Stress and anxiety are a natural part of sport and life. Making the game winning shot, speaking in front of a big audience, or writing an important exam are all high pressure situations in which we feel our heart rate rise, our breathing becomes more shallow, and our inner critic is working overtime. Pressure significantly affects our performance. Too much anxiety and perceived pressure can drastically decrease your ability to perform. Likewise, too little perceived pressure and we see the same decrease. This phenomenon was first observed by psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson back in 1908, and is known as the Yerkes–Dodson law. It is an empirical relationship between arousal and performance which dictates that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point as shown below.
Although it varies by the domain or activity, as well as individual personality, most people tend to skew in the middle, where there is just the right amount of physiological activation or arousal so that the performer is not too bored, or overly activated where they are throwing up in the corner. This is similar to having a balance between perceived challenge and skill to get into flow state as discussed in a previous blog.
High performance psychologist Michael Gervais expands on this idea by proposing a 5 stage spectrum that people go through. It goes something like this:
We all know the feeling of choking. We feel like we have lost control over our mind and bodies and drastically under perform. On an activation level it would most likely be at a 10 out of 10. Most performance psychology literature is created for the purpose of having people avoid this at all costs. Next up is a micro-choke where we haven't fully bombed, but feel we are not performing well and have a sense of general tension and unease. This would be more of a 8 out of 10.
Once we feel that we have a grasp on things and are able to manage the demands of the performance we can be said to be simply performing. This is a performance that is neither good or bad. I can think back to countless games in my soccer career where my performances were just average. (As a side note, the top 1% of performers are sometimes criticized or are considered to be a slump when their performance goes down from their average, even though their ‘average’ is statistically way above the other 99%. In other words, their “performing” is someone else’s thriving!)
As we move up the spectrum we start to see the positive side of performance with thriving and eventually dissolving pressure which I like to sometimes substitute with flow state. These are the performances that are exceptional and come with a feeling of complete absorption in the activity and not feeling any pressure at all. Being on this end of the spectrum is rare but when it happens it is a sight to behold.
Cool, but how do I dissolve pressure when I feel like my heart is going to explode?
Good question. A big thing to note is that pressure can be subjective. It is our response to pressure that makes the difference in high stress moments. It really comes down to how we interpret the perceived demands of the situation. Just because you feel a certain way doesnt mean you will perform a certain way. Most performers think that they need to feel great and be in that perfect 5/10 sweet spot to put on a good show. However, this is often not the case. I can recall a conference where I was giving a talk in a small room fully expecting there to be around 20-30 people. As it got closer to start time, people starting flooding in and soon there was no more seating for the amount of people that came to see me speak. What started off as 20 became closer to a hundred. I quickly went from a 5/10 activation to around 9/10. I was on the verge of a choke before I even began, and the irony was I was going to be talking about stress management! But I managed to compose myself and gave the best talk I have given to date. So just because you feel nervous or frightened one moment, doesn’t mean you will stay that way or that it means you will fail.
"You don’t rise to the occasion, you fall to the level of your training"
So how can one dissolve what seems to be unmanageable pressure? Start with these few strategies that I have learned to use myself, as well as being supported by plenty of research on high performance:
1) Reframe the narrative
Anxiety and excitement share the same physiological responses. We often say I feel anxious and excited at the same time. This is because our brain can’t really tell the difference. By changing the story we tell ourselves about anxiety we can shift to a more productive narrative of being excited and thanking your body for trying to protect you from this imagined threat. But that is all it is really, just an imagined threat. Next time you feel yourself getting nervous see if you can change the narrative and reframe a “negative” emotion to a positive one.
Invest in some sort of breath training. It is such a fundamental part of regaining clarity and composure under stress. Techniques such as box breathing can be used to help activate your parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation response) and lower heart rate so that you can relax. Whatever your method of breath training, a good rule of thumb is having your exhale longer than your inhale (eg. in for 4, out for 6). This is because the exhale is our trigger for relaxation since it is built in as part of our evolution. What did the human do after escaping a harmful predator? They took a big sigh of relief. Ahhhhhh…
3) Notice the patterns
Start journaling your experiences. What gets you into your optimal state? What level of arousal is the best for you? What strategies have worked for you in the past? Increasing self awareness is crucial to getting to know how you respond to pressure. Just because one person imagines everyone in their underwear before public speaking doesn’t mean it will work for you!
It really comes down to training the right mental skills prior to performance in high stress environments. The Navy SEALs have a saying: You don’t rise to the occasion, you fall to the level of your training. So train yourself to front-load the necessary skills so that you have something to fall back on when the going gets tough.
For a more in depth look at the three strategies take a look at this previous post.
Remember, feel the force and don’t force the feel!