How to Manage Stress Like a Fighter Pilot

Our resident psychiatrist, Dr. Samantha Boardman, offers tips for working under pressure.

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Q: I read about the Southwest Airlines pilot of a recent flight, during which an engine exploded and one passenger died, who managed to land the plane safely. When it comes to crisis situations (not even life-and-death ones), I lose focus and panic. How do I keep my cool when the pressure is on?

Freaking out will hijack the very skills you need to navigate your way through a crisis. Captain Tammie Jo Shults did the opposite of freaking out. When asked about her unflappable response to the midair crisis, she credited her training as a Navy fighter pilot. Thanks to that and her extensive experience, not only did she remain calm throughout the ordeal, she remained fully in control. When asked if she was afraid, she responded that she may have been deep down but she “pushed it away.”

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A staple of fighter-pilot training is OODA: observe, orient, decide, act. OODA provides a clear-cut strategy to optimize a response in a stressful situation. It is based on information, not emotion. OODA has applications beyond the cockpit. Next time you find yourself in a challenging situation, instead of spiraling into panic mode, observe what is going on around you, orient yourself to what is most important, decide on a plan of action, and act on it.

Dr. Samantha Boardman is a clinical instructor in psychiatry and an assistant attending psychiatrist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York and the founder of positiveprescription.com.

This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Marie Claire.

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