Stop Folding Under Pressure: Why It Happens and What to Do About It

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Every lawyer has had it happen. You think of the perfect follow-up question after the deposition ends, or you devise the pithy answer to the judge’s question after the hearing. Often, we perform well below our best in high-stakes situations, despite hours of dedicated preparation. Here is what’s going on in your brain and what you can do to perform closer to your potential, even when the pressure is on.

Why You Choke Under Pressure

You choke under pressure because the region of your brain responsible for executive functioning becomes hijacked by fear, worry, and nerves. The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain responsible for advanced cognitive processes, things like language processing, working memory, and executive decision-making. One of the most important functions of the prefrontal cortex is to serve as the store of short-term memory — often the key to good lawyering. When we are synthesizing responses to judge’s questions or negotiating deals, we are relying heavily on our prefrontal cortexes.

University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock, the author of Choke, observes that pressure-filled situations affect the prefrontal cortex, depleting the brain’s working memory. Worry essentially sabotages the prefrontal cortex, Beilock says, thereby diminishing your ability to perform complex thinking.

Strong emotional inputs, hallmarks of many intense situations, also contribute to suboptimal performance. Emotions trigger the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for processing emotions and our fight-or-flight response. When you experience a strong emotional input, like a judge yelling at you or unreasonable opposing counsel, your amygdala kicks into high gear. In what has been termed an “amygdala hijack” by Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, the amygdala takes over the most rational parts of our brain, including the prefrontal cortex.

Indeed, research shows an inverse relationship between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. When the amygdala is active with blood and oxygen, there is less blood and oxygen in the prefrontal cortex. This means that our logical thinking and working memory are diminished because there is less blood in the prefrontal cortex. An amygdala hijack increases the probability that a lawyer won’t think of that clever response on the spot. He or she can’t; his or her executive decision-making center — the prefrontal cortex — doesn’t have the resources it needs to work well.

How to Reach Your Potential Under Pressure

The good news is that there is a lot we can do to perform better under pressure. The even better news is that many of these practices are very simple (if not always easy).

Meditate 

Meditating for just 10 minutes before a big event helps, even if you have no meditation experience. Beilock gave people 10 minutes of meditation training before a big exam. The people who received the training scored an average of 87 whereas the people who received no training scored an average of 82 even though the two groups had the same ability. This finding is consistent with the numerous other studies indicating that meditation reduces stress and anxiety while improving memory, focus, and the ability to pay attention.

Practice with Added Stress

We all know we need to practice to perform well, but the trick to reducing your choke factor is to add extra stress, says Beilock. In one study, one group of golfers was told their practices would be filmed for later examination by experts. A second group just practiced. The people who practiced with the extra pressure performed better when tested.

The extra stress acclimates your body and brain to pressure, so when stressors strike during a big event, you will know how to respond. Try practicing in front of a camera and asking more seasoned lawyers to review the footage with you. Do more moot courts if you can. Simulate negotiations and ask critical colleagues to observe. To be sure, all of these practice scenarios cost money and time, but if the stakes are high, the stressful practice will be worth it.

Write About Your Feelings Before the High-Stakes Event

A University of Chicago study showed that people who journaled about their feelings for ten minutes before a big test scored higher than people who wrote about something else or wrote about nothing. Notably, people who reported a history of text anxiety showed the most improvement. Researchers theorize that writing about fear and other feelings may ease anxiety because it allows people to express and name their emotions, which may calm them and free up working memory to focus on the test. For lawyers, it may be worthwhile to set aside time before an important hearing or event to jot down how you’re feeling about the upcoming event. You’re likely to perform better.

Talk to Yourself in the Third Person

We talk to ourselves all the time, particularly when we are mentally rehearsing an important speech or performance. It turns out that how we talk to ourselves affects both our anxiety levels and the quality of our work. University of Michigan scientists discovered that if you talk to yourself in the third-person, as opposed to the first-person, your anxiety will drop, and you will speak better in public.

In one experiment, people were told to give a speech to interviewers about why they are qualified for their dream jobs. They were given just five minutes to prepare and were not permitted to make any notes. Before the participants delivered their speeches, one group reflected on their feelings using the third-person, and the other group used the first-person. Those who talked to themselves using third-person references (like “you” or their names) performed better according to judges. The people who used the third-person also felt less anxious about their speeches. So go ahead, talk to yourself. Just be sure to say positive statements like, “You are going to do great! You’re ready.” Don’t say, “I’m sure I’ll be great.”

The next time you have to perform at your peak and the stakes are high, build in some extra time to try some of these practices. You will likely perform better and feel more confident, too.

Featured image: “Under pressure” from Shutterstock.

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  • legalofficeguru

    Here’s an effective (and counter-intuitive) fix for brain lock in the moment of crisis: http://reclaimyourtrueemotions.com/brain-lock/

  • Completely agree with the idea of meditating before a big event to calm the nerves. There’s a great app on iOS and Android called “Simply Being” which is an easy to use guided meditation program. It can set for short segments – such as ten minutes.

    One of the biggest things that can help lawyers not get too worked up before a big event is to make sure they decompress after work each day. Taking time at home for one’s self and family keeps the attorney from coming into work already overloaded the next morning. The key to this is that personal time actually be personal – no checking work email, talking to clients on the phone, or worrying about what’s going on at the office.