What to do when your mind goes blank

Does your mind ever go blank in stressful situation, such as during an exam, an interview, or giving a speech?

Having a brain freeze can happen to anyone. “The problem doesn’t just affect those of us who generally suffer from anxiety. Virtually all of us are vulnerable to similar failures, finding it harder to recall key words at the right time and almost impossible to focus on the task at hand,” says Time.com.

This frustrating reaction to pressure is actually caused by anxiety interfering with your memory and performance.

So, what is the science behind the reaction, and how can you deal with it?

It’s due to something called the ‘fight or flight’ response. The feeling of your mind going blank under stress happens when hormones, such as cortisol, flood our systems. These hormones “invade the brain’s pre-frontal cortex and the hippocampus, disrupting neuronal activity and our normal brain patterns”, explain olwcation.com. As a result, our methods for factual retrieval and recall methods are disrupted.

Our ancestors needed this reaction in the body to help them fight predators or escape dangerous situations. “Taking time to consider your options is not advisable while being chased by a tiger or facing enemy fire,” explain Time.com. It’s your instincts taking over and other parts of your brain, that could get in the way of survival, being made to stand aside and make room. In stressful situations “the brain tends to shut off the cortical networks involved in creativity, contemplation, planning and thinking abstractly”. Sounds good for the escaping-wild-tigers scenario but not great news if you’re in the middle of making a speech or sitting down to an exam.

This shift in brain focus causes you to forget the information you need to take that test or make your speech, which in turn causes even more anxiety, turning the situation into a vicious circle which can be hard to escape.

There are steps you can take to help prevent this from happening, and ways to deal with the situation if your mind does go blank at an inopportune moment.


Reduce the need for worry by being as prepared as possible – practice your speech until you can say it without thinking, revise, do mock interview questions and whatever else you need to ensure your body can go through the motions for you if your mind does start to go blank.

“The reason the armed forces train new recruits in stressful situations that simulate active combat scenarios is to ensure ‘cold cognition’ during future engagements. The more a person experiences a particular situation, the less likely he or she is to perceive such a situation as threatening,” say theconversation.com.

Use relaxation techniques

The best way to combat your brain’s reaction to anxiety is arguably by preventing the anxiety in the first place. There are many ways to do this, such as meditation, breathing exercises and listening to calming music. Find out what works best for you and use it next time you need to enter a stressful situation.

Re-trace your steps

If you’re giving a speech or answering an interview question, repeat your previous point to give you momentum to carry on. It also helps to have your notes in front of you.

Say or write something

The longer you stay silent or stop writing, the harder it will be to carry on as your anxiety grows. If you’re giving a speech, say anything relevant, try using a ‘trigger sentence’ that you can repeat if you run out of things to say, such as ‘the main thing to remember about xyz is’ or if you’re writing, do the same and your memory will likely kick into gear.

And of course, there is nothing at all wrong with letting people know that your mind has momentarily gone blank. Remember than panicking and worrying about the potentially humiliating consequences of having nothing to say in that moment will not help your thoughts come.