Mind & Body

How many times have you made a decision under pressure and afterwards thought to yourself: Why on earth did I do that? I never do that!

Making good decisions under pressure is the hallmark of all great performers, be it on the golf course, in business or in general life. One of the secrets to good decision-making when it really counts comes from being able to manage emotions well. In other words, the secret is: don’t panic!

OK, so it’s easier said than done. How do you not panic and stay composed when you feel like life is throwing everything and the kitchen sink at you?

Emotions are fascinating, and understanding them and where they come from is the first step in managing them better instead of allowing them to flood us and cause us to act in ways we would rather not. I used to think emotions “hijacked” our thinking brains and that when they took over, our logical thoughts shut down. And while this feels very much like what we experience in the moment, the most recent neuroscience shows us that this is not actually what is happening at all*.


Dr Kirsten van Heerden chats to Olympic flag-bearer and SA hockey player Phumelela Mbande about self-worth, mental health and coping after the Olympics.

Think back to a time when you started to get stressed or panicked. Where did you feel that emotion? Did you notice your heart rate increasing, did you feel your hands beginning to shake a bit, or maybe you had a horrible pit-of-your-stomach hollow feeling?

In uncertain circumstances (and life is mostly uncertain!), our brain responds to the information we are receiving from our senses and releases a cascade of chemicals that produce bodily sensations such as the ones described. Our brain is increasing our physiological arousal in order for us to learn more about the situation and thereby reduce uncertainty.

So, where do emotions come into it? Well, our brains use our past experience to interpret these sensations to make sense and meaning of them – and we experience this interpretation as an emotion. So, that raised heart rate and shaky hands are interpreted like this: “Oh, I know what these sensations are, I have seen this before, they are panic!” Then we feel panicked.

That’s great news, it means we are a little bit more in control of our emotions than we thought – we actually make and construct our emotions, we are not just their victim.

So how does knowing this help you under pressure? Now you learn the art of reinterpretation:

1. Reframing

Great movie directors are able to elicit an emotion from the viewers by how they frame a scene. A close-up shot of an actor’s face with tears streaming down their cheeks is highly emotive and quite gut-wrenching, whereas if they pull the frame back and you see the actor standing in a crowded street you feel something completely different.

The real skill is being able to interpret and reframe (or reinterpret) the bodily sensations we are having so as to elicit a different (more helpful) emotion.

Think about excitement and anxiousness – they actually feel very, very similar. Like butterflies in the tummy. If you are about to putt for the championship, though, your brain may very well remember the past missed putts and interpret these butterflies as nervousness as a way to make meaning of the situation (meaning gives us a sense of control). But, if you are able to intercept that interpretation and reframe it by saying to yourself, “Hang on, these butterflies show I am determined and they are actually giving me energy to focus,” you begin to fundamentally change how you experience the emotion. This slight shift can make a world of difference!

Take note that I didn’t say you must get rid of your emotions – just that you need to reframe things in a more helpful way. Sometimes being sad is helpful, sometimes feeling guilty is helpful. It is not about only feeling "good emotions", it is about reframing them in a way that makes your emotions work for you rather than against you.

2. Remember correctly

We are masters at not remembering all the times we have handled pressure well, or executed like we wanted to at exactly the right moment. If our brain uses past experience to interpret what is happening in the present, we need to give it a fighting chance by making sure we store up the memories of all our successes, not just our failures.

3. Breathe!

Two or three ‘physiological sighs’ (two sharp in-breaths followed by a long extended out-breath) is incredibly effective at being able to ratchet down physiological arousal quickly as it signals to the brain that we are in fact in control of the situation even when it feels like we are not. This gives us a bit of psychological space to then reframe what we are physically feeling in a way that helps us, rather than hurts us.

*Based on work done by Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett


About the author

Dr Kirsten van Heerden is one of only a few people in South Africa to have represented her country as an athlete and hold a PhD in sport psychology. She has worked and travelled extensively within high performance sport for more than 15 years. She has published a book on the challenges athletes face when they retire from elite sport called Waking from the Dream and hosts her own podcast called ‘Behind the Dream’ where she talks with some of the world’s best athletes about the ups and downs of being a professional athlete. She is also the founder and chairperson of Girls Only Project – a non-profit company focusing on women in sport issues. She is in private practice at Newton Sports Agency.