The day is cool and sunny in Rio de Janeiro as Miguel Durán mounts his swimming block in the Summer Olympics men’s 400m freestyle heat. He slaps his thighs twice to loosen up as he bends over, placing his feet and hands on their marks. As the announcer directs the swimmers to get ready, Miguel begins to slowly tip forward and, to the crowd and judges’ complete surprise, dives headfirst into his lane before the sound of the buzzer.
Alone in the pool, he slaps the water and breaks down into tears as he realizes that this tiny mistake has resulted in his immediate disqualification. By jumping the gun, everything Miguel ever sacrificed to get to this one moment has gone to waste. He has come to compete with the very best and, despite all of his training, has buckled under the pressure.
Over the course of this past year, I have often found myself replaying Miguel’s teary-eyed pool scene, not because I am training for the Olympics, but for the lesson it imparts.
As CEO of my company Jotform, I am no stranger to being faced with difficult decisions and stressful situations. This year has been unique in the exceptional level of stress, both personally and professionally, for myself and for all of my +290 employees. As I lead my company through this difficult time, Miguel’s story reminds me of the catastrophic effects that can occur when we let stress get the best of us.
The science of stress
Unfortunately, evolution is not on our side when it comes to staying calm in stressful situations. To avoid being eaten by predators or any other life-threatening situation, our bodies developed a “fight, flight or freeze” response to stress. The cause can be either external, such as a traffic jam, or internal, such as anxiety over an upcoming deadline at work, but in both cases, the body will produce a cascade of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.
Not only can our bodies overreact to stress stimulus, but research has shown that chronic long-term stress is bad for our health and excessive cortisol levels can lead to serious complications. In the workplace, chronic work-related stress can lead to a psychological syndrome called burnout. Early warning signs of an impending burnout are overwhelming exhaustion, cynicism and a sense of ineffectiveness.
If that doesn’t sound bad enough, it gets worse. Burnout can cause conflict between employees and become contagious, spreading stress like a virus through the workplace. Studies also show that it decreases job productivity while increasing absenteeism and job turnover, which are all very detrimental to creating a positive work environment.
Although it may feel like burnout is a modern phenomenon, it has existed since the beginning of mankind. In Sonnet 29, Shakespeare even admitted to falling prey to its power. His answer? Love, of course.
Unfortunately, love often isn’t enough to save us from burnout, especially when surveys show that high stress is becoming the new normal for the majority of Americans. For the times when love doesn’t cut it, I have a few tricks that I learned while building Jotform that have always helped me keep my cool under pressure.
You are proofreading the report that you wrote with a fellow coworker when suddenly you realize an entire section is missing. The report must be sent to clients the following morning and your colleague has completely dropped the ball. Your heart begins to race, your chest tightens and you begin to take short, shallow breaths. This is your body reacting to stress and deep breathing can help you stop the fight or flight response.
I have tried many different breathing techniques, but what has always helped me in a pinch, is the 4–7–8 technique. It is easy, straightforward and can be done anywhere at any time. When you feel anxious or stressed, breath in for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of seven and exhale through your mouth for a count of eight.
Not only does deep breathing decrease stress, but it also has numerous other health benefits such as enhanced blood oxygenation, decreased anxiety, improved sleep and gut health. I often practice deep breathing even when I don’t feel the need to do so and it helps me respond appropriately when it matters most.
It might seem like I’m stating the obvious here, but scientists have found that chronic stress can lead people to develop a mental filter that shades everything with a layer of negativity. People in this state might hastily jump to erroneous conclusions, such as “I think my boss hates me”, or feel like they can’t cope with stressors, thinking “If I don’t respond to all these emails today, I’ll get fired.”
The best way to deal with such thoughts is to treat them like hypotheses and challenge the truth of what you are thinking. Stress has caused your brain to go into a negative hyperdrive and the best way to stay calm is to turn those negative thoughts into positive ones. When I find myself thinking, “I can’t do this”, I quickly change the conversation in my head to something positive like “I’ll do the best I can” or “I know how to deal with this.”
I remember the first time I saw a complex math equation in school and my palms immediately started sweating. There were more letters than numbers, parentheses, exponentials and then, as if that wasn’t already enough, multiplication and division. Pencil gripped in sweaty hand, I was convinced that my teacher had gone mad. This equation was far beyond my high school capabilities.
My teacher stepped up to the board and assured us that the equation, although intimidating, was very much solvable. The only thing we needed to know was the mathematical order of operations, which defines the priority in which complex math equations are solved.
Approaching stressful situations like a complex math equation, breaking down the big problems into smaller parts, has helped me find solutions to both personal and professional problems that feel overwhelming.
When describing a method for evaluating the logic of a statement, Descartes once said, “Divide each difficulty into as many parts as is feasible and necessary to resolve it.” It’s important to take one step at a time instead of trying to tackle everything at once. Problems, like objects in a rearview mirror, can often appear bigger than they actually are.
You might be surprised to learn that Miguel Durán’s Olympic dream didn’t die when he prematurely dove into the pool that fateful day in Rio. Instead, the Olympic committee decided to give him a second chance, declaring that his false start wasn’t his fault. Luck was on his side, as more often than not, we can’t count on getting second chances in life. How we handle ourselves when the going gets tough often defines the path of our future. The choice of who we are when it matters most is ours, so let’s make the right one.