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How To Stay Focused Under Stress

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Some of us panic under pressure, others freeze when we're stressed. Here's how to stay focused under stress, from family and lifestyle journalist Ylonda Caviness.

LISA: For howdini, I'm Lisa Birnbach. Look we've all been there, under pressure to complete an assignment at work and suddenly we're just stuck. Literally can't think straight. How do you de-stress in that situation? Ylonda Caviness, a lifestyle editor who writes for a variety of magazines has advice for all of us who get stressed out under pressure all the time. Thank you for being here Ylonda. How do people keep clearheaded when they're stressed out?

YLONDA: It's very difficult, the problem is though telling ourselves, I need to focus, I need to focus, and that stress only makes you less focused.

LISA: Right.

YLONDA: So it's a vicious cycle once again. You know your brain is sending you signals when you're stressed out to defend yourself. It's a fight or flight mechanism. And if you're trying to think when you're on deadline, you're not helping yourself by getting all stressed out again. So it's important to remember that stress can be good, but when you need to focus, you've got to step away, recharge, get some down time so that your brain will actually do what you want it to do.

LISA: How do you do that if you're in a situation that's stressful? For example, at the doctor's office. I notice when I'm expecting bad news or unfortunately getting not such good news that my listening isn't even that good.

YLONDA: You panic, you panic. There are a few exercises that I like to do actually. If you're really feeling the stress come on, it's very good to be aware of that when you're really feeling it come on. Step away, even if you just step away for two seconds to get like a glass of water, that can help you to sort of recharge and regroup yourself. It also help I think to just focus on something that's entirely different. It can be something you find on your desk. It can be something you find in that doctor's office. And think about that thing. Sometimes you're in an office and there's magazines of course. Think about that baby on the cover of the magazine. Think about the woman in the magazine that is running through the fields. Imagine your own self running through the meadow and that can help to bring your stress level down a bit.

LISA: In terms of problem-solving in your head at the moment of stress, you're arguing with someone, you're in a car accident, or you know you're swerving or something. How do you recommend that we do that?

YLONDA: You really cannot do yourself any justice by staying wrapped up in the moment. A lot of times people say I can't step away, I can't take a break because this is going on right now and I have to solve it, this is going on right now.

LISA: That's right, that's right, that's right!

YLONDA: You know what you do?


YLONDA: You do step away. It can be for five minutes. You go in your car. You have a car accident, you exchange information, you can go in your car and you can say--affirmations help--I'm feeling the tension come out of my body. Affirmations really help. You can just get yourself a breath of fresh air. You can just turn away from the enviroment for one second. And deal with the problem at hand. You're really wasting time. You're spinning your wheels when all the stress is making you not focus and come up with a game plan. You're spinning your wheels to make yourself stay there and come up with a game plan.

LISA: And then you feel badly about yourself and that adds more stress, right? Because you're saying what's wrong with me?

YLONDA: It happens to everybody and you can't focus when you're charging your brain to be in stress mode. You can't focus.

LISA: Now, what does it say about somebody who sort of functions in a stress mode all the time?

YLONDA: Well you know what people that do that, well it's deceiving. You know we all think the grass is greener on the other side. We always think well that person always comes up with great ideas. And what happens is, that person's brain is just as good as your brain, but that person's able to tell themselves that it's a process. Oftentimes when we are trying to come up with something and focus, everything we think we come up with is terrible. We get a defeatist type attitude. What clever people do or people that don't let that happen do is tell themselves that a) failure is not an option. So they're going to come up with something. Remind yourself of your successes. Tell yourself that you can do this, that you will do this. That failure is not an option. If you come up with something that doesn't fly, it's not a great idea, that's okay. You don't have to feel like oh I'm a loser, now I'll never get that promotion, now the boss will never recognize my idea. People who think creatively and think cleverly, that's just a test run for them. Come up with something that didn't fly, back to the drawing board. You have to be able to be somewhat resiliant to the stress mode.

LISA: And you always can, worse comes to worst, remember that you did pass finals.

YLONDA: That's right.

LISA: Once upon a time.

YLONDA: Once upon a time you got through that. It's not going to fail you again.

LISA: Right. Thank you Ylonda. I'm Lisa Birnbach for howdini.

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