When I present a physical challenge to clients, I often observe one of two responses; either they buckle from fear, pressure, stress, or lack of self-confidence or they push themselves to achieve the goal (or come as close as they can). I’ve often wondered what separates those who melt down from those who brace up. Last week, I happened to glimpse a book that covered this very topic and I wanted to share a write-up with you on Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool by Taylor Clark.
The Introduction highlights some interesting questions and statistics:
- “One of the great ironies of our time: we now inhabit a modernized, industrialized, high-tech world that presents us with fewer and fewer legitimate threats to our survival, yet we appear to find more and more things to be anxious about…”
- The United States is the most anxious nation on the planet.
- More than 18% of U.S. adults suffer an anxiety-disorder in a given year (whereas, in Mexico, the number is 6.6%).
- Psychologist and anxiety researcher, Robert Leahy, points out that, “The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s.”
Clark differentiates between fear, anxiety, and stress:
Fear: “the physical feeling you get when there’s something dangerous in front of you right now.” This is the fight-flight-freeze response you feel when you perceive a threat. Sweaty palms, a racing heart, and tunnel vision are all examples of this survival mode.
Anxiety: a cognitive phenomenon that protects you from potential dangers “that might pop up in the future.”
Stress: a broad term that describes “how our bodies respond to excessive demands.”
Clark explains that a part of the brain, called the amygdala, is our security system that monitors for threats by parsing through sensory information (separate from conscious collection by the prefrontal cortex). If the amygdala senses that trouble’s lurking, then it will fire up a fear reaction before the conscious brain has time to decipher if a bad guy’s crunching footsteps are following you or if the wind has rustled a stray newspaper.
Even though we know consciously that striking out in baseball or playing a wrong note in a concert aren’t life-threatening situations we still experience the fear response in those contexts. The question becomes, why do some people perform well under those conditions while others don’t?
Clark investigates the qualities of those who most successfully handle high-stress situations:
- Training: Whether it’s prepping for a speech or practicing Bach for a cello recital, we must practice in order for skills to become automated (which lower the chances of them breaking down under stress). The key, though, is to practice under stress. My colleague used to spend countless hours honing her snatch technique but wasn’t able to perform well in weightlifting competitions because the pressure of the situation paralyzed her. So, even though the skills were automated, she hadn’t practiced them under performance conditions. (I’m happy to report that she’s begun having friends watch her during workouts—desensitizing herself to the gaze of others—and she’s faring much better in competition).
- Confidence: If we’ve practiced thoroughly and have experienced success on tasks throughout training, then confidence can buoy us in fearful situations. As a renowned astronaut said, after manually controlling his dysfunctional aircraft from space safely to the ground, “Modesty is not the best trait for a fighter pilot. The meek do no inherit the sky.”
- Locus of Control: If we believe we can influence the outcome of a frightening situation, then we’ll handle it much better. That same astronaut, Gordon Cooper, could have felt that his fate was out of his hands and that he was destined to perish after his craft lost telemetry, cooling, electrical, and oxygen purification systems. But he chose to focus on what aspects of the flight were in his control, relying on the intensive practice he had done to deal with this very situation.
- Tolerance for Uncertainty: I often tell clients that it’s easy to perform well when the conditions are optimal. The real skill lies in how we perform when things don’t go as planned, when conditions are out of our control. Tennis players exemplify this principle, as their matches can be played at 11am or 11pm, in the blazing heat of an Australian summer day or the cool spring of Rotterdam. And there’s no stopping a match for wind. In the 2012 U.S. Open final between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, the wind was so extreme that a ball would bounce and then shift several feet by the time a player tried to strike it. However, Murray maintained his poise and accommodated the conditions better, allowing him to win his first Grand Slam championship.
- Humor: Although it may seem antithetical to joke during a potentially scary situation, humor helps to diffuse tension. Clark refers to the POWs from the Vietnam War, many of whom (including John McCain) referred to their use of humor as a way to fight the horrors of their stay. They’d tell jokes, make funny comments, or invent humorous scenarios to bring levity to such a tense situation.
- Task Focus: As we saw from astronaut Gordon Cooper’s story, he didn’t dwell on the craft’s failing mechanics or allow himself to focus on what might go wrong: he focused on what he needed to do in the present moment. Anxiety can take over current thinking into the realm of “what ifs.” By staying mentally disciplined on the challenge in front of us, we can quiet the anxiety and eventually escape its tempting grasp.
Clark points out that you won’t suddenly be able to live a life free from fear or anxiety by simply following these recommendations. But, he suggests learning to live with these inevitable, primal feelings which, if taken in stride, can facilitate our success rather than hinder it.
Keep on Movin’