We’ve all been there. It’s the big moment. The one we’ve been preparing for, visualising, obsessing about for days, weeks, or longer. It’s that big interview, presentation, first date, or (in our younger days) state championship game where we needed to muster all of our skills, practice, knowledge, or charm to perform in a high-pressure scenario. We’ve been working long and hard towards this day, and we’re ready. Let’s go!
But instead of crushing that moment, you can barely breathe, have a wicked case of dry mouth, and feel a bathroom emergency brewing. With racing heart and wispy, stuttering voice, you panic, whiff, miss the shot, forget entire paragraphs. In other words, you choke.
By adulthood, we’ve all experienced performance anxiety. But besides just “being nervous,” what’s happening inside the brain and body that causes us to mess up something we’re capable of doing well?
The science behind what happens when we’re nervous
According to Sian Beilock, cognitive scientist, president of Barnard College, and author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To, “a lot of the explanation can be boiled down to the fact that, under pressure, the prefrontal cortex (the very front part of our brain that sits over our eyes) stops working the way it should.” Instead of performing demanding thinking and reasoning tasks (its usual job), a majority of the pre-frontal cortex’s resources are taken up by worrying and controlling.
Not only are we turning over possible failure scenarios in our mind, we are also trying to control the ever-loving crap out of our actions to ensure success. So, Beilock points out, details normally left outside our conscious awareness, (“e.g., in golf, too much attention devoted to how your elbow is bent as you take a 0.91 m putt you have holed thousands of times in the past”), we monitor and give excessive attention to, thus disrupting what would otherwise be a fluid performance.
The upside is, once we understand the body’s response to high-stakes situations, we can begin to intercept some of the culprits that drive us to underperform. Here are a few strategies Beilock recommends.
Reframe your interpretation of your nerves
For starters, it’s helpful to remember that the body’s response to stressful, nerve-wracking situations (stomach butterflies, shallow breath, pounding heart) is the same physiological response we have to excitement. And there’s power in how we interpret the information. “If you interpret it as a sign you’re going to fail,” Beilock told Entrepreneur, “there’s a good chance you will. But if you interpret it as a sign that you’re ready to go, that you’re excited, you can perform better.” Next time you’re overcome with nerves, instead of thinking of it as a problem, think of it as a normal, to-be-expected response; evidence that you are excited and ready.
Practice under stress
In other words, practice in game-like conditions. You may have that big client pitch memorized word for word, but if you don’t practice it in front of people, you’re missing a golden opportunity to immunize yourself to the pressure (so you will fear it less when the real pitch day comes). “We know that if you can mimic what you’re going to experience, you do so much better,” Beilock says. “So pitch to a group of friends, or if no one will watch you, do it in the mirror — anything that gets you used to having eyes on you.”
Write down your worries
“We know that journaling can be really helpful for reducing stress and reducing some of what’s popping around in your head in the long-term.” Beilock notes. Instead of holding worries inside and letting them fester, give them an outlet. Downloading them on paper can take away some of their power, and help you realise some of your worries about what might happen are extremely unlikely.
Focus on the outcome
Similar to visualisation, Beilock suggests focusing on the outcome of your efforts, not the process or mechanics. In other words, imagine the end goal in your mind, such as a handshake to seal the deal, or the soccer ball swishing into the corner of the net. This helps “cue your practiced skills” to run on autopilot, instead of getting mired in a pool of performance dread in the pre-frontal cortex. Always think of what you do want to occur, and what you do want to say, rather than what you don’t. (Because what we think, we have a tendency to create. Self-fulfilling prophecies are real.)
Give yourself a breather before the event
We all give ourselves a moment to exhale or celebrate after we do something we’re nervous about. But there’s value to giving ourselves that moment beforehand. While this will challenge to the procrastinators of the world, “Right before the event is not the time to focus or cram,” Beilock says. Based on her research, “There’s actually a benefit in stepping back right before the thing you’re going to do.” So don’t feel guilty about taking a walk, listening to a podcast, or getting a workout in before that high-pressure moment of truth. Science says you may perform better for it.