How to Manage Your Emotions in High Stress Situations

Eli Straw
How to Manage Your Emotions in High Stress Situations

Your ability to regulate and manage the emotions that spring up in a stressful situation has a direct correlation with the success you will achieve in these moments.

In high-pressure situations, it’s the athletes who are able to manage their emotional reactions that we admire. The individuals who always seem cool and unflinching, even in the midst of what we would perceive to be incredible amounts of pressure.

How do they do this? How is it that some people seem immune to the normal effects felt in stressful situations? It all boils down to the emotional control they possess.

By keeping your emotional reactions in check, you too can be relaxed, confident, and at ease no matter the situation you find yourself in. In order to do this, however, you must learn how to manage your emotions.

What is a High-Stress Situation?

What do you deem to be a high-stress situation? It’s an interesting question because we all perceive stress differently. What may feel stressful to me could be a walk in the park for you and vice versa.

If you do not understand the individual perceptions that play into pressure-filled moments, you could easily feel shame for experiencing them as stressful. But, no matter what situation you are in, it could be categorized as stressful in your own mind.

I’ve known guys who didn’t feel any stress during moments in a game when I would be shaking from head to toe. It’s not that I was weak or there was something wrong with me, but the fact was, they perceived pressure differently than I did.

The truth is, stress and pressure are of our own making. Now, this does not make the situation easier to manage or deter from the fact that our unregulated emotions can completely derail our performances.

What it does do, however, is provide us with insight into why we feel pressure and stress while others do not. One of the worst mindsets we can adopt is the belief that we are weak or there is something wrong with us for feeling stress.

This leads to us trying to hide our thoughts and emotions, furthering the lack of control we have over both. But recognizing the individual responsibility and influence we have in our perception of stress allows us to be more understanding with ourselves.

When we are experiencing pressure, there are three factors at play, combining to generate a state of stress:

The Situation

There will be no need to feel stress without a situation spawning the pressure resulting in your stressful state. So, we first must begin with an environment that promotes pressure.

Let’s take a look at this in terms of athletics. As an athlete, there are numerous situations that can be perceived as stressful. From whole games to crunch time moments, where you feel winning and losing fall on your shoulder.

The key, however, is the situation must have some outcome that is meaningful to you. For example, let’s say you’re a soccer player who is about to shoot a penalty kick. The whole game boils down to this one kick.

You begin to feel incredible amounts of stress, why? Because the outcome of the game has been placed on this singular moment. The entire game leading up to the kick does not matter. All your mind sees is the weight that now lays on the shot in front of you.

Cognitive Response

What about the situation is responsible for the pressure and stress you feel? Is it the act itself? No, going off the example above, you would have practiced that same shot, over and over since you began playing soccer.

It’s not the action that’s truly stressful, but your cognitive response to the situation. What would be going through your mind if you were stepping up to deliver a penalty kick, in hopes of winning the game for your team?

Well, if you are feeling stress or surreal amounts of pressure, your cognition will look something like this:

  • “I hope I don’t miss this shot.”
  • “What will my teammates think of me if I miss; I don’t want to let them down.”
  • “My coaches will be so mad if I miss.”
  • “All of the fans, my teammates, and coaches are counting on me. I have to make this shot.”

This is known as self-talk, and in this situation, it is doing absolutely nothing to reduce the pressure and stress you feel. In fact, it is the direct cause of the emotions you are experiencing at the moment.

Emotional Reaction

Now that your mind is firing, speaking to yourself, transitioning the situation from just another shot into a monumental moment, it’s time for your emotions to be ignited.

Our feelings are a direct response to our thoughts. In this situation, you are thinking about the outcome, more specifically, you are worried about what will happen if you miss.

That’s one of the main characteristics of stressful situations. Rarely do we focus on the positive feelings of success. Our minds become fixated on the threat of failure. As your thoughts come flooding in, concerned about not missing, your emotions will align with your thinking.

At this point, you will begin to experience stress. Feelings of stress will grow within you, resulting in more worrisome thoughts, contributing to further feelings of pressure.

You are now caught in a vicious cycle, where the thoughts and feelings you experience are feeding off one another. These three factors, the situation, your cognitive response, and your emotional reaction, have just made up a moment you are perceiving as stressful.

"That’s one of the main characteristics of stressful situations. Rarely do we focus on the positive feelings of success. Our minds become fixated on the threat of failure. As your thoughts come flooding in, concerned about not missing, your emotions will align with your thinking."

Two Phases of Managing Your Emotions

When in a stressful situation, it’s your emotions that are what get in your way. Since stress and pressure are emotional responses, managing your emotions is a natural target to aspire for.

So, how do you go about managing your emotions, especially when right now, it may seem like the way you feel is completely out of your control? Well, for starters, you must accept that your emotional state, at any given time, is one-hundred percent within your control.

This means you are the one holding the power to change your emotional state. Just imagine, in a situation during a game or performance when you used to feel insane amounts of pressure, you’re now calm, relaxed, and confident.

How much better would you perform?

Your performances would improve so much, you may even gain the title of a clutch performer. Now, who doesn’t want that?

In order to get to that point, you need to develop the skill of managing your emotions. Yes, it is a skill any of us can learn. The more you practice altering your emotional state, the better you will become at doing so during stressful moments.

There are two phases to managing your emotions. First, you need to build a general control of your mind. Next, you need to learn how to manage your emotions in the moment.

"So, how do you go about managing your emotions, especially when right now, it may seem like the way you feel is completely out of your control? Well, for starters, you must accept that your emotional state, at any given time, is one-hundred percent within your control."

Building Mental Control

For the first phase, your focus is going to be centered around cultivating mental control. What is mental control? It’s the ability to regulate your own thoughts and feelings, subsequently leading to mastery over yourself.

This is a broad approach to managing your emotions in high-stress situations, as it allows you, over time, to gain the mental strength necessary to be placed in such environments and remain calm and confident.

So, how do you go about developing mental control?

Everything stems from our cognitive reactions, meaning the thoughts that fill your mind in any given moment. If your goal is to gain better control over such mental processes, you must learn to control your thoughts.

There are two techniques you can employ, which will provide you with such mastery: cognitive restructuring and mindfulness.

Cognitive Restructuring

Restructuring your thoughts allows you to take control of the natural cognitive processes that are present within your mind. We all have thought patterns that have become ingrained into our heads.

The question is, are the thought patterns you exhibit right now helping or hurting you?

Now, when it comes to managing your emotions, if you struggle in high-pressure situations, it is likely that your thought patterns are negative.

What must take place is an alteration to your natural way of thinking. That is where cognitive restructuring comes into play. It is the process of locating negative thought patterns and replacing them with positive ones.

If you would like to learn how you can perform cognitive restructuring on yourself, check out an in-depth article that shows you step-by-step how to do so here.

Performing such restructuring on your mind requires you to better understand the mind itself. An action that becomes much easier the calmer your mind becomes.


A calm mind is a mind within your control. It is one where picking and choosing which thoughts are helpful and which are not becomes an easier task. Quieting your mind is not possible, as long as it lives in either the past or future.

Gaining mental control involves the ability to center your attention in the present moment. Anxiety and fear live in the future, as depression is fueled by the past. In a high-stress situation, allowing your mind to drift in either direction is cause for trouble.

You need to develop the ability to control where your attention is placed. This is known as mindfulness: the ability to center your focus completely on the present moment.

Once you adopt this skill, managing your emotions becomes possible. If you are centered on the here and now, the thoughts which drive anxiety and fear will find no residence within your mind.

As with any skill, mindfulness must be trained. There are multiple ways this can be done, but the one I have found to be the most impactful is mindfulness meditation. If you would like to learn how you can start a mindfulness practice of your own, click here.

Managing Emotions In The Moment

The previous section involved gaining control of your mind over time. Both processes require work to reap lasting results, though the rewards of which are incredible. But, what can you do if you’re expecting to find yourself in a high-stress situation, let’s say…tomorrow?

Well, no need to worry, there are certain strategies you can use to take the power away from your free-flowing emotions and place it back into your hands. Four strategies, to be exact, all of which will enable you to manage your emotions in high-stress situations.

Focus on Your Breath

This is going to be very similar to the mindfulness practice discussed above. By developing a mindfulness routine, over time, your natural state begins to shift more into the present moment. However, we can get a similar response by consciously becoming mindful.

In order to get yourself into a state of mindfulness, you need to choose a place to focus your attention. The best place to start is your breath. There are two reasons for this.

One, by focusing on your breath, you take your attention away from thoughts of the future or negative memories of the past. Second, by focusing on your breath, you will also begin to breathe deeper, placing your body and mind into a more relaxed state.

Try breathing in for a count of five and out for a count of ten. Counting breaths ensures you are breathing deeply and automatically forces you to focus on your breath.

"In order to get yourself into a state of mindfulness, you need to choose a place to focus your attention. The best place to start is your breath."

Remember Past Successes

Another strategy for managing your emotions in high-stress situations is to remind yourself of past times in which you’ve succeeded.

For some reason, in these moments, it’s natural for our minds to become consumed with memories of failure rather than memories of success. Instead, you want to remind yourself of all the times you performed that same act successfully.

Now, this does not mean you have to remember the exact moments where you succeeded under pressure. Simply remind yourself of times you were successful within your performance.

As you do this, confidence will begin to grow, and you will become more at ease since you trust yourself to once again succeed.

Turn To Gratitude

A main culprit of performing poorly in high-pressure situations is anxiety. When you are fearful of choking, of not pulling through under stress, your thoughts grow anxious.

Extreme worry sets in as to what will happen if you fail, how much you don’t want to fail, and so on. Managing your emotions greatly involves controlling the anxiety that runs rampant during these moments.

Gratitude is a fantastic tool to ward off anxious thinking. Anxiety is centered around thoughts about the future. You are terribly worried about what may happen, and your thoughts become fixated on that possibility.

By turning to gratitude, reminding yourself of what you have to be thankful for in the moment, you eliminate many of the worries about the future.

You are grounding yourself in this moment, much like you did by focusing on your breath. This one is very difficult to do, especially during moments of high stress, but gratitude works wonders to shift you into a more positive state.  

Shift Your Awareness Onto The Process

When you’re in a pressure-filled, stressful situation, what do you tend to focus on? I would say ninety-nine percent of us are focused on one thing only…the outcome.

Going back to why we feel pressure in the first place, the outcome, or the end result is what fuels these feelings of stress. If you did not care about the outcome of your performance, the situation would no longer contain so much pressure.

Well, wanting to perform your best does not make it easy for you to forget about the outcome. Of course, you desire a certain result from the performance. So, instead of saying you don’t care what happens, you simply shift your attention to the process.

Focus on the process that will enable you to achieve the result you’re after. Pay attention to your responsibilities, and the little things that will play into a successful outcome. This will bring your attention to the present moment, and take it away from outcome-oriented thinking.

Final Thoughts

Managing your emotions in high-stress situations can mean the difference between success and failure. How well you can control your mind dictates the level of focus you have and your ability to reach peak performance.

No matter where the pressure is coming from, if you are feeling it in the moment, it can derail your focus and result in low levels of performance.

So, you must begin to work on your ability to manage your emotions under pressure. There are two phases to this. You first should undergo a strategy to gain mental control over time.

Next, you need to have a toolkit full of strategies you can employ, in the moment, to control your emotions. If you focus on these two phases, managing your emotions in high-stress situations will be within your grasp.

How do you handle your emotions under stress? Does the pressure you feel often result in lower levels of performance?

I hope you enjoyed this article, and if you did, please feel free to share it with others.

If you are struggling to perform well under pressure, learn how one-on-one mental performance coaching will put you on the fast track to remaining calm, cool, and confident, even in the most stressful situations.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

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