How To Stay Calm Under Pressure

In high-stakes scenarios, we tend to panic—and mess up things we usually do with ease. Here’s why that happens, and how to stop it.

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A star athlete misses a penalty shot in overtime. A famous singer bungles the national anthem. A  great actor forgets their lines on stage.

We’ve all witnessed someone choke under pressure, and while it may seem like a high-profile phenomenon, it can also happen to us in everyday life—whether we’re trying to nail a job interview, pass an important exam, impress a new date, or give a successful presentation.

So why do we panic under pressure? And what can we do to stop it?

In this video from TED-Ed, educator Pen-Pen Chen explains why pressure causes us to panic, and how we can conquer it.

Choosing Where You Place Your Attention

One of our main enemies when struggling to keep it together under pressure is perhaps the most obvious: distraction.

“Performance suffers when the mind is preoccupied with worries, doubts, or fears, instead of focusing its attention on performing the task at hand,” Chen says.

The reason for this is deceptively simple. When we’re too busy focusing on our panicked thoughts—Did I arrive too early? What if I shouldn’t have said that? Do they like me? How much time do I have?—we can’t concentrate on more important things, like the speech we’ve memorized. We excel when we’re able to choose where we place our attention (or where we don’t place our attention).

“Performance suffers when the mind is preoccupied with worries, doubts, or fears, instead of focusing its attention on performing the task at hand.”

“When relevant and irrelevant thoughts compete for the same attention, something has to give. The brain can only process so much information at once,” Chen says.

Getting Out of Your Own Way

Another reason we panic is we’re constantly monitoring our progress during a task—in other words, we over-analyze.

“Tasks we do unconsciously seem to be most vulnerable to this kind of choking,” Chen says.

For example, one study looked the performance of competitive golfers, for whom putting is a skill they perform so regularly they don’t have to think about doing it. The study found that when told to consider the detailed mechanics of their putting stroke, the golfers performed worse than when they were simply instructed to hit the ball accurately.

“The logic goes that once a skill becomes automatic, thinking about its precise mechanics interferes with your ability to do it,” Chen says.

Three Ways to Keep Your Cool Under Pressure

Feeling nervous before a big event is often inevitable. But that doesn’t mean you’re destined to forget the words to your speech, or embarrass yourself in front of a date. Explore these three ways to keep your cool:

  1. Learn to be with discomfort. If you know you have a high-stakes event coming up, one of the best things you lean into difficulty instead of pulling away from it. One way you can do this is by becoming familiar with feeling pressure, and learning to work through it. Need to give a presentation to coworkers? Rather than practicing on your own, try out your speech on a couple of friends. Do you have to write a qualifying examination in under an hour? Instead of studying cue cards, time yourself answering questions.
  2. Establish a pre-performance routine. Whether it’s taking a few deep breaths, doing some light stretching, or having a quick phone call with someone you trust, spending your last few minutes doing something active before a big event will prevent you from spiralling into worry, so you can perform confidently.
  3. Use mindfulness to focus your attention. To avoid over-analyzing your situation, try shifting your attention away from your worries and towards the task at hand. Mindfulness can help you regain a sense of calm and focus your attention, so you can avoid being caught off guard by your anxiety. You can see it for what it is, and choose to direct your attention elsewhere. Explore this nine-minute meditation to focus a busy mind in times of stress or overwhelm.