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How to Stop Your Mind from Going Blank in Any Stressful Situation

How to Stop Your Mind from Going Blank in Any Stressful Situation
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I wasn’t breathing.

At least that’s what it felt like to me. My body was seemingly paralyzed, my mind futile in its attempts to once again get me moving. There is very little else that I abhor more than raising my voice in the presence of a group, no matter the size. Right now, what I need is to quiet the noise of the five thousand thoughts racing through my mind at the same time.

Who am I to think that I could do this?

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What do I know anyway?

What if I embarrass myself in any number of possible ways? What then?

Needless to say, this was not the time to freeze up. This presentation was a significant portion of my final grade, and without it, all of my other hard work would have seemed to be in vain. The anxiety continued to rise.

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It’s so often to have a blanked mind under pressure.

Have you ever found yourself in that situation? Drawing a blank at the most inopportune times, your wealth of knowledge almost instantly depleted under the watchful eyes of your own high expectations, is unfortunately not uncommon. According to research by the …….

Of course, while a mind-blank may be the last thing that you want to have when you have that important interview, or that crucial presentation, but the typical response of near-hyperventilation can make an already-awkward situation even more uncomfortable. The brain is telling you to run, but your body is most likely frozen in place, so what is there to do. You are the opposite of calm, and at any moment, you might feel like you are about to explode.

Many of us are unable to remain calm in situations like this, because we find ourselves cloaked in a sea of uncertainty and a huge scarcity mindset. We are convinced that, not only are we now horrible individuals unable to complete a simple sentence much less a simple task, we are supposed to expect only one possible series of events and only one particular outcome. One mistake we make during this situation, is to remain silent, doing and saying nothing, while your mind races with self-deprecating thoughts of your ability.

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Luckily, there are quite a few strategies that are worth a try to help yourself remain calm, and reclaim your mind from the blankness of a high-pressure situation. Below, you will find three, simple-to-implement strategies outlined.

Always remember to breathe, always.

As silly as it may sound, while your body is already on autopilot when it comes to the whole breathing thing, a few deep breaths never fail to help you become grounded in the present. Deep breathing[1], which can be thought of as individually manipulating the rate, pace, and depth of each breath that the body takes, is a long-known strategy for regaining calm in not-so-calm situations. The benefits are derived from the parasympathetic nervous system[2], the integral body system that is the headquarters of rest and relaxation for your bodily functions. It helps to diffuse the effects of the fight-or-flight response[3] that tend to be linked to high pressure situations, and allows you mental space to start unraveling your racing mind.

Here is a quick one that can be utilized in particularly stressful situations:

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  • Breathe in slowly through the nose for a relaxed count of 5.
  • Hold that breath gently for another relaxed count of 5.
  • Breathe out slowly through the mouth for a relaxed count of 5.

Repeat this as many times as necessary to begin feeling calm and present.

Know what you want and aim for realistic expectations.

Now, I am not suggesting that your standards for academic, professional, and/or social excellence should lowered. Rather, in times of high-pressure, when your anxiety and panic may become easily triggered, give yourself the opportunity to reframe your position on what you expect from the situation. For instance, your important presentation may possibly place you on track for a career boost, but going blank right in the middle may find your progress stalled.

Instead, before your presentation (or any other high-pressure situation), first, remind yourself of why you are about to do what you are about to do. Secondly, allow yourself the space to consider possible outcomes anywhere on the spectrum, from worst case scenario, to best case scenario, to could-have-been-more-fireworks-maybe-but-I-still-did-my-best, and release your attachment to any one.

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You can turn your negative self-talk into something positive.

Think about a time when you believed that the stakes were particularly high for you. You prepared as best as you could to perform well in this situation, yet, the outcome was not exactly what we imagine. Now, one of your first statements to yourself may have been, “I’m so ______!” Insert any number of self-deprecating remarks here. While you have a right to be upset, after all, we have been nurtured to place a high-value on high-expectations, negative self-talk can derail your further progress[4]. It can possibly fan the flames of an already volatile mental and emotional situation, so it is essential to reframe it in order to remain calm under stress.

You could either do the following mentally, while in public and feeling the strain approaching, or when you have time to do a quick five minutes of reflective journaling[5]:

  • Think of at least five of the most common negative statements that you can recall saying to yourself in the past.
  • Give yourself a few seconds to think about why you resort to those particular words or phrases.
  • After your quick reflection, think of a solid opposition to the original negative statement. Instead of highlighting what you may believe to be an obvious flaw, allow yourself the space to flip the script. Thinking about your circumstances and your effort can help with this particular section.
  • Repeat as often as necessary to begin feeling grounded in your abilities, despite what a looming fear of failure may be telling you.

Reference

[1] PsychCentral: 3 Deep Breathing Exercises to Reduce Anxiety
[2] ScienceDaily: Parasympathetic nervous system
[3] Harvard Health Publications: Understanding the stress response
[4] Witted Roots: How to Change up Your Habit of Negative Self-Talk
[5] Witted Roots: Reflections Journal

More by this author

Shanice J. Douglas, MSc.

Writer | StoryTeller | Founder, WittedRoots.com

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

More on Building Habits

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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