A Sharp Mind When You Need It

Last Editorial Review: 5/4/2005

Almost everyone stresses out before a big speech or major test. But if anxiety is interfering with your ability to think clearly, here are some simple relaxation techniques that help keep your mind sharp.

By Leanna Skarnulis
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

Imagine a darkened studio with creepy music playing and you're sitting in the "hot seat" across from Regis Philbin. With millions of people watching, you try to answer a series of trivia questions. You could win a million dollars -- or not. Brad Herzog was there. He took home $64,000 as a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

"All day before the show I focused on staying focused," he tells WebMD. "But it was such a surreal experience. Thoughts careened in my head, like 'There must be 50 million people watching,' or 'Regis sure has white teeth.' I think complete focus was all but impossible. When I look back on it, I feel there were some recesses of my brain and logical thought processes I wasn't tapping into."

One question that tripped him up required selecting the Hallmark cards symbol from four possible answers. The correct answer was "crown." Herzog had walked past a Hallmark Crown store in his hometown of Pacific Grove, Calif., a hundred times. "I couldn't retrieve that piece of information," says the writer, whose American travels have resulted in books such as Small World: A Microcosmic Journey. "I think it would have been different if I'd been sitting at home on my couch."

Even though Herzog's situation was extreme, most of us can relate. It's that awful moment during a speech or test or job interview when we can't summon what we thought we knew. Our brains let us down. Our hearts race and muscles tighten. Experts offer explanations for the phenomenon and also provide strategies for keeping a sharp mind.

"If in a job interview you get distracted and don't hear a question, or in a speech forget what to say next, you might become anxious," says Debra Hope, PhD, psychology professor at the University of Nebraska/Lincoln. "If you focus on the anxiety, it takes up so much of your mental capacity that it's hard to focus on what you need to do. From there it can be a downward spiral."

When You're in the 'Hot Seat'

What can you do to recover when you feel you're losing it? A speaker, instead of thinking, 'I look stupid,' should pause and look at notes, says Hope, an expert in public speaking anxiety and other anxiety disorders. An interviewee who misses a question can ask to have it repeated. In a test situation, Hope advises students to write a coping statement across the top of an exam: "If I don't know the answer to one question, I might know the answer to the next."

If you have experience using a relaxation technique in which you systematically tense and relax muscles, it can help reduce stress during a test. "I wouldn't do it for the first time during a test," says Hope. "It's hard unless you've practiced."

By all means, breathe. Hope tells WebMD that breathing becomes irregular when people are anxious. It's OK to pause and take a deep breath during a speech or job interview. During a test you can use a series of three or four deep breaths. "When you're anxious, breathing becomes shallow. You should breathe from your diaphragm." She advises practicing deep breathing ahead of time.

First place your hand on your stomach just above your naval so you can feel it rise and fall with proper breathing. Breathe in, counting to three seconds, then breathe out, counting to three seconds. "Don't gulp the air and hold it," says Hope. "Breathe evenly."

"People who are nervous about situations often avoid thinking about it till the last moment so they haven't rehearsed plans in their head," says Hope. "They've only rehearsed being anxious."

Allow time to plan, gather, and organize material, and let your brain integrate information so you can readily recall it. Herzog did some research after his experience and learned that one reason he couldn't retrieve the Hallmark crown symbol was because it was randomly stored in his mind and had never been meaningfully integrated. He'd have had a better chance at recall, even with anxiety taxing his mental capacity, if the subject had been something he'd talked about and integrated.

This is why experts say it's essential to rehearse a speech or answers to job interview questions. Career counselor and consultant Louise Giordano, MEd, says the biggest mistake in job interviews is lack of preparation. "Research the company, know what they're looking for, and prepare and practice anecdotes to illustrate how your qualifications and experience match their needs. If you get a question you can't answer, you might have prepared an answer that relates to the question. The interviewer might be looking to see how you operate under pressure."

Giordano, formerly with Brown University & Providence College, tells WebMD it's essential that job seekers prepare and rehearse answers to the "Basic Three" questions:

  • Why are you interested in this field?
  • Why are you interested in this company?
  • Why are you interested in this position?

In addition, be prepared to address tough issues, including those that might be raised by your resume, such as:

  • your greatest weakness
  • your lack of related experience
  • your low GPA
  • your lack of leadership experiences
  • your record of job-hopping

Well in advance of the interview, get your resume in shape, have multiple copies, and know how to get to the interview and how long it will take considering traffic and parking. "Unless you're someone who functions well at the last minute, you'll become anxious without these things in place," says Giordano. "Do a trial run. Being late is a killer. No matter what the circumstances are, it's never accepted well."

Regarding exams, Hope recommends simulating the experience by taking practice tests. "Do them as if it's the real thing. Plan how to cope if you get stuck so you don't get into the anxiety spiral."

Also work on your self-confidence. Turn off defeatist self-talk. Find books or tapes that teach strategies such as affirmations, meditation, and desensitization.

While you're planning, throw in a reward, such as a movie or CD or massage, that will follow the speech, job interview, or test. Don't make the reward contingent on how well you perform, but on what you can control, says Hope. "When I submit an article to a scientific journal, I always celebrate the day I send it off. That's what I can control. I can't control whether it gets published."

"I wish I'd been better prepared physically, but I was too nervous to sleep the night before the show," says Herzog. "The next day we had 12 hours before taping, and I couldn't eat."

"Plan what you do the night before so you have the best possible chance of doing well," says Hope. "That's not the time to study or rehearse. Go to a movie or read a good book, and limit your consumption of alcohol. Try to get a good night's sleep."

What about breakfast? "My nutritionist friends would say to never skip breakfast, but if you never eat breakfast, I don't know that you want to on the day of the big exam," says Hope.

Does comfort food call to you when you're stressed? Should you take a Snickers bar to the exam? A research study described in the September 2003 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that eating high-fat, high-carbohydrate food reduced the release of stress-related hormones in an acutely stressful situation.

Most research into how foods affect memory and concentration is inconclusive. For example, a recent study showed that food high in sugar boosted short-term memory, but too many variables existed to recommend the strategy. And while some people get a lift from coffee, there's the potential to overdose and get the jitters.

Hope tells WebMD, "People should use their own judgment about what makes them feel alert."

It's well documented that exercise improves memory and concentration. But view it as a long-term strategy. Don't jump on the treadmill the day of a job interview if exercise isn't part of your routine.

What to Do If You Still Can't Cope

If coping strategies don't work for you, consider the possibility you have a treatable condition like ADHD or anxiety disorder.

And if feelings of anxiety prevent you from doing things you want to do or get in the way of success, Hope suggests reading a self-help book, such as Feeling Good, by David Burns. "It's basic cognitive therapy. Every time it says 'depression,' think 'anxiety.' If you need further help, see a mental health provider. There are lots of successful therapies, such as medication, psychotherapy, relaxation, and meditation. There's no reason to put up with excessive anxiety because it's very treatable."

Originally published April 26, 2004.

Medically updated May 4, 2005.

SOURCES: WebMD Feature: "Foods for Better Concentration." WebMD Medical News: "Stress Feeds the Need for Comfort Food." Louise Giordano, MEd, career counselor and consultant, Wilmington, N.C. Brad Herzog, author, Pacific Grove, Calif. Debra Hope, PhD, professor, department of psychology, University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

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