Well-Being//

Here’s How 3 People in High-Stress Jobs Keep Calm Under Pressure

What we can learn about handling stress from a surgeon, a firefighter, and an air force pilot.

Three Images/ Getty Images
Three Images/ Getty Images

When I find myself getting stressed out, I often calm my nerves by downplaying the severity of the situation in my head. “This isn’t life or death,” I remind myself. The tactic usually works, and within a moment, I’m able to take a deep breath, and remember that the frustrating situation isn’t as big a deal as I initially imagined. But what about people who do face those big-deal, life-or-death stresses on a regular basis?

“When I ask general audiences if they can control their stress level to make it work for them, no more than half say they can,” Esther M. Sternberg, M.D., told Real Simple. “If I ask audiences of pilots or neurosurgeons the same question, they all say they can.” Sternberg makes a good point: Individuals who have to face stressful, emergent situations on a regular basis have often mastered how to cope with pressure, simply because their jobs require them to do so.

In order to better learn to deal with our daily points of tension, it can be helpful to look to those who have to mitigate their stress in order to succeed at what they do — people like firefighters, surgeons, and pilots. And by hearing about their experiences, we can better learn how to alleviate the anxious feelings that flood our own minds.

Here are stories of three people who work in high-stress environments, and their practical tactics on how to remain calm.

The Pediatric Surgeon

Dr. Tali Lando Aronoff, M.D., age 42, is a full-time pediatric otolaryngology (ENT) surgeon with a busy practice split between her office in Westchester, and the operating room. When it comes to coping with stress, she says staying centered is a daily task. “The world of surgery is all about stressful situations,” Aronoff tells Thrive. “To some degree, I thrive on the adrenaline rush in the operating room, where my skills are put to the test. The problem is that life stress is often generated from multiple areas: work, home, husband, kids. All these simultaneous stressors can max out my ability to manage stress productively.”

Aronoff says the pressure of the operating room coupled with responsibilities at home can cause a buildup of anxious thoughts in her head, and in those moments, she actively works on adjusting her mentality. “I try to find the moment within a stressful day that has some levity — and focus on it,” she explains. “That may be as simple as sharing a laugh with a fellow nurse in my operating room. Sometimes, it’s blasting The Lumineers while I complete my charting.” Aronoff says focusing on small moments of joy helps her in the moments that are more anxiety-provoking.

“Extracting these little nuggets within the framework of my stressful day invigorates me,” she adds. “It helps me face the constant challenges.”

The Fire Department Officer

Joseph Oginski, age 27, is the First Assistant Emergency Medical Services Chief at a firehouse in Long Island, N.Y., and he says that in his job, the stress often peaks after the call is over. “The other day, we had a cardiac arrest that we responded to,” he tells Thrive. “The person unfortunately didn’t make it.”

Oginski says as a crew member, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed by situations like these, but he finds it important as a team to actively remind one another that they did everything they could in the stressful situation. “Oftentimes people don’t want to talk about the stress of the job, but if you feel anxious that you did something wrong, it’s important to bring it up,” he adds. “We even have a program called CISD — critical incident stress debriefing — and if people experience a traumatic event, they’re encouraged to talk about it.”

When it comes to mitigating the everyday pressures that come with working in emergency medical services, Oginski says that getting physical exercise is helpful for getting his mind off of the heavy nature of the job. “It’s important to separate work time from personal time,” he shares. “When things get hectic, I find exercise to be helpful. We have a gym in the fire house, so it helps to go for a long run, and take a hot shower afterward. It brings you back down.”

The Air Force Pilot

Jason Harris, age 40, served in the special operations unit as a mobility pilot in the US Air Force until 2013, and today, he’s moved over to the joint logistics unit in Colorado Springs, while also working as a commercial airline pilot. He has dealt with tier one units on classified missions, and has often had to navigate high-pressure circumstances, with human lives at stake. “Anyone can learn to fly, but not everyone can learn how to navigate the pressure in the Air Force,” he tells Thrive. “There will always be stressors on the job, and part of our training is learning how to cope with that stress in ways that are creative and effective.”

Harris says the mental preparation for air force pilots is about learning to react in fight-or-flight situations, when you don’t have the time to think about your next move. “When you don’t have enough time, it forces you to compartmentalize,” he explains. “You learn to process what happens in an instant, and then choose how to react.” Harris says that in his most stressful situations, he has been able to cope with the pressure by going through a lineup of steps in his head, which pilots are taught to repeat during their training. “We’re trained to react to specific emergencies by doing repeating exercises, where we repeat the correct steps in our heads over and over again, until it’s muscle memory,” he explains. “The steps are so ingrained in your head, that you begin to condition yourself to manage that stress based on your knowledge of reacting to situations quickly.”

Finally, Harris says that when you work in a high-stress environment, putting your mental well-being first is critical — and he’s learned this lesson time and again while in the air. “When the stress happens in the air, your body’s physiological response can take over,” he explains. “If you don’t first take care of your body, mind and spirit, you won’t be in the position to react calmly to the emergency when it happens.”

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