Tackle whatever's causing you to lose your nerve at the vital moment head-on.
A crushing sense of terror that stops you cold when you're just about to follow your more experienced friend down an icy ski slope. Believing there's no way you can give that presentation even though you've run through it over and over. Staying silent on a call with your new team because you aren't sure you deserve to be there.
Fear, loss of confidence and feeling like an imposter can keep you from performing at your best—or even performing at all. Often these mental blocks stem from the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which flood the body in threatening or high-pressure situations, explains Regine Muradian, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist specialising in performance anxiety. These hormones can trigger the body's fight-or-flight response. The result is a cascade of physical symptoms—a racing heart, tight chest and/or sweaty palms—and feeling like you've completely frozen up, often called "choking".
While you might think you're the only one struggling in those moments, you're far from alone. "Crumbling under pressure is more common than people think. Even professionals have experiences of choking", says Greg Chertok, a certified mental-performance consultant who's worked with athletes in high-profile competitions including the Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Stanley Cup. (Just think of how many big games teams have lost because of one missed goal or penalty.)
"Crumbling under pressure is more common than people think. Even professionals have experiences of choking".
Certified Mental-Performance Consultant
Even better than being in good company are these simple techniques you can use to untangle your brain so you can get after whatever's in front of you. Here's a look at three common mental blocks that can cause you to choke—and how experts say you can break free.
What it feels like: A deep sense of dread about potentially getting hurt, either physically or emotionally. You might also experience shakiness, sweating, tightness in your throat or tingling.
Why it happens: Fear can strike when your mind wanders away from the present moment, explains Chertok. "You might start thinking back to a past instance where you blew it, like the time you missed a crucial shot or botched an answer during a big job interview", he adds. Suddenly that moment overcomes your ability to be optimistic.
Fixating on unknowns can make you scared too, Chertok points out. It's easy to worry about what the worst possible scenario might look like if you fail.
How to cope: Start with some simple deep breathing. It can immediately lower stress hormones while boosting feelings of emotional control and well-being, research shows. Muradian recommends slowly inhaling to the count of five, holding the breath for a moment, then slowly exhaling to the count of five, repeating the cycle at least three times. "With each exhale, tell yourself you're blowing out all of the negative thoughts", she says.
At the same time, accept your feelings instead of catastrophising them. It might be hard to totally erase your fears when you're scrambling up a sketchy ridge to the summit. But you can avoid letting them spiral out of control, says Chertok. He recommends magnifying positive details and minimising negatives ones. For instance, focus on all of the successful climbing you've done in the past instead of thinking about the one time you slipped. Last-ditch effort: Have some fun with your fear. When irrational worries start creeping in—"What if I break my leg?!"—try giving them a silly voice. "Hearing our internal dialogue uttered by, for example, Mickey Mouse or Daffy Duck, can immediately put your thoughts into a less heavy perspective", explains Chertok.
02. Sudden Loss of Confidence
What it feels like: There's no way you can perform, even though you've practised a million times.
Why it happens: The best athletes and most successful people tend to visualise certain outcomes when they work hard to prepare for a big moment, says Muradian. But that can easily turn into overthinking a situation and trying to control every single detail, she adds.
And when you've practised something over and over to the point where the skill is practically automatic, focusing too much can end up doing more harm than good. "When you become obsessed with trying to control your wrist snap on a free throw or the follow-through on a pitch, the brain's automated mechanisms are disrupted, and the action itself can feel foreign and unable to be performed", says Chertok.
How to cope: First, remind yourself that you do have the skills to succeed, says Muradian. For a much-needed dose of confidence, think back to a time when you overcame a challenge, she says. Then direct your attention outwards instead of on the action you're trying so hard to control. "Actively focus on external things like targets, opponents or the ball rather than on the process of thinking, which becomes paralysing", says Chertok. That can be as simple as focusing on your teammate instead of on the mechanisms of your pass, or imagining that you're talking to a specific person in the audience rather than trying to remember your lines word for word.
03. Imposter Syndrome
What it feels like: That you got here—to the final, the last round of interviews or the (virtual) awards ceremony—because you're lucky, not because of your actual skills or talent.
Why it happens: Sometimes imposter syndrome comes down to low feelings of self-worth. "It often occurs when someone doesn't trust their capabilities or feels like nothing they do will be good enough", says Muradian. It can also occur when you're overly concerned with your image. "You might be more interested in not looking bad than in winning", says Chertok, so when you do win, you feel uncomfortable.
How to cope: When you notice your brain is being hijacked by fears that you're a fake, fight back. "It's important to silence the negative thoughts, as they are the real imposter", says Muradian. One effective way to block out the bad is by thinking of the best compliments you've received about your skills or a past performance, she says. Trust that the people you trust have the right assessment of your abilities.
And above all? Remember that choking is part of being human. "The reality is, no one knows what they're doing", says Chertok. And when we keep that in mind, "We can move forwards and understand our experience as normal—and be able to give more attention to the task in front of us".
Take that, double black diamond.
Words: Marygrace Taylor
Illustration: Kezia Gabriella