Don’t Choke

Don’t Choke

Photo Credit: Alessandra Cave

Try these tricks to handle the pressure of performance.

Whether fumbling a crucial job interview, blanking on a final exam, or forgetting the pose you were about to teach to a roomful of yoga students, we have all choked under pressure. Even cooking dinner for the in-laws can make the heart race and prompt that prickly sense that everyone is watching. But a few simple tricks can short-circuit the “choke” response to help you flourish rather than fail.

“Choking” occurs when we underperform at a time when it matters most, says University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock, the author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal about Getting It Right When You Have To.

Under stress, the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that manages decision making, analysis, and working memory) can get bogged down in worry, preventing us from automatically accessing the information we need to perform. Instead, we wind up second-guessing our every move out of fear of making a mistake—what Beilock calls “paralysis by analysis.”

Distract the Brain

The good news is, we can pull ourselves out of this spiral of worry by distracting the brain. Try these anxiety-busting tricks from Beilock and other experts:

  • Make music. Singing or whistling can enhance our automatic response by freeing the working memory that gets overloaded when we micromanage details.
  • Meditate. In her research, Beilock found that people who had just 10 minutes of meditation training scored better on tests.
  • Squeeze your left hand. In a German study, psychologists found that right-handed people who tightly clenched their left hand also performed better on high-stakes tasks. This behavior fires up the brain’s right hemisphere, which controls our automatic responses, and may help suppress worry.
  • Assume a “power pose.” Standing tall, legs out, chin elevated, arms up and out, or hands on the hips, boosts testosterone and our dominant tendencies in both men and women, while lowering the stress hormone cortisol. The result? We feel more powerful and confident rather than nervous, according to Harvard Business School associate professor Amy Cuddy.
  • Shake it out. Dancing to a song you love, playing air guitar, jumping up and down, belly laughing, or anything else that gets your body and brain fired up before your performance can keep the butterflies at bay.
  • Nap. A 10-minute doze before your task can improve cognitive function and performance, according to a study published in the journal Sleep. When you’ve prepared and practiced—particularly under stressful conditions—and use these strategies to keep from overanalyzing the process, your nerves can actually help you cope with the pressure.

“If you interpret these things as a sign that you are going to fail, you will,” Beilock says. “But if you think differently about your body’s signals, if you see them as a sign of being alive, then you will do better.”

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