3 Words to Maximize Your Performance Under Pressure

Photo by Thomas Wolter
Photo by Thomas Wolter
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The Challenge: Pressurized situations often diminish our ability to perform as well as we would like.

The Science: Breathing can be used to modulate our stress response.

The Solution: Maximize your ability to perform under pressure with these breathing tips

Picture the scenario. You’re in a lobby trying to ignore the seemingly deafening tick of a mounted old-world clock, anxiously waiting to be called in for your interview. A panel of hard-nosed interviewers sits in an adjacent room, ready to ruthlessly scrutinize your every response – to express their minutest disapproval with a vicious squint of the eyes or merciless clearing of the throat. So you wait, your palms buttering with nervous sweat, and your foot unconsciously tapping at a jittery pace. You’re short of breath, gasping in rapid successions of unsatisfying, shallow inhalations followed by equally desperate, tremored exhalations. Hell, you think to yourself, how am I going to perform in this state?

Each of us has been in a similarly pressurized situation countless times, and, frankly, who can blame us for loathing every second of it? Performing under pressure is a dreaded strain we’ve all struggled with at some point or another, and it has the capacity to diminish even basic biological functions like motor memory and autonomous breathing. Whether you’re an aspiring musician, a dignified actor, an ambitious athlete, or a diligent student, performing under pressure is a necessary part of your life, and oftentimes the very thing that stands between you and the accomplishment of your goals. Luckily, recent research has come to the rescue with a painless, elegant solution to put you in the best possible position to dominate in even the most strenuous settings.

It’s all in the power of three simple words: control your breathing. Precisely what this entails is broken down into the categories below.

1.   What the science says: Changing your breathing pattern can change how you’re feeling

Pierre Philippot and Gaetane Chappelle at the Catholic University of Louvain examined the association between different emotional states and distinct patterns of breathing, and discovered that (1) breathing patterns are “characterized by a clear differentiation among emotions,” and (2) that those differentiated emotional states could be induced by conscious respiratory manipulation. Participants were studied during self-reported states of four major emotions – joy, anger, fear and sadness – and revealed a detailed breathing pattern characteristic of that particular emotion. Indeed, the patterns were consistent and homogenous among the individuals, leading the researchers to believe that perhaps mimicking particular styles of breathing could induce the corresponding emotions – i.e. a bidirectional pathway connecting respiration and feeling-states. Indeed, that’s precisely what they found.

What this means for you: Reduce anxiety and bolster calmness and contentment by consciously adapting your breathing to fit a deeper, slower pattern of inhalation and exhalation, while keeping the ribcage relaxed.

2.   What the science says: Breathing exercises can improve motor performance, learning, and memory.

At the Indian Institute of Technology’s Center for Cognitive Science, Goldy Yadav and Pratik Mutha compared the performance of two groups that had just been taught a new fine-motor skill (tracing concentric circles with their index finger). The control group was then asked to rest for thirty minutes and repeat the exercise, while the experimental group followed a simple alternate-nostril breathing practice before repeating the very same exercise. The results were astounding. Those individuals who participated in the one-time deep breathing regimen showed significantly lower rates of error than their well-rested counterparts. Even still, when the groups were tested again after a twenty-four hour period, the disparity remained – the breathing group not only displayed better motor learning, but also greater overall retention of the skill, even in the longer term.

What this means for you: Taking the time between preparation and performance to practice a simple respiratory exercise like alternate-nostril breathing can sizably enhance learning and retention of newly-acquired motor skills.

3.   What the science says: The body’s responses to stress can be drastically reduced by yogic breathing practices.

A study involving veterans suffering from PTSD at Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education revealed that participation in a one-week Sudarshan Kriya yoga program “resulted in reduced PTSD symptoms, anxiety and respiration rate,” as well as a “reduction in self-reported hyperarousal symptoms” like aggression, insomnia, impulsiveness, and lack of concentration. Indeed, the breathing practice, by activating both the parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) and sympathetic (fight-or-flight) components of the nervous system, produced “a state of both alertness and calm,” allowing the participants to operate at peak capacity. What’s more? The positive effects of the week-long program were sustained over time (the veterans were tested again after one year), suggesting a longitudinal, long-term benefit that “endures independently of continued practice.”

What this means for you: Engaging in a breathing regimen like Sudashan Kriya even for just a short while has the potential to produce long-lasting increases in calmness and alertness, while decreasing unwanted responses to stress like irritability, anger, and inability to focus.

In sum, then, control your breathing to (1) modulate how you’re feeling (reduce that pestering anxiety), (2) maximize motor learning and retention, and (3) keep your mind and body simultaneously alert and calm. Armed with these advantages, performing under pressure will be just like performing without pressure. 

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Dhruv Nandamudi
Dhruv Nandamudi is currently finishing his B.S. in Psychology from Yale University, with an emphasis in neuroscience. He also contributes as a research associate at Yale's Clinical and Affective Neuroscience Lab, examining the neural mechanisms of treatment response in patients with binge-eating disorder. He hopes to pursue a career as a practicing clinical psychologist.
Dhruv Nandamudi

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