September 17, 2015

Panic/Anxiety Attack: Why do we suddenly “choke” or “freeze”?

Many people have asked me questions about why they suddenly freeze in front of a client or forget to ask an important question when they know it could have an impact on the whole deal. Let me share a secret with you … choking happens to everyone! It just happens less to the ones with better mind control and more frequently to others.

OK, so let’s look at a couple of examples of famous “chokes” in the professional sports area, recent and not so recent.

Just a few days ago Serena Williams had the opportunity to win her semi-final match against a player ranked 43 in the world and normally one she would not have any trouble beating. Now this tournament had a higher than normal significance for one main reason, it would give her the opportunity to win the Grand Slam of women’s tennis; last accomplished by Steffi Graf over 18 years ago! So how does a player who is clearly the best women’s player the world has probably ever seen, suddenly tighten up and make simple errors? Even her opponent said she could tell that Serena was nervous and anxious.

From another sport, Greg Norman had one of the most famous chokes in Golfing history to lose the Masters in 1997.

Another famous choke happened with John McEnroe during the French Open final in 1984 against Ivan Lendl. McEnroe was a few points away from winning the French when suddenly everything that he hit went haywire and he lost.

Let’s look at another example of choking so you can understand the underlying emotion you feel and what happens to your cognitive ability to remain calm, think your way out and do the things you have spent years training. I often tell this story in my classes so the sales people can experience the emotion.

Imagine you have been given a speeding ticket that takes you close to your demerit level. Now you become really careful not to speed, to check every sign, even the signs that you drive through every day. Your driving becomes too analytical and careful. In fact, now you actually become a dangerous driver! You grip the steering wheel tight; you look at the rear vision mirror too often, etc. Your decision making is not natural but too analytical. You have now engaged the prefrontal cortex when there is no need to engage this part of the brain in this way. Notice your emotions when you are driving this way, when you know that any mistake could cost you your licence. The level of anxiety is suddenly at another level, people who have driven for over 10-15 years suddenly become anxious.

Now, you are in a meeting and you realise if you close the deal it’s worth a lot of money to you, not to mention the recognition that you will get at the office. You suddenly start thinking about this and not what you have to do in the meeting, nor are you paying attention to the client. You have now become fixated on the result and not the process. Many of you have experienced this, the meeting is going well and suddenly you sense a change in the mood or feel something is amiss. You start thinking, “What should I do? How do I close the client?” and panic sets in. At this stage, it’s very difficult to change your thinking and before you know it, the meeting is over and you are sitting in your car in stunned silence, asking yourself “what happened?”. How can seasoned sales people make these types of mistakes?

When you want something really badly, anxiety will always tend to kick in. I have seen this with many people in various fields from professional sports to bankers, lawyers and sales people to name a few.

Is it possible to stop this anxiety kicking in when your emotions are running riot through your whole body - whether you are holding a golf club or thinking about the question you need the client to answer? From my observation, people at the top of their game have mastered this so it doesn’t happen too often, BUT it does happen. To the people who experience this frequently, I would say a great deal of training is required to master your emotional brain and get rational and calm.

In the next post I will provide some techniques that may help you to get a control over this anxiety or “choking” feeling.