A few months ago I was watching PBS NOVA and came across a segment describing Sian Beilock’s research, a professor at the University of Chicago. In her personal life she had experienced a devastating blow when she “choked” under pressure in her athletic performance. She has now focused her career on researching the phenomenon of performing under pressure. She has found that pressure-filled situations amp up emotional centers of the brain like the amygdala which unfortunately prevents optimal functioning in the prefrontal cortex and working memory. Working memory is necessary to be successful in most performance tasks as it helps us to hold multiple pieces of information in our brains and manipulate the information.
So what can we do to perform even when in high pressure situations? Sian Beilock had students write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about the upcoming stressful task for 10 minutes before taking a high pressure test. It was found that this strategy boosted students’ scores by over half a grade point. She gives the metaphor that when we are stressed about an upcoming task it is like a computer having too many programs open and running at once. It can slow down the computer’s ability to process information or even crash. When writing about our thoughts and feelings, we are able to unload some of the programs and use other resources more effectively. So next time you are feeling the pressure, try writing for 10 minutes to help you unload before completing a task.