Performing Under Stress
Updated: Jun 30, 2022
Last week I wrote about my sense of underperformance in the moment. Like when somehow when it mattered the most, my own anxiety and judgment about myself would get in my own way. Let’s back up for a moment to review the physiology of being in that “bundle of nerves” state - i.e. when we are overstressed and freaking out, and it’s showtime.
Everyone is different but for most of us, it’s some combination of heart racing, skin clammy, hands trembling and maybe nausea or tummy upset. Our bodies are reacting to the stress or fear by pumping out hormones cortisol and adrenaline in anticipation of fight or flight.
But this ancient physiological response to fear isn’t a good match for our modern day context. There’s no saber-toothed predator to run away from - instead we are wanting to be present, show up and do what we’ve been preparing for. We want to be at our best, particularly when it’s showtime.
Another outdated mechanism here is our negative self-talk - we all have this inner critic inside our heads, whose job it has been our whole lives to whip us into shape. I’ve been used to thinking of my inner drill sergeant Milly as helping me, because she pushed me to do things I needed in order to survive while growing up.
Taking a moment to connect with my body physically takes me out of the spin and swirl of my mind
So maybe having a bit of fear motivating me to study for the exams can be helpful but just as often, fear can also paralyze me and cause me to procrastinate or fail ahead of time. And especially in that showtime moment, I don’t need Milly telling me that I didn’t study enough or that I always screw up when it's crunch time. That only adds to the fear by evoking images of humiliation.
I have found that taking a moment to connect with my body physically takes me out of the spin and swirl of my mind. Research has shown that focusing on our physical senses engages the part of your brain where awareness lives, i.e. the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC).
In his book Positive Intelligence, master coach Shirzad Chamine has taught me to rub my fingertips together with such care that I can feel the ridges of our fingerprints. This simple mindfulness practice allows me to see Milly more clearly as being separate from myself, and to acknowledge that she are simply trying to protect me.
Staying in the zone
It’s also good to remember that excitement feels a lot of anxiety with the heart racing and butterflies. That thrill can actually enhance your performance, like when you get a burst of energy at the start of a race or you feel that rush that lights up your stage charisma even more. I call this the Goldilocks zone of stress: neither too much nor too little.
That Goldilocks zone of stress can actually enhance your performance
So rather than getting rid of stress all together, the goal is to create safety for ourselves by fine-tuning the stress response so that we are in that zone of peak performance. It’s like turning the volume down on a piece of music that you love - even your favorite piece can be distracting or even distressingly loud sometimes.
The best way to start is by building a routine of physical self care that you can practice as you prepare for your event. For example, you may find that it helps to prepare yourself a warm drink and do some light stretching. It’s helpful to engage the senses with music or essential oils. Stepping outside even for a moment to take in some fresh air can be cleansing. The idea is to familiarize your body with a consistent calming ritual that it will always then associate with practice and performance, whether it’s studying, sports, arts or even a surgical procedure.
Next, practice staying connected to your body. It’s easy to disengage with our bodies physically when we feel rushed or stressed, because we believe that we can think our way out of the stress. But in reality, you will only end up spinning more anxiety and fear - indulging in worry feels helpful, but actually creates more harm.
You’ve totally got this
When I think of stress as being negative or intense, I tend to want to avoid it or push it away. But it’s often more helpful to accept that our human lives are inherently messy and stressful, and to get more specific about figuring out when stress is getting in the way of what we want. For example when we are losing sleep ruminating or worrying about something.
Learning what works best for you takes practice, so give yourself time
Learning what works best for you takes practice, so give yourself time to try out your self care routines as you are preparing for your event. Our minds are our most powerful instrument and we can wire for automation through consistent habits. So the more that we practice envisioning our future performance in detail, including the physical and mental health practice rituals leading up to the event, the more that we are helping our brains develop familiarity and safety for showtime.
#momyourbrain #atomichabits #stress
You can take a 3 minute quiz to assess your own level of positive intelligence. Or you may want to figure out which are your top saboteurs by taking the saboteurs assessment. Both assessments are free resources.
Book: Positive Intelligence
Master Coach Shirzad Chamine teaches that we each possess a set of inner critics or judges, as well as our wise sage self. His work is guided through scientific research and neuroscience.