When you are under immense performance stress and need to complete tasks, there is a tendency to want to speed up your actions. The consequence of doing this is that you are likely to make mistakes. Even worse, the faster your thinking process becomes under stress, the more you might second guess yourself. This is the paradox: Stress brings both haste, but also indecision. Depending on your role, for example as a first responder, your indecision can mean death.

In order to manage this type of experience, first you have to recognize it. Being under performance stress brings along with it noticeable physiological changes, for example a quicker heart rate, clammy hands and a dry mouth. In these moments, even though you know thinking clearly is imperative, it may not be immediately possible.

Counteracting Haste-and-Indecision

One way to counteract haste-and-indecision is to purposively focus on your breath, something most of us simply take for granted. Before exploring breathing further, let’s take a quick look at that three-pound piece of intelligent jelly inside your skull.

Your brain sits on top of your spine, which is the main highway for your nervous system. The spine feeds information from your peripheral nervous system (PNS) about what is happening in your body, to your central nervous system (CNS) to then be processed in your brain. It controls a great deal of what goes on in your body — including your breathing and heart rate.

Without your brain you wouldn’t be able to think. But your brain is not just inside your head. It is, in fact, distributed all over your body through your nervous system.

Your peripheral nervous system (PNS) has two parts and functions:

  • External: Your sensory-somatic nervous system responsible for gathering information about your external environment.
  • Internal: Your autonomic nervous system (ANS) responsible for monitoring and controlling your internal organs (e.g. heart, lungs, viscera, and glands). Your ANS also affects your motor nerves that determine how your body acts and reacts in response to internal and external stimuli.

Your ANS is mostly beyond conscious control. It operates behind the scenes; it is mostly unconscious and involuntary. By contrast, your sensory-somatic system responds directly to your conscious will.

The ANS, then, perceives your body’s internal environment; and after the information is processed in the CNS, the ANS regulates the functions of the internal environment. Most of this is done completely unconsciously.