How to stop brain freeze when things go wrong.

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Q: Ben, Deckhand, 24:

“Recently I did something idiotic onboard when using the crane to launch the tender for the first time. I was super-stressed and I pretended I knew what I was doing, but my brain shut down entirely and I did something so stupid I still cringe about it weeks later. The first mate said afterwards ‘you just weren’t listening to my instructions, it was like I was talking to a wall.’ I remember I was just panicking so hard it was like my brain wasn’t functioning at all. Looking back, it’s not the first time I’ve had this reaction of just shutting down when stressed and doing dumb things. I’m now really questioning my ability to work on deck in high pressure situations, and I feel like an idiot all the time in front of the first mate, which is just making me do more idiotic things- even basic things I completely know how to do. What is going on??!!”

A: The Crew Coach:

Oh, B. Welcome to the club! We’ve all been in situations where our stress response hijacks our brain and turns it into pudding. It’s called being human, but in our most primitive biological state. What happens when we’re under stress is that the ancient, reptilian part of our brain falls back into its preservation mode: fight, flight, or freeze. Not much good tends to happen in this state, as higher level thinking goes clear out the window. I’d like to congratulate you for even noticing that there’s a pattern here- a lot of people never notice that their stress response falls into a pattern, often stretching right back to childhood. Some fight, some flee, some freeze in the face of stress- and from the scenario you shared, it sounds like you’re someone who freezes.

In some people their stress response will come out as anger, some will retreat from a challenging situation entirely, and some will just beat themselves up endlessly over a mistake to the point they can’t really get past it. Others will hide in over-eating or sleeping, others stop eating or sleeping! It plays out in different ways for different people.

Yet other people manage to rise to the challenge. They have inner resilience, bouncing back from setbacks and seeing obstacles and failures as learning opportunities. These are the people that ‘keep their heads when all about them are losing theirs’, and who seem to have a calm, unshakeable confidence that others respect. For some people, this trait is largely inbuilt, but the vast majority of us simply have to learn it.

So, how do you get your stress response under control and start building your resilience?

1. Observe your bodily reactions when you start feeling pressured.

Those burning or icy cheeks, the hammering heart rate, the shallow breathing? That’s all your stress response kicking in. Back in caveman days, all of these reactions were totally necessary to get you away from that hungry tiger. Now, they just make us do idiotic things in front of our bosses. When the panic starts to rise, force your body back into a rest and repair state with some deep breathing. Inhale for four seconds, stop your breath for 7 seconds, exhale for 8 seconds. There’s science behind this, so go with it.

2. Notice how you talk to yourself.

Your question mentions the words ‘idiot’, ‘dumb’, and ‘stupid’ no less than 5 times, which indicates to me that you’re probably really hard on yourself in general. This is a very important thing to work on, as negative self talk is the best way to let pressure win the war and you’ll continue to act in a state of panic. You can try mentally noting (or writing down) every single time you think badly about yourself over the course of a day. I guarantee you’re going to be shocked at the negative self-talk that is eroding your confidence. It’s no wonder your brain turns to jelly under pressure when you are telling yourself you have such little faith in your ability to cope.

3. Do more challenging things.

The best way to build mental resilience is to build skills. Do things you’re scared of, and before long you’ll notice that you start reacting quite differently to pressure situations, as your brain starts thinking ‘Oh, I felt this last time I was stressed, but I rose to the occasion. I can do it again.’ Rather than saying airy fairy positive affirmations in the mirror, stick to actions to build your confidence. This trains your brain that you can overcome stress and you will quickly begin to see a difference in your response to everyday stressful situations.

4. Start a daily meditation practice.

No, I’m not going all woo-woo on you here, meditation has scientifically been proven to hardwire the brain and reduce stress responses in just 8 weeks, and even the US marines have taken it on board as part of their rigorous mental training. You could start with the free 10 day introduction by 10% Happier or using the Headspace app.

5. Learn to view things differently.

If you’re a person who finds themselves getting a bit angry or frustrated under pressure, you’re going to need to learn to give a little. This might be learning to accept that change is a constant, and being more flexible and compassionate, both with yourself and with others. If you can also learn to view your mistakes as learn-itunities (learning opportunities), you’ll be well on the way to building your resilience!

Last but not least, you need to forgive yourself for the mistake and let go of the incident that happened a few weeks ago. Think of it as part of your apprenticeship in yachting – you’ll certainly never make that mistake again – and you’ll be sure to watch out nobody else does either, which at the end of the day is a very good thing and nothing at all to be ashamed of. Let us know how you go!

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Alison Rentoul

Alison Rentoul

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