid reasoning. 

Once we complete the first breathing step. I then work with the person to find out what they are grateful for. Research has shown that gratitude can reduce the level of cortisol by 23%. Even when things seem very bad, there are always things to be grateful for. Think about what is going right, even when it seems there isn't much. 

As an example, there are large forest fires in Fort McMurray right now forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people. It is a horrible situation but if I were a family being forced out of my house, I would also be grateful that i was with my family and they are safe. I would be thankful that I had a car that is allowing me to evacuate. You get the idea. regardless of how bad things may seem at first, there is always something to be grateful for.


When under extreme pressure, the situation may seem hopeless and you may lose track of what really is important. IT is important to take a step back and put things into perspective. My mantra is "this isn't brain surgery". I recommend you sit down in a quiet area and (once you have done the breathing exercise) ensure you are working on the right priorities. It is easy to get "mixed up" and focus on the wrong things when under extreme pressure. We tend to fix the thing that is the latest and loudest. 

Surround yourself with the right people

We were handling a major datacenter outage a couple of years ago and the entire tech team was struggling to figure out what was going on. As I observed the lead, I realized he was getting too stressed and was starting to make "less rational" decisions. I took him aside and guided him through the first 2 steps. Once he was calm, I asked him to perform the prioritization activity alone in an isolated room and he did an excellent job. As soon as I put him back in the control room, things started to boil over again and I realized it was partially due to the amount of technical people around him being overly pessimistic. 

I replaced to people with fresh non negative experts and realized the lead was now "more in control" and less stressed. Moral of the story is to take the time and ensure you are surrounded by the right people. If there are people being overly negative, push them away and you will see the level of pressure diminish greatly.

Take a break

You may be under pressure because you are handling a major situation or because your boss expects a major deliverable in a short window and key information may be missing. Regardless of why you are under pressure, sometimes you have to take a short break and change your mindset. Once you perform the above steps, it is also important to stop, walk away from the situation and do something that changes your mood, mindset and situation.

Let's say you are working on an important report, information is missing, people are not cooperating and your boss is breathing down your neck. You may be a little stressed. You will feel pressured to perform. Make sure you follow the above steps, then determine an interval at which you will step away from your desk and go for a short walk.

As an example, my personal limit is 45 minutes. After 45 minutes of straight undivided concentrated work, I will typically walk away for 5 minutes and do something else. The something else may be a short walk in the office, a trip to get a coffee, sit outside and take a breath of fresh air, etc.

You will be energized when you get back and be much more productive. The complaint I hear too often is I can't go because there is too much work. Research has shown that not taking these short breaks will actually hurt your productivity and the stress will also dull your abilities,