It is a sensation all too familiar to me. A sense of sheer panic when, after hours upon hours of studying, I simply can not clear my mind enough to decipher the right answer on a test.
It’s something that anyone who has “flubbed a speech, bumped up against writer’s block or struggled through a lengthy exam” understands. Colloquially known as choking, nerves, brain freeze or jitters, it occurs to virtually everyone. But why? Researchers are looking at the neural circuits that might play a role in the sensation of loss of function.
The brain’s executive control center resides in the prefrontal cortex. When under stress, the prefrontal cortex is weakened and a high level of control is given to primal parts of the brain. This transfer of control can manifest in paralysis or impulses that we normally keep in check: excesses of food, drink, drugs or shopping. Eventually stress can lead to the shut down of the prefrontal cortex, which leads to the amygdala taking over. The amygdala is a small but powerful area of the brain that can induce mental paralysis and panic.
It was previously believed that the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands were the culprits of our stress induced heart palpitations, elevated blood pressure and diminished appetite. Research is now showing that our prefrontal cortex can be extremely sensitive to everyday anxiety and worries.
As always, research is being done around pharmaceutical interventions; however, there is evidence that behavioral strategies can also be effective. Practicing deep breathing and meditation can reduce stress. So while it may not feel intuitive to stop and breathe during times of high stress, it will help you keep your cool. And your prefrontal cortex will thank you.