Panel discussion, including Fitz, addresses stress management

Jia You

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Everyone has been stressed at some point – even Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald.

“It all starts and ends in your mind,” Fitzgerald said at a panel discussion on campus Friday about how to perform under stress.

Research in brain science has found several quick tricks people can use to boost their performance in times of stress, said Prof. Sian Beilock, who teaches psychology at the University of Chicago. She shared the findings from her new book, “Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To,” with 70 people at the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center Friday afternoon. A panel drawn from the fields of athletics, medicine and business joined the discussion.

“I think it’s the most relevant issue right now,” said McCormick junior Harsha Patel. “Getting your brain to function when you want it to is what everyone’s working towards.”

The discussion was sponsored by the McCormick Office of Personal Development. Prof. Joe Holtgreive, director of the office and assistant dean at McCormick, said he invited Beilock to campus after hearing about her new book on NPR.

“It takes that practical, scientific approach that also translates into really practical strategies that people can put in place to affect their ability to perform under pressure,” Holtgreive said.

The science behind choking, according to Beilock, lies in a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which governs thinking and reasoning abilities.

Choking happens because the prefrontal cortex malfunctions under pressure, Beilock said. As a result, people experience problems such as disrupted flow of actions, stunted creativity and a lack of emotional control.

The good news is, researchers have found a number of quick tricks to counter these symptoms, Beilock said.

For example, taking 10 minutes to write down one’s thoughts and feelings before a test can make the difference between a B- and a B+, Beilock said.

“Essentially, when you write about your thoughts and feelings you empty them from your mind, such that they are not as likely to pop up in that important moment,” she said.

A positive perspective also helps, she said. She cited an experiment showing when people reflect on what they can do differently the next time rather than dwelling on failure, their brains function in a way that boosts future performance.

“I don’t believe I’ve ever failed,” Fitzgerald said. “I get some momentary setbacks … and I analyze that and why, and what we can do, but I’ve never failed. That’s the way I talk to myself.”

Simulation is another useful strategy to overcome performance anxiety, Beilock said. For instance, students who test themselves while studying for tests tend to perform better than students who simply read through the material.

Her view resonates with Prof. John Vozenilek, who teaches emergency medicine at the Feinberg School of Medicine.

“My physicians know what it’s like to take a little life threat,” he said. “They can acknowledge the sense of it, and then move past it.”

Zachary Johnson (McCormick ’10) said managing stress is also about putting things in perspective.

“Whenever I go to a business meeting or try to negotiate something, you know, I’m probably not gonna die in a meeting.” Johnson said.

Patel, who said he choked over tests, said he found the talk informative.

“I like how they combined the soft science with the hard science,” he said. “The idea of visualizing and the idea of writing it out is something that I’m going to practice.”