Under pressure...

"You can measure a man's character by the choices he makes under pressure"
Winston Churchill

Ever wondered why we make seemingly senseless decisions under pressure, those that given the benefit of hindsight we would never have made? Have you ever asked the question of an athlete, client or colleague after a particularly heated exchange or incident - “Why did you choose to do that, at that point” and they’ve been unable to answer why?


Here comes the (simplified) science bit...

Well, it is likely because of the Autonomous Nervous System (ANS) and how it responds to stress in different ways. It has two systems it can utilise, the Sympathetic Nervous System and the Parasympathetic Nervous System and each treats the brain and body in different ways.

The one we are most interested in here is the Sympathetic system, this is the system that creates a Flight, Fight or Freeze response in times of duress. When you perceive a situation of stress the reptilian brain activates and seeks a response from the "thinking brain", if it doesn’t receive one quickly enough it assumes we are in danger and signals the release of adrenaline into the system. The adrenaline speeds up muscle response, ready for flight or flight, but the side affect is that it diverts blood into the muscles (so they are ready for action) and away from the neocortex of the brain (the “thinking” bit).

Because our reptilian brain is hardwired to keep us safe, it tends to over react - for example have you ever spotted a spider on the living room carpet and panicked, only to realise it was actually a piece of fluff?! That is your reptilian brain sensing something that could harm us and seeking a response as to how to react. Fortunately, you have experience of spiders and know what they look like, so your "thinking brain" is quickly able to let you know there is no need to panic, there is no spider. Chances are though, that even in that split second, your heart rate shot up, through adrenaline being released, readying you for action.

Adrenaline, whilst being brilliant for survival in a primitive setting, where fight or flight was a reasonable response, doesn't necessarily set us up well for surviving and thriving in modern life.


Effects of adrenaline

When the heart rate is raised by adrenaline alone (not through exercise) to around 130bpm we are operating at approximately 30% of our cognitive (thinking) capacity as blood is diverted to other organs, if the heart rate rises to around 180 through adrenaline we are only able to access around 3% of our cognitive capacity – this is known as “mind blindness.”

As I have rugby on my mind currently (sadly the England team failure cannot be put down to mind blindness) and it was the Rugby League Grand Final this weekend I had a recollection of an incident in last years grand final. If you watched last year you will probably have seen the following incident (warning – it’s not a pretty sight)…

Ben Flower of Wigan (the strong favourites) punched a St Helen's player and knocked him out before punching him again whilst he was unconscious, 2 minutes into the match. Flower was consequently sent off, Wigan played the remaining 78 minutes with 12 men and ultimately lost the match. It demonstrates a near perfect example of a player who's sympathetic nervous system is overly stressed before the match and consequently has taken that adrenaline onto the field and quite literally “lost his head”. Some adrenaline would of course be beneficial, rugby is a full contact, physically demanding sport after all, but management of that situation is essential to achieve optimal performance.

Flower's coach, or perhaps team mates, should have been able to recognise how sympathetically stressed he was in the dressing room and helped him engage his parasympathetic nervous system to rebalance. Using mindfulness techniques, breathing techniques, listening to quiet music, having a power nap or simply taking yourself out of the situation are all ways to help engage the parasympathetic system and reduce the levels of stress and consequently adrenaline to manageable levels.

I have seen many an experienced manager or leader go to pieces under pressure and make terrible, irrational decisions that they would never have made under more controlled circumstances. So next time an athlete or colleague has a moment of apparent “brainlessness” remember, their body is doing what is is designed to do, keep them safe, they are experiencing a stress response.


What to do?

If you recognise this happening, be there to help them, give them the opportunity to calm and reflect, take them out of the situation. If you line manage employees, part of your job is to guide them in practice through simulation training that replicates the stresses of their role as closely as possible – experiential learning followed by reflection is one of the most effective methods of helping control sympathetic stress.

If you are feeling signs of stress, remember it is incredibly taxing on your nervous system and can eventually lead to burn out and a whole host of other issues (insomnia, headaches, hypertension and so on) - take regular breaks during your working day - 10 minutes to walk outside and just breathe, 10 minutes to sit on a bench outside the office and read a book, sit in the park and eat lunch, call a friend for a non-work chat over lunch. All of these little moments add up to allowing your nervous system to recharge and to help you maintain superhuman performance.

If you would like more information on this subject or help in managing your own responses to stress and working to efficiently find some "you time", please contact us here.