The prefrontal cortex, the brain region implicated in planning complex cognitive tasks, decision making, and moderating correct social behavior, is easily overwhelmed. We can process just about seven pieces of information in our conscious mind at any given moment. The more data we have to deal with, the harder it becomes to think clearly.
In addition, our frontal lobes consume lots of energy. When we experience strong negative emotions, as when we are angry or under stress, the glucose goes to the amygdala in the limbic system of the brain, triggering the "fight or flight" mode. The prefrontal cortex doesn't have enough energy to think clearly anymore. That's how our mind "freezes."
On top of that, our brain is more attuned to negative information and tends to perceive anything unfamiliar as a threat. Uncertainty is a threat. Change is a threat. Loss of face is a threat. This response has good evolutionary reasons, it helped our predecessors survive. Most of the threats in our daily life, however, are not "life or death" scenarios, but the brain is wired to react to them as if they were that serious. With all that negativity bias of the brain and the limited capacity of the prefrontal cortex, how can we think better under pressure? The following three steps may help.
- Become aware of the strong negative emotions and how they affect your thinking. Self-awareness is the most important brain optimization tool. Without it, you are prone to repeat the same patterns over and over again because the brain likes to conserve energy, predict your typical responses, and activate them automatically.
- Label the negative emotion you are experiencing. Studies have shown that labeling emotions with just a word or two reduces their effect. Say the label out loud if you can.
- If your emotions are triggered by a specific situation, try to reframe it in a less threatening way for the brain. Your interpretation needs to make sense, and it must be believable to you. One more thing. You have just a few seconds to reframe before the prefrontal cortex experiences the energy drain. Not a lot time, I know, but it's worth practicing if you want to learn how to think clearly under pressure. Remember: things are rarely as good or as bad as they seem.