How to train your BRAIN to perform Under Pressure
3, 2 and 1 – your name has just been called and it’s time to perform.
There you are – standing on the stage, facing a crowd of people. Everyone’s looking at you, from head to foot. As you gaze at those strangers, you felt tension in your arms, neck, hands and all over your body. Everything moves like a slow motion movie. Yes, you are nervous. But the show must has to go on – you’re here to perform. So, what do you do…?
The Science behind ‘Grace under Pressure’
Everybody has the power to create a calm state of mind in order to deal with stress and pressure in an effective way. Studies on the human mind continue to prove that ‘grace under pressure’ is a skill that can be learned and applied in everyday life. And one way to elicit this special skill is to stimulate the vagus nerve.
The vagus never is known as the ‘wandering nerve’ because it has multiple branches that diverge from two thick stems rooted in the cerebellum and brainstem that travel or wander to the lowest viscera of your abdomen, touching your heart and most major organs along the way. When people say “trust your gut”, they are actually saying “trust your vagus nerve”.
The vagus nerve also plays an important role in your body’s ‘flight’ or ‘fight’ system. Signals from your conscious mind travel through the vagus nerve to tell your organs to create an inner-calm state so you can “rest-and-digest” during times of safety or prepare your body for action during dangerous situations.
The vagus nerve has the ability to slow your heart rate, lower your blood pressure and the activity in your other organs. But sometimes, the vagus nerve’s reflexive responses can backfire. Instead of keeping you calm and ‘in control’, it can intensify your body’s negative responses, making you feel overwhelmed, agitated, stressed and uneasy. You are also likely to experience undesirable physiological symptoms like racing heart, sweaty palms, dry mouth, upset stomach and shakiness.
But here’s the good news – you can actually stimulate your vagus nerve to elicit ‘grace under pressure’ and here’s how to do it:
Breathe, breathe and breathe.
You will be surprised of how a simple breathing technique, which involves repeatedly inhaling and exhaling deeply, can set your mind and body to succeed in a task. Deep diaphragmatic breathing is the key to stimulating the vagus nerve. This results to the slowing down of your heart rate and blood pressure, keeping you calm in times of performance anxiety.
Your brain, particularly your cerebellum, has the power to store muscle memory, which gives you confidence to perform gracefully under pressure. Without prior preparation, we are forced to rely extensively on our pre-frontal cortex, which could get disengaged and hamper our performance. So whatever it is – a posing routine, a song, a speech, a music recital, or a corporate presentation, don’t forget to rehearse. It really is helpful.
Match your skills with the challenge.
Creating a state of ‘flow’ involves matching your skill level with the challenge at hand. One good strategy to achieve this is to keep pushing yourself to the limits. Engage in activities that keep you nestled between anxiety and boredom and slowly move on to more challenging activities. This will keep your vagus nerve active but at the same time, not too exhausted.
Cardio-respiratory activities, including strength training and even yoga, stimulate your vagus nerve and harmonise hormones and neurotransmitters linked to ‘grace under pressure’. Exercising also helps steer your mind away from discouraging thoughts. At the same time, it boosts your mood which has a significant effect on your entire performance level.
Be careful who you stay with.
Prior a performance or presentation, stay away from anxious people. Like a cold, anxiety is contagious. The vagus nerve picks up on people’s vibe so if you’re with pessimistic individuals, you’re likely to think the way they do. If the situation doesn’t permit you to stay away from anxious people, engage in calming activities that distract your mind, like listening to music, practising those breathing techniques or even try a positive visualisation technique.
This may come as a surprise to you but compassion does have a good deal of benefits to helping you achieve grace under pressure. In a 2010 study published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers discovered a link between high vagal tone index and positive emotions, physical health and positive social connections. They also found that reflecting on positive social connections and working to improve them also caused improvements in vagal tone.
During stressful situations, you may hear your critical self, saying ‘you can’t do it’, ‘you’re going to fail’, and all other words of discouragement. That’s a normal mental response that is part of your brain’s survival instinct. But by generating positive emotions, you can direct your vagus nerve to work harmoniously with your mind and body to keep you calm and focused in the middle of any challenging task.
I often teach positive visualisation techniques to performers and sports people in order to enhance their abilities and reduce their stress levels. Please feel free to ask me further questions or advice.
Also, if YOU have any techniques which keep you motivated and focussed prior to a performance, please feel free to share them and help others.
I look forward to your thoughts.
Clinical Hypnotherapist & Psychotherapist
Part of the Core Health Centre
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