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KEY POINTS:

1. In a high-pressure situation, mindfulness can be used to help deal with stress and find confidence in the most intense situations. 

2. Possessing the ability to stay calm under pressure is the bedrock of outstanding performance because in a calm state we can more reliably regulate our attention and behaviour.

3. When we feel stressed out, just taking deeper breaths for about 60 seconds is a very effective way of regulating stress because it activates the parasympathetic response in the body, which signals to the emotional centres of the brain that it’s time to calm down.

By Dr. Greg Wells

Imagine you are about to give a presentation to a large audience. Are your palms sweaty? Is your heart beginning to flutter? Is your stomach turning? Are you thinking “oh my, there are so many people out there” or worrying about what the crowd will be thinking of you?

Whether it’s a presentation, a playoff game, a life threatening situation, or even a first date, performance under pressure is something we can all relate to. And here’s a little secret: paying attention to what you’re thinking about is the first step to mastering your performance.

George Mumford is a sports psychologist that has been working with mindfulness for years to help athletes perform at their best in the moments where it matters most. He’s worked with elite athletes, like Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kobe Bryant to name a few, training them to become more aware of their thoughts and to connect with their body so that they can find a place of ease and confidence in the most intense situations.

Research has recently produced evidence that supports this idea that mindfulness practices are aligned with optimal performance. For example, one meta-analysis reviewed 270 independent studies and found that mindfulness had a positive effect on performance and was negatively related to how much stress people perceived in their lives.

When we react to stress, sometimes the brain and body respond in a way that is not always best for the situation. One example is how stress impacts our attention. If you were in a room with a rattle snake, you’re likely not paying attention to the colour of the curtains because biological programming locks your attention toward focusing on the snake. This is what psychologists refer to as the threat-rigidity response. The downfall is that sometimes we don’t want our attention to become narrow and rigid. Think of how important it would be to an advertising executive to be able to think broadly and openly even when a deadline is approaching. Sometimes we want our attention to be flexible, instead of focusing only on what we perceive to be our largest threat. Possessing the ability to stay calm under pressure is the bedrock of outstanding performance because in a calm state we can more reliably regulate our attention and behaviour.

When we feel stressed out, just taking deeper breaths for about 60 seconds is a very effective way of regulating stress because it activates the parasympathetic response in the body, which floods the brain with oxygen and signals to the emotional centres of the brain that it’s time to calm down.

Today's Power Up: The STOP Practice

The next time you feel suffocated by the pressure of a situation, try the STOP practice. STOP stands for Stop, Take a breath, Observe, and Proceed. Here are the four steps in detail.

1. Stop whatever you’re doing and become aware of the present moment.

2. Take a breath. Or two. Or ten.

3. Observe your body and scan it for any sensations, tension, emotions that are present.

4. Proceed. Carry on with life and set an intention guided by “what’s most important as I move forward?”. It may even be that you need to cycle through the STOP practice again!