1. Before a job interview or an important meeting
Jot down three points you want to get across. “If you start worrying, focus your mind on your main points,” says Beilock. That will help keep you in the moment and give you a cheat sheet if you start to panic.
2. Before competing in your favorite sport
Sing or recite poetry to keep yourself from obsessively focusing on— and potentially screwing up— movements you know by heart, says University of Chicago psychology professor Sian Beilock. “It also helps to make your move before you have time to think,” she says. Just serve the ball. Throw the pitch. Make the shot!
3. Before taking a test
Write down your fears, then list the facts that refute them, suggests Beilock. For instance, remind yourself of all the studying you’ve done. “We work with med school students who suffer from test anxiety, and doing this expressive writing technique, in addition to supportive discussion about their fears—and effective test preparation—can help them improve their scores by as much as 10 percent,” says Loren Deutsch, founder of Loren Academic Services in Winnetka, Illinois.
4. Before a bowling tournament
Lower the bar. Go into situations that require skilled motor control thinking of ways to avoid mess-ups. This may be especially key if you’re prone to choking, says Vikram Chib, PhD, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, whose studies show that people who worry about losing tend to do better when they focus on avoiding bombing rather than winning big. His research has found that the same part of the brain, the ventral striatum, is involved in both processing rewards and executing physical tasks, and high stakes interfere with the brain’s reward circuitry. So when you’re bowling with money on the line, you’re better off concentrating on ways to avoid losing than going for a strike.
5. Before running a race
Meditate. “Even small amounts of meditation can help you become more adept at focusing your attention on what you want and what you don’t,” says Beilock.
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