- Created on Tuesday, 03 January 2012
- Written by Anna Mitchell
- Hits: 174
Have you ever had that terrible feeling at a critical moment when time stood still? Perhaps you stood up to make a speech and your brain suddenly went completely blank forgetting everything you had rehearsed? You may have noticed that the harder you tried to come up with something to say, the more your brain seemed to lock up leaving you helpless. You may have experienced this sensation during a performance when you found yourself in a "make it or break it" situation. It can be this pivotal moment that causes you to either achieve your greatest feats or suffer the greatest disappointments.
Learning to overcome this common obstacle may give you the edge you need over your competition, but first you need to understand exactly what is going on when the brain goes into shutdown mode.
The human brain is a highly complex organ that enables us to navigate this crazy world we live in. Unfortunately, when we need it to help us coordinate our thoughts and our actions during competition, it often retreats to survival mode and leaves us hanging. Few of us are immune to the pressures of competition, and when we feel pressure, our brain recognizes the stress and essentially attempts to "save" us from the perceived threat by activating the fight or flight response.
Evolution has left our brains wired to attend to the negatives in life rather than the positives because it is the bad stuff in life that threatens our survival. The problem is that our brains do not always accurately distinguish between the bad stuff that just makes us feel bad and the really bad stuff that may cause bodily harm or death. Consequently, the brain often cannot tell the difference between acute stress caused by anxiety during competition and fear of mortal danger. When the brain perceives a threat, it very quickly swings into survival mode and sends out the message. The body responds by increasing the heart and respiratory rates to ready the body for action. You may experience a dry mouth, upset stomach and/or diarrhea as the body diverts blood flow to the outer limbs and away from your internal organs in preparation of a fight or flight.
This message is sent down from the frontal lobe to the amygdala very quickly. Unfortunately, once the situation has been assessed and determined as non-life threatening, the message takes a lot longer to go back up. Consequently, once this response has been activated, it is difficult to turn off. If left unchecked, it will continue to inhibit us from performing at our best and occasionally may escalate into a full-blown panic attack.
There are a couple of consequences to this response; first, high-level cognitive functioning (executive functioning) such as decision-making and reasoning occurs in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This process requires huge amounts of energy to function smoothly. Energy is supplied in the form of glucose. When the brain detects a negative stimulus (such as stress), it diverts the glucose to the amygdala in the limbic system to activate the fight or flight response. The lower levels of glucose coupled with an overload of stimuli causes chaos in the frontal lobe resulting in an inability to think clearly. The effect is a kind of chaotic confusion that either causes a temporary shutdown and the brain "freezes" or an inability to identify and focus on relevant cues. Trying to focus on our target during a performance amongst this clutter of stimuli can feel like searching through a "Where's Waldo?" picture. Thinking quickly and clearly becomes very difficult, often resulting in disastrous consequences for our performance.
So now you understand what happens when your brain shuts down, but the good news is that there are a number of things you can do to override this automatic system and save your performance. We'll get to that next week.
Anyone brave enough to share their experience of a brain freeze? What happened and what did you do?