In his article, “Boosting Decision Making and Performance under Pressure: How to Excel under Pressure Conditions,” Marc Schoen, Ph.D., discusses how, for the majority of us, performance in stressful situations can be adapted and improved. Schoen connects any present negative performance back to stressful childhood occurrences when our performance did not adequately meet expectations. Schoen explains that these past experiences often leave us with disappointment, embarrassment or shame associated with our performance. As adults, these feelings can be triggered in a way that influences the way we perform under stress.
When it comes to how we function in stressful situations, Schoen says that two parts of the brain come into play. The first involves the cerebral cortex, which enables us to respond analytically by harnessing our problem-solving, reasoning, abstract and logical thinking abilities. The second is a region of the brain known as the limbic system. This is the part of the brain that works on a primitive level to protect us by addressing threats in our environment. The limbic system sounds an alarm when it senses danger. This enables us to access a survival response needed to keep us safe (increased adrenaline, breathing and muscle tension, etc.), but it also limits access to those aforementioned analytical abilities by cutting power to our cerebral cortex. Of key importance is the idea that if stressful situations in childhood have ended with poor performance, the brain will likely be more sensitive in scanning and identifying similar stressful events in adulthood. When a situation is identified as stressful, it may initiate a “false alarm,” triggering a survival response instead of the analytical response we need to perform well.
By training the limbic system to reinterpret stressful situations as being either neutral or positive (as opposed to threatening), we can cultivate a sense of toughness that buffers against discomfort and enables higher-level performance. Schoen explains that there are several ways to do this. First, make an effort to be more open to the pressure to perform, recognizing that by trying to avoid or eliminate it, we essentially give the fear more power. Going one step further, Schoen recommends actively accepting, welcoming and even embracing pressure. This approach can help to lower the threat level of the situation and make the analytical brain more accessible. Schoen also recommends repeatedly practicing under stressful and/or imperfect conditions with the objective of becoming more resilient and less sensitized to false alarms.
In conclusion, many of us know that the stress associated with life can sometimes feel overwhelming. If you would like to obtain further assistance improving how you respond and perform under pressure, contact Psychological Services Bureau at (213) 738-3500 for a confidential consultation or appointment. You can also obtain additional information by visiting our intranet site at: http://intranet/intranet/ESS/Index.htm. Be well.
Marc Schoen, Ph.D., has specialized in mind-body medicine for over 25 years. He is an assistant clinical professor at UCLA’s Geffen School of Medicine where he specializes in boosting performance and decision-making under pressure and mind-body medicine. He works extensively with elite athletes, professional and college, as well as, executives and UCLA medical students in strengthening their ability to thrive under pressure and in competitive and uncomfortable conditions.