How to Stay Calm in High-Stress Situations, According to a Body Language Expert

Photo: Getty Images/10000 Hours
Maintaining a calm demeanor at work is rough when the spotlight is put on you and it is glaring. I'm talking a yearly performance review, your manager proposing an impromptu one-on-one, or delivering a presentation for the entire team like some kind of seventh-grade nightmare. How on Earth do you try to make it look like you're composed when you're anything but? How do you stay calm in a high-pressure situation?

In order to achieve a calm demeanor, you can adjust your gestures accordingly, and in doing so jettison to a more grounded mindset. But how? In order to find out what works, we called upon the wisdom of Patti Wood, a body language expert and author of Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language, and Charisma. Take a deep breath (or several) and get to mimicking these movements.

How to stay calm under pressure at work

1. Keep your gestures and movements at waist level

Or slightly below. According to Wood, keeping your hands at waist level changes your breathing rate and brings your energy to a centered body position. You are very literally centering yourself, and it’s to the extent where you should have your hands at waist level or visible on the table or desk. But there is a caveat.

"A little secret is to make sure the palms of your hands are open and viewable, so you can set such the back of your hand down on the desk, or even curve it slightly and set your little fingers down and keep your hands open," says Wood. 

2. Put your hand on your upper thigh

Okay, so let’s say you’re experiencing a cortisol spike and your catastrophic thinking is snowballing in a whole "I'm going to fail" or "everyone thinks I’m doing a terrible job" thing. What do you do if you're not just a little jumpy, but you're literally just trying to survive this meeting.

"Then I might say to take that take the palm of your hand and rest it on your upper thigh, either standing or sitting," says Wood. "Just rest your open palm on your thigh, and that self-touch is a comfort cue."

Think about it this way, when you’re under duress and with someone who cares, they’ll do the same gesture. So the objective here is to mimic the motherly gesture you really need right now. This is a sharp contrast in how we try to feign confidence—in order to appear bold, we want to quit comfort cues the moment we realize we’re doing it. But this particular move usually wouldn’t be noticeable below a desk or table, and if you’re standing it’ll just translate as calm.

"You can put your hand in your pocket, you can do a lot of other things to self soothe, but that flat palm downwards to your skin gives you a lot of contact and pressure," she says. 

3. Go slow-mo with all of your movement

You’re trying to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, and combat the natural response you get in high stress situations. Namely, you start to hyperventilate. So if you’re trying to keep your body calm, slow action is exactly opposite of falling into a freeze, flight, fight, faint or fright response.

"It's it's a way of tricking your brain to believe there's nothing wrong and you don't need to be frightened," says Wood. "You don't need to be angry and attack. You're moving, but you're moving slowly, which means there's no big threat."

4. And go slower and lower with how you talk as well

This is one of Wood’s favorite tricks for people who have major issues with public speaking. Before you’re about to go up in front of your peers, practice what you’re going to say slowly. That’ll make it go into your muscle memory of performing it slowly later on. Make sure to also bring down your vocal register! Phone voice, people!

5. Focus your breath outward

Again, if you’re in full panic mode, the best thing you can probably do is just breathe. But specifically, focus on the exhalation of your breath. 

"A trick is to put your hand on your belly and breathe out first, very slowly," says Wood. "And breathe in and then breathe out, breathe out."

Cut to me, palm on tummy, deep in the breathwork like I'm in labor. Maybe take it a step below that. 

6. Lean up against something or put your weight on one foot

Nothing to see here, everything is casual. You don’t want to stay leaning because this is typically interpreted as a weakness position; people see you literally laid back and they know you’re not about to cause harm. But this is a good way to bring yourself into a calm state: simply by lean slightly sideways, and if you have a surface lean on your elbow for a moment. 

"It's a way of relaxing without looking sloppy," Wood says.

If you wear your heart on your sleeve (and your emotions on your face) steal these three covert body language tricks. And is your relationship heating up? Here's how you can tell if your paramour is falling fast for you.

Our editors independently select these products. Making a purchase through our links may earn Well+Good a commission.

Loading More Posts...