Why Do We Freeze Under Pressure?

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April 22, 2022 Pat Sajak knows something brain researchers have spent decades confirming: Anyone can choke under pressure.

You blank on a movie title. You freeze at a pop question. You forget momentarily the name of someone youve known for 30 years.

If youre lucky, its in front of a close friend or small group.

At least you dont do it in front of 8 million people, as happened this year on Wheel of Fortune. A seemingly simple puzzle stumped two players, who of course faced ridicule online.

These are good people in a bad situation under a kind of stress that you cant begin to appreciate from the comfort of your couch, Sajak tweeted in their defense.

But you wont find brain researchers trolling the poor players. They understand.

Stress messes with your body and head your golf swing and your fifth and sixth Wordle guesses. Physical and mental tasks you normally perform with ease become challenging under pressure, which comes from people watching, big rewards (or losses) at stake, fear of judgment, or even your own memories.

We worry about the consequences, what others will think of us, what we might lose, says Sian Beilock, PhD, the president of Barnard College of Columbia University and a cognitive scientist. And that worry actually derails our ability to focus.

Beilock and brain researchers worldwide give test subjects tasks in the lab math problems, word games, golf putting and compare brain activity when the same tasks are done under stress (with monetary rewards, say, or a time limit, or even physical discomfort).

To over-simplify, your prefrontal cortex gets cluttered. Thats the part of your brain that holds working memory, the information you need for the task at hand.

Working memory is our cognitive horsepower, says Beilock, who wrote the book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To. Its our ability to focus on what we want and get rid of what we dont.

Under stress, working memory is disrupted by outside stuff like an audience, time pressure, or potential embarrassment. All that clutter interferes with the prefrontal cortexs communication with the rest of the brain.

We actually disrupt the connections in our brain, our ability to string information together and pull out important pieces, Beilock says. And we perform worse.

One of her early studies showed that students with large working-memory capacity predictably outperformed low-capacity students in tests until the stakes were raised with monetary rewards. Then both groups scored the same. The smart ones choked.

It happens to presidential candidates, too. In 2016, Gary Johnson heard Aleppo, as in the city in Syria, but thought it was an acronym. Rick Perry blanked on the third of three federal agencies he had vowed, again and again in 2011, to eliminate. Oops, he said.

Your Brain Under Stress

Call it a brain fart even brain researchers use that term, in conversation if not in peer-reviewed papers. Theyre more likely to use terms like allocation of resources, meaning how the brain divvies up work.

That allocation can be lost if youre under stress, says Seth D. Norrholm, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at Wayne State University School of Medicine.

Humans really only have one way of dealing with stress, and thats our fight, flight, or freeze reflex, says Norrholm. If a snake appears on a hiking trail, you might freeze your body has gone into survival mode, he says. The higher-order cognitive functions get shut down or bypassed. Dont think just stay alive!

Yeah, but there were no snakes on Wheel.

Your body doesnt discriminate between a game show versus a predator, Norrholm explains. Its just going to kick in the responses inborn within us. Your heart races, you start to sweat.

Your lifes not at stake, but something is. Its more a threat to your ego, to your sense of self. But biologically, youre responding the same way.

Your response might include verbal tap-dancing or nonverbal noises. Or the classic freeze-up.

Everybody pretty much freezes when theyre publicly called out or criticized, or attention is drawn to them when they werent expecting it, Norrholm says. That deer-in-the-headlights look is a freeze response.

A crowd can be a stressor, whether its 10 relatives watching you play carols on the piano or 8 million judgy geniuses watching you on Wheel.

Whats Really Going On in That Brain of Yours

Vikram Chib, PhD, a professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, studies how the brain processes things that motivate behavior. Incentives, he explains, are processed in reward areas in the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex. (That again!)

When incentives are high, he says, the brain signals that help you perform seem to be corrupted or degraded.

If moneys on the line, you may think, I dont want to lose that, and that fear of loss makes you choke, says Chib. There is brain imaging to suggest that youre processing these incentives as losses and thats affecting your performance.

It gets trickier, this intracranial sabotage. Its not just that your performance or your memory recall is impaired, Norrholm says, but your perception can be too.

So you might hear things oddly youre thinking about the government, so you hear Aleppo as a government agency. Maybe you dont see the Wheel board with clear eyes, especially if that cortex above your eyes is cluttered with thoughts of a big payoff, losing, embarrassment, a ticking clock, a spinning wheel, a clapping Vanna, bright lights, the studio audience, a tingle of sweat.

In that Wheel game, a player guessed feather in your hat, but the judges wanted cap. Sajak saw what was happening, and he tweeted: The players were stunned when I said it was wrong.

Now imagine youre on national TV, he continued, and youre suddenly thrown a curve and you begin getting worried about looking stupid, and if the feather isnt in your hat, where the heck can it be? You start flailing away looking for alternatives rather than synonyms for hat.

Norrholm says that kind of confusion in the moment can be a result of just having to conceptualize and think about things while youre under a state of duress.

Taraz Lee, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, likens our powers of attention to a spotlight. When people get under pressure, that spotlight narrows, he says. Instead of seeing the big picture and trying a lot of different things, you really get stuck in a rut.

Sadly, there are few in-the-moment remedies for a freeze-up. But you can do things ahead of time to make them less likely and severe.

  • Write about your worries. This helps offload your anxiety. Beilock says research shows this can help you push worries away so they dont interfere in crunch time.
  • Talk yourself up. Athletes use motivational self-talk, and it can work for your Zoom presentation or any other stressful event. Saying or writing positive things about yourself is shown to promote self-worth and boost confidence, Beilock says.
  • Take a deep breath. This engages the parasympathetic nervous system, which counteracts the fight-or-flight or freeze response, Norrholm says. The pause lets you reorient cognitively and summon that brilliant bon mot on the tip of your tongue.
  • Reframe the task. If youre prone to fretting over a potential loss of a game, a contract, whatever think about that loss beforehand. Then that burden wont loom over you as you do your task. Its another kind of offloading: Im going to worry about it now, and not worry about it later, says Chib.
  • Hit pause. Walking away (maybe not from the Wheel of Fortune set) can ease anxiety and, when you return, help you see a problem with fresh eyes and a clear mind, Lee says.
  • Practice under pressure. The more you can practice your nerve-wracking event under similar circumstances, the better, all the experts say. For your speech, gather the family and pets and use the same laptop and props youll be using at go-time. You may still have that initial pang of nerves, but very quickly, your past experience takes over, Norrholm says.
  • Know your body. If you know that youll be sweating or your pulse will be pounding, they can have less impact, Beilock says. Try to reinterpret those feelings remind yourself that this happens in happy times, too, or that theyre positive signs that youre pumped up to succeed.

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