Performance under Pressure
We all have the potential to not only make it through, but in fact thrive under pressure.
Dealing with pressure is a highly translatable skill, and a desirable trait to ensure success. Whether you are climbing a mountain, taking an exam or speaking in public, you can tap into some very helpful resources.
1. Recognizing the pressure
Before asking how certain people are able to thrive under pressure, it is important to understand why for many it is so difficult to perform even the most basic tasks in a stressful environment. When dealing with high pressure and potentially threatening situations, it is well known that our mind & body is programmed to respond with a very effective response: fight, flight or freeze. In terms of neuroscience, the amygdala (part of the Limbic system) has a primary purpose of attaching emotional significance to events or memories, and to prepare the body to respond to a situation faster than our conscious mind is able to.
In this survival response, stress hormones are released (cortisol and adrenaline) causing your heart rate & blood pressure to increase, helping oxygen get to your major muscles. Your pupils dilate to help you see better. This response is your body doing the best it knows in the given situation, this vital survival skill allows you to be prepared for stressful & potentially dangerous situations, plus ensures you listen to your ‘gut instincts’ – without it we would not respond fast enough in emergency situations.
In mild threat situations, our conscious logical mind has the ability to override this response, however when we perceive a serious threat your defense system will protect you at all costs. If you begin to understand your triggers, you will start to see your subconscious is doing the right thing with the knowledge it has.
2. Identify your trigger
Our perception of a threat is the initial trigger, and what an incredible trigger it is! It is this initial response that determines how our physical and mental resources are divided. Evolution has programmed our brains to perceive threats that may not be as relevant in today’s society – for example a fear of public speaking often arises from a primitive fear of being watched and exposed to predators. Throughout our lives we also program triggers from sights, smells, sounds, feelings and even taste. If you heard a chain jingling and were shortly after attacked by a dog, your brain will replay, store and embed the most relevant details to help you be more prepared next time – this could mean your amygdala goes into overdrive the instant you hear a similar chain. These memories & representations are not immutable, they are in fact highly pliable – sometimes it will only take one belief change or one event to alter our trigger, other times the representations are deeply embedded and take longer to transform.
3. Addressing your concerns
With any anxiety, concern or worry you cannot simply trick your body into responding with confidence – you must address the issue and genuinely believe you have the desire (why), capabilities (how), and knowledge (what) to complete the task. If your subconscious or primal instincts are kicking in, you can try listening to & addressing the concerns, rather than ignoring them. The good news is that we can achieve this through visualizations and rehearsals, until your subconscious is satisfied you are ready. Alex Honnold, the ambitious free solo climber who became famous for scaling some of the world’s most challenging rock walls without a rope, says it well:
“In a real sense, I performed the hard work of that free solo during the days leading up to it. Once I was on the climb, it was just a matter of executing."
“There is no adrenaline rush. If I get an adrenaline rush, it means that something has gone horribly wrong.” – Alex Honnold, Alone on The Wall
4. Visualizing the process
Many people who are top of their field recognize the importance of visualizing to help prepare – athletes, public speakers, entrepreneurs and emergency response commonly use mental rehearsals to perform at their best when it counts. A widely cited scientific study (Dr. Biasiotto), demonstrated basketball players could greatly improve their free throw success using only visualization techniques. One group of players, who were only allowed mental rehearsal, greatly improved their free throw score without touching the ball, almost as much as the group that had physical practice.
Through these mental rehearsals, you create a plan in your head to respond to several possibilities, and create a sense of control over the situation. When the time comes you are much more likely to stay calm & collected if you have safely been through similar before. A tip is to begin the process dissociated – watch yourself as an observer. This allows you to come up with an objective, rational response without involving your stress response. Once you are satisfied with the scenario, play it over a few times & then associate into your rehearsal, really immerse yourself in the experience and check it feels congruent.
As an example, a diver wants to try to backflip off the 10m board but every time he tries he loses control of his posture, becomes shaky and can’t bring himself to jump.
Recognizing the pressure: First, he understands his body is trying to stop him getting injured and is doing a great job of keeping him safe.
Identify your trigger: He realizes he does not feel 100% confident in making the dive work, and even though he rationally knows he will be okay, his body freezes up and will not let him jump once his toes are on the edge of the board and looking down.
Addressing concerns: Assessing the reason why he wants to jump – it’s because he aspired to conquer the 10m board after seeing a friend do it, and loves that sense of freedom by letting go during the free fall. For his capabilities, the how, he is in a controlled environment with a life guard on duty, he has built his way up from the 1m to 3m to 5m. For his knowledge, the what, since mastering the 5m he has watched plenty of people land the 10m diving board with grace and listened to their advice. He asks himself is there anything more he would like to do before attempting the real board, and is happy to say he is ready.
Visualizing the process: He imagines himself at the top of the board, shakes off the nerves, breathes deeply to gain focus, and in one smooth movement completes the dive safely. Replaying the image, he tries a few different scenarios and analyzes each movement – what worked, what didn’t. Once he is satisfied with the perfect dive, he associates into the image, starting to feel the nerves but shaking it out and controlling his focus with some deep breaths. He feels the board on his toes, that hollow feeling in his chest, smells the chlorine, sees the reflection of the water and his toes hanging over the edge, he hears the echo in the room before jumping off and completing the dive with a sense of excitement and satisfaction.
This is a big first step, to go through a mental rehearsal overcoming your fight or flight response. If you were honest & thorough in the process, your brain now has an alternative option to freezing up. Keep on playing it over, familiarize yourself with the feelings and play around with the responses – how do you breathe, what do you think of, what is your body posture, etc. Your amygdala may well fire off a stress response the moment your toes hang over the edge of the board, but you now have a path to let your rational mind regain control.
Crumbling under pressure
When I was 23, I was out rock climbing a ‘traditional’ crack climb (you place your own gear into cracks to protect you), about half way up the rock became broken and loose, I was relatively inexperienced in placing my own gear, and I was not confident my protection would hold me if I fell. I tried my best to keep my cool, and told myself the next placement a few meters higher would be better. As I climbed up I could not find any solid protection, and felt incapable of climbing down. I did everything I could to keep my composure, I pushed to the top of the climb with shaky legs, sweaty palms, and battling that feeling of sheer panic. On reaching the final ledge, I just had 1 more move to finish, a move I could have done easily any other time. I couldn’t control my leg shaking, my hands were slipping and I panicked. I was shouting down to my partner that I needed help and ended up falling off.. I was right to be nervous as my protection failed spectacularly in the loose rock & I fell to the ground, a fall that could have easily been fatal. Fortunately, I hit a tree on my way down reducing the impact, and I walked away relatively unscathed. I fell because I perceived the real threat of falling, I would have finished the climb easily if my amygdala had not flooded my body with stress hormones. My conscious, rational brain knew the best way to survive was to relax, yet I still lost control.
“I don’t put myself under pressure.” – Usain Bolt
This quote makes an important point, that in most situations we are the ones who do, or do not, put ourselves under pressure. Our brains have evolved to avoid dangerous situations, such as falling off a cliff, at an intuitive level. I continued to climb after the accident, and was surprised to find a new found confidence over time with the right mental process. I choose to believe I am capable of completing the climb safely before stepping foot on the rock, I have had enough experience to trust my risk assessment capabilities, I am happy the level of danger is small enough and most importantly i have the desire to climb – these conditions help to avoid my amygdala going into overdrive. To a degree, when I do begin to feel scared, nauseous or shaky I can detach myself from the fear of failure and instead focus on the path to success. I do of course get nervous, I don’t always perform my best, and still have a lot to learn, but my biggest improvements so far arise from rehearsing how to react in each situation, and knowing ahead of time what the best course of action to take is.
Tips for Thriving
Keeping your amygdala stress response in check in your mental rehearsals is one thing, but going ahead and performing this in real life may produce a different result. First of all, this is okay! Your body is protecting you, and you should be thankful for that. You aren’t the first person to be nervous in an interview, speaking in public, abseiling off a cliff, or going into a boxing match. Your visualizations will keep you one step ahead of the game, and here are some other helpful strategies:
1) Breathe deeply & purposefully – you can help switch to your parasympathetic nervous system by breathing in for 2 seconds, pause for 1 second, and breathe out for 4 seconds. This helps to slow your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, and can bring about a state of calm.
2) Reframe your reaction – as you begin to notice the hollow feeling in your chest, the fluttering in your gut, or your heart rate increasing and muscles tensing, why not appreciate this is you getting excited & psyched for what is to come? You are getting the energy boost you want, and can now take control.
3) Pose & smile – when you pictured yourself succeeding, how were you postured? Were you standing straight, arms out, and neck high? If so, take on the posture of a winner! Smiling has been demonstrated to aid in stress recovery, to increase serotonin levels, and lower heart rate.
4) Dissociate from the event – step outside of your body and observe yourself from a fixed location. Taking the emotion out of an event can often help to lessen the seriousness, and aid in coming up with an objective response. If you were standing by the side of the pool would you be saying to a friend “Go on, do it! Jump! You’ll be fine.” What advice would you give yourself?
5) Mindfulness – the art of being present. This is a curiosity and observation of everything you feel. It creates an awareness and understanding of what is happening, this keeps your rational mind constantly present and encourages executive thought process decision making.