We talked to America’s coolest characters to learn how they cope. Steal their secrets and you’ll thrive in life’s pressure points—like they do.
Establish a Routine
The stressor: All eyes are on you at a critical moment in the game (or the presentation, or the ceremony).
Beat that stress: When you establish a routine, the difficult becomes routine.
Chauncey Billups, a Detroit Pistons point guard, describes his formula for nailing two free throws to tie a game in the fourth quarter:
“I know it’s a big shot, but I don’t even think about the moment. If I put more pressure on it, then it becomes a mental thing. I treat it the same as a free throw in the first quarter by doing the same routine every single time. I focus on the rim. I take four dribbles, spin the ball, and get up under it.
“My routine puts me into a calm state. It’s just me and the rim.”
Ask Yourself Questions
The stressor: You’ve seen your friends’ marriages, and worry that you’ll end up with the wrong person.
Beat that stress: Ask The Important Questions That Help You Figure Out If She’s the One For You.
Are you attracted to her? Do you play well together? Is she unselfish? Does she treat people well and talk positively about past relationships? Does she recognize her family’s shortcomings and take corrective steps? Is she respectful of you? Does she share the soap in the shower?
If you have a string of positive answers, you have a fun, responsible, thoughtful person at your side, says John Van Epp, Ph.D., a clinical counselor based in Medina, Ohio, and the author of How to Avoid Marrying a Jerk. That probably qualifies her as a keeper.
Call a Time Out
The stressor: Your boss is hassling you, and you’re about to explode.
Beat that stress: Figure out How to Beat Your Job Stress. For starters, call a time out. If you’re in the thick of battle, go wash your hands. Removing yourself provides the chance to think and not say the wrong thing. While you’re gone, let yourself be upset.
“Anger and agitation tend to be short-lived when you let them play out internally,” says Melissa Blacker, a director of professional training at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts medical school.
When you’re calm, go to your boss and say, “What can I do to help work this out?”
He’s probably braced for a fight, so he’s bound to welcome the collaborative tone. At the very least, you’ve expressed yourself. Letting your anger fester increases the chance you’ll overreact.
Give Yourself Time to Grieve
The stressor: Your dad died and you don’t know what to do.
Beat that stress: For two days every week, schedule 10 minutes to grieve.
Unless you plan, it’s too easy to dodge the sadness—especially in the first couple of months after the funeral. And taking control of the process prevents unresolved issues from lingering.
Shoot for early evening, when anything kicked up won’t affect your sleep. Take a 5-minute walk to unwind, then pull out photos to bring the departed front and center.
Now ask two questions: What have you lost? What’s the effect? You see what’s missing from your life, so you can shift to problem solving, says Michael McKee, Ph.D., a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic.
Now hit the gym, since Workouts Can Beat Stress. (For an intense 30-minute workout you can do right at home, try The Anarchy Workout.) It’ll end the grieving session, and the endorphins will lift your mood. Overall, doing the two activities will model what you’re striving for—the knowledge that sad and happy can coexist.
Make a Grateful List
The stressor: Your to-do list at work reads like a phone book, except it’s less interesting.
Beat that stress: Add 10 more entries. Here’s how actor Craig Bierko, most recently of Boston Legal fame, keeps his lid from flipping.
“First, I keep in mind that on-the-job stress is an indication that I’m doing well. I could certainly experience far less stress lying around all day watching Ellen reruns.
“Then I practice something called ‘the grateful flow.’ It’s far cheaper than Prozac. I list ten things for which I’m grateful. Remind yourself of the friend who’s always been there, the fact that you can afford your next meal. And include your job. Sure, it’s the reason you’re making the list in the first place. But where would you be without it?”
Focus on the Now
The stressor: Your team’s success (or failure) is hanging on your performance in the ultimate contest.
Beat that stress: Focus on the now as well as the later.
Martin Brodeur, star goalie for the New Jersey Devils, uses these techniques when he faces game 7 in the playoffs: “When it becomes stressful, I overbreathe. That opens up everything and makes me aware of the situation I’m in.” In fact, Changing the Way You Breathe Not Only Beats Stress, but Can Boost Your Energy, too.
“I also make sure my feet are together as much as possible and that they’re really under me. With my feet together, I’m compact. It’s less tiring, and I’m lighter on my skates.
“As for when I’m not on the ice? Before game 7 of the 2003 Stanley Cup finals, I booked a vacation online. It took me out of the anxiety of facing a game 7.” (The Devils won that game, 3-0.)
Be Meticulous When You Prep
The stressor: You’re due at Grandma’s, the storm is roaring, and you need to pilot the clan safely.
Beat that stress: Be meticulous in your preflight prep. That’s what Rob Kinkade, a bush pilot, does before taking off for what he calls a “rodeo day” in the bucking bronco of Alaska’s airspace.
“If I know it’ll be rough out there, I’ll meticulously check everything two or three times—the flight plans, my fuel, the wings. It gives me peace of mind. If I take care of the downside first, the upside will take care of itself.
“If it’s rough and I see people worrying, I’ll sing or make a joke or grab the stick with one hand and drink a soda with the other, to show that it’s not affecting me, even if it is. I’m lightening my mood, and it’s kind of contagious.”
Ask About Her Best Friend
The stressor: You’re an hour into the first date and it’s going nowhere.
Beat that stress: Ask her what she likes about her best friend, or another of the Best Questions She Was Ever Asked On a First Date.
Relationships are sources of pride and endless fascination for women. By delving into her life, you’re trying to understand her, and everyone loves being understood.
“It defuses a lot of the tension,” says Ann Demarais, Ph.D., a psychologist and coauthor of First Impressions: What You Don’t Know about How Others See You.
Take Your Kid on a Long Car Ride
The stressor: Your kid’s stressing but won’t tell you what it’s about.
Beat that stress: Take him on a long car ride.
It’s private, and there’s little else to do but talk. Start out casually, and eventually bring up the struggles you faced at his age. He’ll either identify or tell you that it’s completely different now.
Either way, the opening is there to gently find out which of three areas—school, friends, or family—isn’t working.
“You’re getting new information and can take it to where the problem belongs,” says Irene Goldenberg, Ed.D., a family psychologist based in Los Angeles. It’s one of the Important Steps You Can Take to Be a Better Dad.
Go Into Training
The stressor: You have to make your case or lose the day.
Beat that stress: Before the straining, go into training.
Steven D. Benjamin, a criminal-defense attorney in Richmond, Virginia, believes that discipline always carries the day.
“Before the trial starts, everything in my life becomes more regimented,” he says. “I don’t drink or go out, and I become more obsessive than usual about my workout. A trial is an endurance event, and training for it makes me much more alert. I also take care of my team members. I can’t see everything at trial. They’re my auxiliary hard drive, and they give me peace of mind.”
Play Video Games
The stressor: Your kid is really into playing a violent video game.
Beat that stress: Observe, or play it with him.
Encroaching on his territory removes some of the rebellious fun, but you’ll also learn his perspective, says Jeff Bostic, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Make no comments during the game, and at the end, say, “What did you enjoy most about it? That was a little weird for me to be gunning down all those cops.”
You might find out that he clearly distinguishes fantasy from reality and that his bloody game is just a bloody game.
Own Up to a Mistake
The stressor: Your name is all over a mistake and you have to tell the boss.
Beat that stress: As soon as possible, go to the boss and own up, but immediately follow that with what you’ve learned and (the most important factor) how things will be different.
It won’t guarantee a full pardon, but you won’t have to stew over the unknown.
“You will have made a problem less bad, and that’s the goal of damage control,” says Eric Dezenhall, the author of Damage Control: Why Everything You Know about Crisis Management Is Wrong.
Soften the Blow
The stressor: You’re worried about How to Give Tough Criticism To an Employee.
Beat that stress: Deliver the bad with an ample dose of the good.
Saying nothing when things are acceptable does not count, says Albert Bernstein, Ph.D., a psychologist and the author of Emotional Vampires. Keep track in your head. Your kind-to-unkind ratio has to be 4:1 to ensure that respect is built up and communication lines stay open.
After that, structure the bad news like, “When you’re late, I feel like you’re not fully committed. Was that your intention?” You’re making your point, but by giving him the benefit of the doubt, you’re avoiding arguments that go quickly and resentfully to nowhere.
Focus on the Success in Failure
The stressor: Your kid’s soccer team is down 8-0 and your kid is the goalie.
Beat that stress: Focus on the success inherent in failure.
Release tension by yelling encouraging stuff; you’re concentrating positive energy on other people and helping the little version of yourself dying in front of the net.
In the car after the game, tell him how proud you were of his bravery/composure/intensity and that you weren’t disappointed in him. Share a quick story about how you once ate it. You want him to see that coming up short isn’t the ultimate indignity.
“Those who don’t know how to fail are those who don’t take chances,” Dr. Bostic says.
The stressor: It’s review time and you know that You Should Be Making More Money Than You Are.
Beat that stress: Repeat yourself. You think your value is obvious. Your boss has other distractions, so go in armed with bullet points of your achievements.
But don’t just say them once. “One plus one equals two, but so does four minus two,” says Gregg Clifton, the chief operating officer of Gaylord Sports Management. Find different ways to support the same point.
Lead with, “I increased sales 12 percent.” Later, say, “About that 12 percent, it was 43 percent over the industry average—it was the best the department has ever seen—expenses didn’t rise at all.” Hammering it from different angles will register with the man signing your soon-to-be-larger check.
Confine Your Ex to Paper
The stressor: You want to start dating again, but you still can’t forget the ex.
Beat that stress: Confine her to paper.
Make a list of all the things you’re going to miss. Making a hard copy creates new connections in your brain, and, with that, new ways to consider your situation, says Peter Pearson, Ph.D., codirector of the Couples Institute in Menlo Park, California.
Look at the list and ask yourself if she has a monopoly on those qualities. If your answer is no, you can conceive of a future with someone else. You’ll have a kind of emotional replacement to-do list, and there’s nothing like a to-do list to turbocharge your psyche. And then avoid these 15 Dating Mistakes You Are Probably Making.
Go Over Critical Steps
The stressor: You need to handle all the details of a complex operation just so or disaster will ensue.
Beat that stress: In the moment before you begin, take a mental inventory of the critical steps to success.
Here’s how Ali Rezai, M.D., a neurosurgeon at the Cleveland Clinic, preps for the first cut.
“While I’m scrubbing my hands, I’m reviewing all the aspects of the case. That puts me into a highly focused state and cleans my mind of distractions. During surgery, I’m constantly reviewing the steps with the operating-room staff. It takes everyone onto the next page and into a rhythm. When I’m faced with an emergency, the calmer I am, the calmer everyone else becomes.”
Smile, Nod, and Ask Questions
The stressor: You’re meeting her family or friends for the first time.
Beat that stress: Channel Matt Lauer and be your charming, head-nodding, inquisitive best.
Asking them questions takes the focus off you, and their judgment will be that you’re concerned with and interested in others.
Drop in a well-placed, “I love how she always wants to learn something new,” to show that you understand and admire your new girlfriend—and to nail opening night, says the psychologist Ann Demarais.
Bonus tip: When they ask you a question, focus on how it’s asked—bluntly or anecdotally—and respond the same way. Rick Brinkman, author of Dealing with People You Can’t Stand, says that matching question style and answer style gives you the best chance of being heard.
You should also be aware of these Red Flags When You Finally Meet Her Family, too.
Don’t Try to Be Perfect
The stressor: Success is at hand, if you can just close the deal.
Beat that stress: Don’t try to be perfect.
Just play your role and rely on others who are focused on the same goal. Joe Nathan, a Minnesota Twins reliever, has one of the most high-stress jobs in sports: closer.
Here’s his mental process, leading up to the last three outs: “Around the seventh inning, I go through some visualization—seeing myself on the mound, making certain pitches. It puts me in a relaxed state and allows me to focus on something I need to do rather than watching somebody else.
“When I’m on the mound, I try not to overthink the situation. It’s about being aggressive, pounding the strike zone, and trusting my defense. It takes the heat off. I don’t have to be perfect, so I can relax and throw a better pitch.”