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A Cognitive Scientist Reveals Why We Choke Under Pressure and How to Avoid It

Cognitive scientist and president of Barnard College Sian Beilock discusses how we "get in our own way" when it matters most and shares strategies to help prepare for success when the stakes are high.

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This story appears in the June 2022 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Few experiences are more frustrating: You spend hours, days, or weeks preparing for a high-pressure moment — a presentation, an interview, a client pitch — and when it finally arrives, stress and anxiety get the best of you.

Courtesy of Barnard College

Instead of giving the performance you know you're capable of, you "choke."

Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist and the president of Barnard College, has experienced this many times — first while growing up as an athlete, and then during her 12-year tenure as a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, where her research focused on how children and adults perform at their best, particularly under stress. All of this led her to write Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To.

In simple terms, the reason we glitch under pressure is because we monitor ourselves to the point of disruption. Choking is an "equal opportunity event," Beilock says, affecting both high-performers who bank on perfection and individuals who feel that various authority figures — bosses, teachers, parents — expect them to underperform on a given task. But for everyone, the key to combating performance anxiety is understanding the body's response to high-stakes situations. Your churning stomach or spiked heart rate may feel like a negative response to a stressful situation — but the physiological reaction you interpret as anxiety is actually identical to the one you experience as excitement.

Related: 7 Ways to Master Poise Under Pressure

The solution, then, is to use that knowledge to your advantage. "It's how you interpret it," Beilock says. "If you interpret it as a sign you're going to fail, there's a good chance you will. But if you interpret it as a sign that you're ready to go, that you're excited, you can perform better."

In her research, Beilock told student participants sitting for important exams that their sweaty palms and fast-beating hearts were actually signs that they were ready to go, that blood was being sent to their brains so they could think. "When we have them reframe this sort of physiological response in a positive way rather than an oh shit, I'm going to fail way, the students actually do better on the test," Beilock says. "Something so simple can have a big effect, which is exciting because it gives us some sense of control."

Beilock also says it's crucial to practice in conditions similar to the ones under which you'll perform. "Practice in a way that helps you get ready for the stressful situation," Beilock says. "Oftentimes, if you're pitching to a client or giving a talk or even a toast at a wedding, you'll look over your material but not get up and practice delivering it. We know that if you can mimic what you're going to experience, you do so much better. So pitch to a group of friends, or if no one will watch you, do it in the mirror — anything that gets you used to having eyes on you."

Related: How to Make Pressure Work for You

Additionally, as the big day approaches, it can be helpful to write down your thoughts. "I would say that there's a real power in sort of downloading your worries, getting them down on paper," Beilock says. "We know that journaling can be really helpful for reducing stress and reducing some of what's popping around in your head in the long-term." Beilock also recommends practices like mindfulness exercises, which help you focus on the moment rather than the consequences. Then, when the time comes to perform, you'll be less likely to overly monitor yourself and screw up under pressure.

A final strategy comes into play right before the event itself. For some people, it might be the most difficult one of all. "Right before the event is not the time to focus or cram," Beilock says. "There's actually a benefit in stepping back right before the thing you're going to do." Take some time to simply be you. Because, Beilock says, "Just like anyone can choke, anyone can thrive."

Related: How to Avoid Burnout in a High-Stress Environment

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