How to Succeed Under Pressure

Whether you deal with stomach butterflies or feelings of self-doubt before a big moment, a cognitive scientist says there are simple ways to get out of your own head.


Standing in front of a room of people to voice your opinion can be daunting, and it’s a common source of stress. It’s only natural for your nerves to take over. When it comes to succeeding under pressure, experts say it starts with recognizing what’s going on in your mind. “When the pressure is on, we tend to panic — about the situation, its consequences, and what others will think of us,” Sian Beilock, Ph.D., a cognitive scientist and the president of Barnard College, writes in Harvard Business Review. “As a result, we apply too much cognitive horsepower to what we are doing.” 

According to Beilock, the cognitive energy you spend on overthinking an overwhelming situation can hold you back from overcoming your nerves when it’s time to perform. And while those nerves may be warranted, there are actionable ways to overcome them on the spot, and they’re more simple than you think. Here are a few in-the-moment ways to avoid caving under pressure:

Redirect your mind 

When you’re preparing for an intimidating presentation or a big meeting, it feels natural to rehearse your points right before you enter the room — but according to Beilock, this tendency can backfire. “Five minutes before the big event is not the time to go over every detail of what you are about to do in your head,” she explains. “Instead, give yourself a moment to focus on something else.” By redirecting your mind with a different focal point, like a motivational quote you saved on Instagram, or a brief centering meditation, you can send signals to your nervous system that it’s time to calm down, rather than the opposite. Instead of last-minute cramming, trust that you’re prepared, and enter the room with a clear mind.

Repeat a one-word mantra

Another way to redirect your mind is to focus on one hyper-specific word or phrase, Beilock notes. “If you notice that you are starting to overthink, try singing a song [or] repeating a one-word mantra.”  Beilock explains that the stamina in your mind that builds up when you’re waiting for the big moment can send your prefrontal cortex into overdrive. Focusing on a specific phrase in advance can counteract that cognitive response. “If you take time beforehand to occupy your prefrontal cortex with unrelated activities, you’re less likely to overthink in the moment,” she adds. “These internal tactics keep your prefrontal cortex engaged.”

Reframe your physical symptoms

If you usually dread your body’s physiological responses to stress — from the sweaty palms to the fast heart beat — try reframing them, Beilock suggests. As it turns out, you can actually benefit from acknowledging them, and instead see them as a way to succeed. “Those physical symptoms before an important event… are good signs,” she says. “They mean you are ready for the challenge that lies ahead.” Instead of ignoring the signs your body is sending you, Beilock suggests thinking of them as an indication that you’re prepared, and maybe even excited. After all, research has shown that just a little bit of stress can propel you forward, and encourage you to succeed when the nerves kick in.

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