Yesterday we learned a lot about the prefrontal cortex. It’s a fascinating part of the brain which is responsible for behavior, speech, reasoning, and helping us accomplish goals. But when we are under the pressure to perform, this component tends to go, well, a little haywire.
That leads to 3 particular performance problems identified by University of Chicago psychology professor Sian Beilock, Ph.D. Beilock says that when we are stressed, “the prefrontal cortex stops working the way it should, which can result in (1) an over-attention to performance, (2) a lack of cognitive horsepower devoted to the task at hand, or (3) an emotional outburst.”
Yesterday, we looked at the problem of an over-attention to performance. Check out that blog here if you missed it. Today, we’ll figure out what to do about the brain blocks and uncontrollable emotions that seem to plague us before a big performance.
The Problem: Being worried about your performance is not the same thing as being focused on your performance. In the Encyclopedia of Neuroscience, H. Barbas says, “The prefrontal cortex has been associated with central executive functions, involved in selecting relevant information and ignoring irrelevant information for the task at hand.”
Under normal circumstances, our brain shifts through the barrage of incoming information and sensory input. Like a bouncer at a club, it allows some through and denies others entry. It has an efficient and systematic process. But imagine if everyone waiting to get into the club decided to rush the bouncer at once. The normal selection system wouldn’t work. And the bouncer would be forced to focus on self-preservation in order to keep himself from getting trampled.
That’s what happens when we feel pressure to perform. It’s what creates blank or fuzzy memories. We sometimes refer to it as brain fog or mind blanks. Stress disrupts our ability to decide what matters and shifts our attention away from focused performance and toward worrying about survival.
The Solution: Take full, slow, deep breaths. (Sensing a pattern here?) Bring intentional focus to the things that matter. Try to block out distractions. Remind yourself that worry isn’t productive. When you find yourself worrying, do something more productive. Run through your presentation again. Or make eye contact with members of the audience and smile. Make small, intentional choices about what matters so that you don’t get trampled in a stampede of worry.
The Problem: Ever wonder why you say things when you are under stress that you would never dream of saying normally? It’s because stress has blocked the impulse control of your prefrontal cortex. This is why, for the most part, kids and teenagers have emotional outbursts much more frequently than adults do. Their prefrontal cortexes haven’t fully formed yet.
Under normal circumstances, we are able to control our emotions. We can rationalize how we should or shouldn’t act, or what we should or shouldn’t say. But when we feel a pressure to perform, that filter is down. This is why some people laugh uncontrollably or cry before they have to perform. Or maybe you are like me and you get a bit “snippy” with your family if you have a presentation coming up.
Knowing that this a biological response to stress isn’t an excuse to abandon all emotional control. But it does help you be on the lookout for behaviors that rear their ugly heads when you are under the pressure to perform.
The Solution: Take full, slow, deep breaths. (Yep, breathing is pretty much the key that unlocks your locked up prefrontal cortex.) If you feel like you are unable to control your emotions, remind yourself that you are experiencing natural biological responses to the situation at hand. Karren Kerrisk is the Principal NLP Trainer and Coach at Mind Skills Mastery. NLP stands for neurolinguistic programming which is the language of the brain. So Kerrisk works to help clients promote change using the brain’s own language. She says, “In neuroscience, they don’t know which comes first, the thought or the emotions. But thinking changes your neurochemistry and your neurochemistry changes your thinking.” This is both good and bad news. You can use your thoughts to move you towards greater emotional control or greater emotional outbursts. Steer your emotions by steering your thoughts.
If you feel like you want to cry and you have time to let it out and then pull yourself together, go ahead. You’ll probably feel better. But if your emotional response runs the risk of derailing your performance, work to regain control by explaining your emotional response out loud. It might sound something like this, “I’m tearing up because I’m nervous. This is natural. And I can have a really good cry if I still feel like I need one after my performance.” Or maybe you say, “I’m being rude to my coworkers because I’m worried about my presentation this afternoon. I have the power to change my actions now.”
Our brains are truly amazing. And we are learning more about them every day. When we know more about the functions and dysfunctions of the prefrontal cortex under stress, we can understand some of our pre-performance behaviors. We can plan for them and identify them when they come up. And most importantly, we can stop negative thoughts and behaviors that keep us from performing at our best.
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