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How to Keep a Cool Head in Volatile Situations

by Elise Wile

In "The Hunger Games," Katniss Everdeen calmly shoots a hive of lethal hornets onto the heads of the ruthless killers who have forced her to stay hidden in a tree all night. Watching the movie, you may think you'd never be capable of such grace under pressure, but you might surprise yourself. Learn a few techniques and you may find the odds are "ever in your favor" when you encounter a volatile situation.

Breathe. It's something you do anyway, so no one will notice that you're activating a calming technique as you wait to see whether or not your uncle is going to lose his temper after you've told him you've decided to sell the family homestead. The American Medical Association notes that slow, deep abdominal breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, helping to slow your heart rate and relax your muscles.

Engage one of your senses. If you're hyper-focused on completing an intricate flower doodle, for example, you'll find it easier to keep your cool as you listen to your boss berate you on the phone for a mistake. Everyone is different, however. If drawing doesn't calm you down, try engaging your sense of taste by popping a peppermint in your mouth, or fine-tune your sense of hearing -- count how many times you hear your irate supervisor say the word "and" as she rants.

Distance yourself from high-strung people who doubt your ability to cope with the situation or emit vibes of fear. In a February 2013 article for "Psychology Today," Christopher Bergland notes that anxiety is catching and can affect the vagus nerve. Because the vagus nerve is responsible for moderating response to stress, it makes sense to stay away from anxious or fearful colleagues.

Train for the situation. Although not all volatile situations are predictable, some are. If you work with emotionally disturbed youth, for example, crisis intervention techniques can help you calmly de-escalate an irate teen, even as he appears ready to fight or bolt for the door. Simple drills such as fire drills can help you to better handle a related crisis, notes Taylor Clark in a May 2011 article in "Slate."

Teach yourself resilience-enhancing techniques. Clark writes that people who view change as an opportunity rather than a threat tend to perform better under stress. The same is true for people who take a proactive approach to improving stress-inducing situations and those who are committed to engaging in the world rather than withdrawing. These behaviors can be learned, and are even taught in the U.S. Army.

Warning

  • Remember that sometimes keeping a cool head means having the presence of mind to pick up the phone and call 911. Don't try to be a hero if professional help is available.

About the Author

Elise Wile has been a writer since 2003. Holding a master's degree in curriculum and Instruction, she has written training materials for three school districts. Her expertise includes mentoring, serving at-risk students and corporate training.

Photo Credits

  • Creatas Images/Creatas/Getty Images