• Article
  • February 15, 2018

What Happens to Our Brains in High-Pressure Situations

Here's what a leading brain researcher has learned about improving human performance while in high-pressure situations.

By Christine Bush

Sian Beilock, Ph.D.
Sian Beilock, Ph.D.

Sian Beilock, Ph.D., president of Barnard College in New York, studies the science behind why people choke in high-pressure situations. At the 2018 Quality and Safety in Children’s Health Conference, Beilock explained how to help team members perform at their best. She is the author of Choke: The Secret to Performing Under Pressure.

Can anyone use your research to improve their performance? We are all inherently interested in this phenomenon of choking because it happens to all of us. We are not born chokers or thrivers; we learn. There are all sorts of situations where the pressure is on, or people are watching us and we don't put our best foot forward. My research suggests there are ways to work on that and do better in those important situations. 

Why does this topic interest you? People always ask me if I do a little bit of me-search in addition to research. I've always been interested in why I sometimes performed at my best and why I sometimes didn't. I was an athlete growing up and was interested in how I performed on the soccer field, when I took important tests or when I had to do something when all eyes were on me.

What suggestions do you have for people to perform their best under stress? Practice under the same conditions that you are going to perform under. If you have to perform under time pressure where people are watching you, practice that way. If you have to give a talk, practice in front of other people, or in front of a mirror, to get used to the self-consciousness you might feel when you're speaking.

What is something people would be surprised to learn about you? I'm interested in some of the reasons I choked in my life. I learned that what happens in our heads matters. The mental game matters, and we often don't focus on that as much. We focus on learning the material or getting a skill down. But how we think about others and whether others are watching us, or how we think about whether we can succeed, changes whether or not we really do succeed.

How can people in the health care industry benefit from your research on anxiety? A lot of the tips and tools that I talk about in my book Choke, and in the work I do, apply across pressure-filled situations. Whether it's in the boardroom or in a hospital dealing with people in stressful situations, understanding what happens in the brain and body can help us perform better.

Send questions or comments to magazine@childrenshospitals.org.