Maintaining Focus in Stressful Situations

Centering - Maintaining Focus in Stressful Situations.

Finding your center can help you feel grounded.

© iStockphoto/Anmfoto

Imagine that you're about to give the most important speech of your life. The audience is packed with people you want to impress. How do you feel?

According to a 2012 survey by Karen Dwyer and Marlina Davidson, public speaking is our number one fear. If, like many people, the prospect of speaking in front of an audience is your worst nightmare, you'd probably be terrified.

There are all sorts of occasions in life when our nerves can get the better of us. Feelings of anxiety – a rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, sweating, and light-headedness – are normal in these situations.

Fortunately, with a little practice, you can turn this nervous energy into positive concentration using a technique called "Centering."

What is Centering?

Centering is an ancient visualization   technique that originated in Aikido – the Japanese defensive martial art of "spiritual harmony." It teaches you to focus on the here and now, taking power away from outside concerns and negative thoughts, and helping you remain stable and grounded.

Aikido trains your mind to control your body's reactions using the concept of "ki." This holds that all physical and mental power comes from the flow of energy around your body. Energy is lost when you are tense or stressed, but Centering redirects negative energy in a beneficial way.

Think back to a time when you were feeling stressed or afraid. What physical reactions did you experience? Tense muscles, rapid breathing, sweating palms, and a racing heart are all common reactions to a stressful situation.

Now, imagine that all of these feelings are the result of energy flowing through your body. Centering uses your mind to redirect this energy to the center of your body, giving you a sense of inner calm.

The technique was adopted as a power-enhancing tool by sport psychologist Dr Robert Nideffer in the mid-1970s, and he outlined it in his 1992 book, "Psyched to Win." It was also championed by performance coach Dr Don Greene in his 2002 book, "Fight Your Fear and Win."

When Centering is Useful

You can use Centering to improve your focus and manage stress before a speech, musical recital, exam, job interview, negotiation, or sporting event… whenever you need to keep a clear head in difficult circumstances.

Centering can also be useful in more everyday situations. If you need to gather your thoughts before a difficult conversation, or if you have to deliver bad news  , use Centering to channel your nerves so that you can communicate clearly, compassionately and effectively.

How to Center Yourself

There are three steps to Centering:

Step 1: Focus on Your Breathing

Concentrate on breathing deeply, using your diaphragm to draw air all the way down into your lungs.


If you're not familiar with deep breathing  , try this exercise:

Lie on the floor, or somewhere comfortable but supported. Place one hand on your stomach, and take a deep breath in through your nose. Use the air you breathe in to push against your hand. Your chest and shoulders shouldn't move – only your stomach. Exhale slowly and deliberately through your mouth.

Spend a while completely focusing on your breathing.

Mindfully release the tension in your body. Continue to breathe slowly and deeply, while scanning your body for feelings of tension. Start with your toes and work your way up your body, paying attention to each group of muscles as you go. Relax any muscles that feel tense by clenching them and then releasing them.

Step 2: Find Your Center

Locate your "physical center of gravity" which, in Centering, is visualized as being about two inches below your navel. Become familiar with where your center is, and remember what it feels like – you'll probably find that you feel grounded and stabilized by focusing your mind on this part of your body.

When you begin to feel stressed, turn your attention to your center to remind yourself that you have balance and control. Once you've found it, breathe in and out deeply at least five times. Continue to concentrate on your center and feel the sensation of being stabilized and on the ground.

Step 3: Redirect Your Energy

Finally, channel your energy into achieving your goal.

Imagine all of the energy in your body flowing into your center. Find some imagery   that works for you, for example picture this energy as a glowing ball, or perhaps a balloon. Visualize putting all of your negative thoughts into the balloon and then releasing it. As you inhale, say "l let..." and as you exhale, say "... go."

If you picture your energy as a ball, imagine throwing it far into the distance. If you see it as a balloon, imagine it floating away above your head. Let go of everything that is causing you to feel stressed. Imagine your center filled with calm.

On your next inhalation, think about what you want to achieve, and focus on thinking positively  . Use affirmations   like, "The job is mine," or "I give great presentations," while letting your tensions go. You could even repeat one word to yourself, such as "success," or "confidence."

Practice Makes Perfect

Using Centering confidently takes some practice. It's useful to start learning how to use it long before you actually have to do something very stressful. Try using the technique during situations that cause you stress on a smaller scale – perhaps with something you experience at work each day.

Another way to practice Centering is to put your body through a stressful experience, and then try to center yourself.

For example, musicians often practice Centering before they give a performance. To put themselves under stress, they might run up and down several flights of stairs, and then immediately play their piece, either alone or in front of others.

Physical exertion is a good way of simulating the symptoms of stress because the physical reactions – a pounding heart and shortness of breath – are very similar. Try this approach, and then center yourself using the steps above so that, when you're really feeling stressed, you'll know what to do.

Once you've mastered Centering, you can use it any time you feel stressed and out of control. It will also teach you to trust your instincts when faced with a difficult situation.


You can learn more about Centering in our Expert Interview, Performing Under Pressure with Dr Don Greene.

Key Points

Centering is a technique that is widely practiced in the martial art Aikido and in other types of sport and performing arts. It's useful for remaining grounded, calm and relaxed in stressful situations, but it works best if you practice using it beforehand.

Learning how to use Centering is as simple as 1, 2, 3:

  1. Focus on your breathing.
  2. Find your center.
  3. Redirect your energy.

By becoming skilled at Centering, you can learn to master stress, rather than stress mastering you.

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Comments (9)
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Sam,
    I'm pleased to say that the meeting went well on Monday! As I was waiting to be seen, I did some quick centering and breathing techniques that helped center and ground me. So a timely reminder! Thanks.

    I think that is a great mantra or affirmation to say to ourselves affirm ... that whatever the outcome ... it will not define my life. When we have a strong sense of ourselves, of who we are and how we are, knowing that whatever happens may not define our lives. Yet, it can take some time to develop that strong sense of identify so that we are not shaken and stirred up by the events around us!

    For me, before any big 'performance', re-affirming who and how I am and centering myself means I go into whatever I am about to face with a level of confidence that all will be well! Yet saying that, there are times that I have to keep on repeating that to convince myself!!

    Who else practicing centering before a big performance? How do you do this and how does it help?

  • sam_dubai wrote Over a month ago
    Thanks Midge. I'm glad I can support.
    I have come to understand that since our minds are not used to "sitting still" it will resist it specialty if it has good excuse for that like getting ready for an important presentation.

    My meditation involves deep breathing and moving my focus across the five senses and then connecting to the divine.

    It also helps me to affirm during meditation that whatever the outcome of that which I'm about to get involved in it will not define my life.
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Sam,
    Thanks for those words today!

    When I did my meditation this morning, I was 'all over the place' and that was probably because I am about to head out for an appointment at 9am which I'm feeling somewhat stressed about.

    Your words have reminded me to center myself, connect with my Source energy, and stay present (and stick to the facts rather than my interpretation of facts!).

  • sam_dubai wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Everyone,

    I like this tool! I meditate every morning and it helps me relax and become present. As a former Aikido practitioner myself I attest to the power of the Ki and sensing the center of your body. If you connect to this source of energy within you while meditating it helps you stay grounded. I will now remember to incorporate this part in my meditation as I connect to my inner body.

    By learning to silence our mind and connect to the present we can transcend our fears and mental distractions.

    I would like to add that depending on how deeply we are connected to the present moment some fear and doubt may still exist in our mind despite our meditation. However, if we are but aware that such fears are only projections of the mind and not reality we can wade through them and deliver that speech or go for the job interview regardless.

    As we learn to ignore the negative voices of our mind they will become weaker and the inner positive voice will gradually become more present to support us.
  • TomH wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Everyone

    We’ve given this popular article a review, and the updated version is now at

    Discuss the article by replying to this post!


  • Helena wrote Over a month ago

    We've just put up the transcript of our Expert Interview with Dr Don Green on Performing Under Pressure - and many of the things that Don talks about fit in well with this discussion on Centering.

    Click here to download the transcript - or you can listen if you prefer, of course! ... ancestress

    Best wishes

  • jlepore wrote Over a month ago
    Wow, I am blown away.
    I am very very big into aikido, I have practiced it for about 15 years now. And here I am in my first couple weeks membership of MindTools, and I see a reference to it.

    I have applied principles of aikido to all areas of my life and all of my pursuits. The centering and breathing that this article discusses is crucial in staying composed, making decisions you can be happy about later, and just handling all of the emotional 'storms' that occurr in the workplace.

    The abdominal breathing and centering can really do wonders for you to focus and detach yourself from problems that sometimes aren't even really there. On trick is not to necessarily "control" your breath but more to pay attention to it observe it as it occurs naturally. Make sure not to keep it in your chest...breathe from your belly.

    Anyway....nice article!!
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    The centering technique is really useful in any time that you experience stress. Being someone who can really worry about things, a similar technique has helped me to just calm my thoughts and think about things rationally and thereby enabling myself to ask some questions such as "Is it fact or is it feeling?" / "Is it fact or someone's opinion?" / "What is the worst thing that could happen if this comes true...?" etc.

    Just as a matter of interest, I'm reading "Destructive Emotions" by Daniel Goleman at present. Three of the most destructive emotions are hatred, craving and delusion. Personally I think that using centering will also help one to overcome these emotions and not succumb to them or the destructive behaviour that they will result in.

  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    This centering technique is one that many athletes use before their events, and, they find their 'center point' by imagining a vertical line through the middle of their body and then a horizontal line through the middle of their body. Where the vertical and horizontal lines intersect, that is their center.

    You can play around with becoming aware of your 'center point' by imagining that the horizontal line drops down and get a sense of how that feels. Now, raise the horizontal line upwards and see how that feels. You can also play around with shifting the vertical line from one side to the next.

    By becoming aware of how that 'center point' feels can help you to feel more grounded, centered and focused. This in turn reduces your sense of negative stress.

    Definitely worth practicing on a regular basis!

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