May 23, 2020

Performing under Pressure: Lessons from Science to Remain Calm and Carry on

By Deeptha Madhavan, MSc in Molecular Biology

A human brain contains over 100 billion neurons, all connected to each other through complicated neural circuits. These complicated networks come alive with electricity, manifesting all the complex emotional, psychological and physical responses of a human being. More and often than not, this inimitable machine works perfectly. But when stress sets in, these neurons seem to malfunction, affecting the way neurons communicate with one another leaving you feeling tired, disorganised and forgetful.

So why do we feel stressed?

Thousands of years ago, when we lived in forests, dangers lurked in every corner and only the fittest could survive. Experts believe stress evolved under these circumstances to motivate man to attain new resources or protect his existing resources. In the forest, resources could refer to food, or water. But in today’s modern-day office, your brain could be reacting to an attack on your ego, low self-worth, fear of meeting high expectations or negative criticism.

A little stress is good. It allows your body to choose priorities, diverting its energies to the task at hand. But chronic stress begins to alter the structure of your brain, influencing how you tackle and respond to high pressure situations. So, despite intensely wanting to give their best, the individual fails, short-handed by their own brain.

How do you fight stress?

In today’s competitive world, avoiding stress is not an option. Instead, we must learn to use it to our advantage. The good news is, while chronic stress can alter your brain, these changes can be reversed. In simple words, your brain learns by practice. By performing the same strategies over and over again, you can train your brain to respond in a certain way to stress.

Peak performance is the scientific term used to describe the full use of human capabilities in order to attain high level functioning. In regular words, peak performance essential means ‘being in the zone’. Here, we outline a few science-proven strategies to regulate your cognitive, emotional and physiological responses to stress in order to manifest peak performance.

  1. MANAGING YOUR ATTENTION

In the 1984 Olympics, experts analysed over 235 athletes in order to determine what factors influenced victory. In an overwhelming number of athletes, mental readiness contributed to better performance more than physical or technical skill. During peak performance, the brain is able focus on the task environment while ignoring multiple external stimuli.

However, a highly narrow focus can limit perspective by ignoring contextual information. Attention shifting also leads to quick decision making which could trade accuracy for speed.  Therefore, optimal attention lies somewhere in the middle of a curve, as defined by the Yerkes-Dodson law.

Training for attention control takes practice. You must begin by identifying the common errors you make while experiencing stress before designing strategies to combat these errors. For example, sport psychologists encourage footballers to identify shifts in focus by watching their own performance. An athlete who notices his attention shifting can bring it back using a practiced cue such as “Be Here”. 

A successful cue can be different for every individual. However, regular and deliberate practice of centring strategies will train the brain to naturally focus under stressful conditions.

  • COGNITIVE RESTRUCTURING  

Victorious athletes often report positively about their performance despite acknowledging the difficulty of the situation. Individuals who perceive their performance as positive are also more likely to be interested and therefore involved in completing the task or activity. In contrast, negative thoughts reduce performance by increasing anxiety and other counterproductive emotions that distract from the task at hand. In the long term, negative thoughts can significantly alter self-worth and confidence, making you lose the battle before you have even begun to fight.

Cognitive restructuring strategies are simple practices that you can deliberately practice every day in order to take control of self-thoughts under stress. The path to restructuring your brain begins with identifying negative thought patterns when they start. These thoughts can then be redirected using thought stoppage, thought reversal, countering, reframing and affirmation statements.

For example, an employee who is regularly derided by their manager can begin to question their own performance, establishing a habit of self-doubt and low self-esteem. To counter this practice, the individual must regularly begin challenging his self-degrading thoughts, replacing them with positive affirmations. In the beginning, this practice may seem superficial. But Neurobiology indicates that in the long run positive self-talk can physiologically alter the brain.

  • IMAGERY

Chronic stress can leave you feeling fearful of certain situations. Some of these triggers may not be conscious, you may be practicing avoidance unconsciously. For example, businessmen who have failed in the past will avoid taking risks altogether.

Mental imagery, which is used to rehearse task execution and practice coping strategies, can help overcome fear and build confidence. An early study in 1995 demonstrated that mental imagery practice was capable of altering neural circuits in the brain.

For example, before giving an important presentation, one can use imagery to rehearse their talk and answer potential questions while picturing facing a large audience. Mental imagery cues do not have to be purely visual. Hearing yourself speak through the microphone, touching the podium, standing under a harsh light etc can also regulate how you approach the actual presentation.

  • CONTROLLING AROUSAL

Arousal refers to the body’s preparation for ‘fight or flight’, by activating a set of nervous system functions including increased heart rate, perspiration, release of stress hormones etc. Arousal management strategies include practices that increase activation and those that relax arousal. These can be used before a task or during in order to achieve optimal arousal suited for peak performance.

Activation strategies can be used by fatigued or low-motivated professionals who need to ‘get in the zone’ in order to meet a deadline or perform a complicated task. Some studies have indicated that loud noises can help the brain ‘wake up’ and narrow focus on the task at hand. In contrast, arousal decreasing strategies include mindfulness, relaxation, deep breathing exercises, body scanning meditation, specific music or verbal cues.

  • PRACTICING ROUTINES  

Routines can be defined as a pre-determined set of thoughts or actions that practiced over time can naturally trigger positive emotions, cognitions or physiological changes. These routines can be broadly classified into four categories;

  • Pre-performance routines are practiced before a challenging task. These must be designed for a specific individual’s mental, emotional or spiritual needs. For example, a businessman who fears talking to clients can systematically practice breathing techniques or positive self-talk before a planned interaction.
  • Maintenance routines are practiced during a challenging task in order to assess performance in real time and make adjustments according to both external ( effect of task) and internal (emotion, confidence) cues. The businessman while talking to a client can follow a specified procedure such as beginning with small talk, assessing interest, and finally selecting sales tactic. Following these steps helps a nervous businessman to successfully navigate a challenging task.
  • Contingency routines can be practiced when the situation demands it, for example, when an individual detects his attention drifting from the task at hand.Having a pre-determined contingency routine also helps alleviate anxiety about uncertain outcomes, instead focusing attention on task execution. For example, a business man who fails to make the sell can practice a four step routine of ‘pause, identify, clarify, restructure’ in order to respond to the client’s objections.
  • Finally, post-performance routines are crucial for evaluating your performance after completion of the task. Feedback should be obtained from both internal cues such as emotions and external cues such as a realistic assessment of your results. It must be kept in mind that self-esteem, confidence and self-worth can determine true objectivity of your assessment. Therefore, it is always a good idea to involve another evaluator who can give you honest feedback.
  • SETTING GOALS

In order to achieve peak performance, the individual must focus attention, sustain effort and monitor progression. This is largely aided by first identifying and setting realistic goals. A good goal setting practice involves setting deadlines, recording goals and evaluating progress. It should also incorporate feedback from your previous tasks in order to ascertain your capabilities.

In a business organisation, goals are generally dictated by senior management. However these goals can be broken down or modified into positive, achievable yet challenging tasks. Simply changing perspective of goals from outcome based definitions to process based definitions can improve productivity.

For example, a business man who defines a task as making the sale will inevitably feel anxious and fear failure. Instead breaking down the task into process goals such as contacting the client, actively listening, countering objections etc can help the businessman focus without any distractive thoughts.

Guiding employees toward peak performance will indisputably prove advantageous to organisations. However, peak performance cannot be defined by individual goals. Instead, wide-spread organisation wide strategies are required to facilitate a rewarding environment that obtains the best from your employees.

REFERENCES

  1. Coplan, J. D., Hodulik, S., Mathew, S. J., Mao, X., Hof, P. R., Gorman, J. M., & Shungu, D. C. (2012). The Relationship between Intelligence and Anxiety: An Association with Subcortical White Matter Metabolism. Frontiers in evolutionary neuroscience, 3, 8. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnevo.2011.00008
  • Mendl M. Performing under pressure: stress and cognitive function. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 1999;65(3):221-244. doi:10.1016/S0168-1591(99)00088-X
  • Jex, S.M., 1998. Stress and Job Performance: Theory, Research, and Implications for Managerial Practice. SAGE Publications.
  • Crocker, P.R.E., Graham, T.R., 1995. Coping by Competitive Athletes with Performance Stress: Gender Differences and Relationships with Affect. The Sport Psychologist 9, 325–338. https://doi.org/10.1123/tsp.9.3.325