Working Under Pressure: Be At Your Best When it Matters – Part 1

Everyone feels pressure at certain times, but some people feel it more than others. And some people handle it differently. There are people that fold under even the slightest pressure, while others thrive under a moderate amount of pressure, but succumb to the power of pressure as the magnitude increases.

There is also a small group of people that seem to be addicted to pressure. They often work on Wall Street, in emergency rooms, or as risk-taking entrepreneurs. Given the wide range of responses, pressure and stress are interesting topics.

One prominent psychologist has proven his skill to predict which couples will divorce with an accuracy rate of 94%. The best criterion he has found to predict which marriages will last and which will not is the ability to deal with pressure. How couples deal with high-pressure conversations in their relationship is the best predictor of marriage success or failure.

The ability to manage pressure can influence every part of your life:

  • Physical health
  • Mental and emotional health
  • Relationships
  • The ability to parent
  • Career
  • Finances

Your skill in handling stress and pressure can affect these different aspects of your life. Since pressure is a common part of life, learning to handle it appropriately makes a lot of sense.

One of the great myths perpetuated regarding high-performers and pressure is that they “rise to the occasion.” The idea that some people perform at average levels under normal amounts of pressure and perform better under high pressure has been proven to be false. However, they can perform at a comparable level under high pressure while others suffer from poorer performances.

Numerous studies of baseball players, golfers, and basketball players show that no one has consistently performed better under clutch conditions than they do under normal conditions.

Michael Jordan hit 49.7% of his shots over his career. His percentage when taking game-winning shots? 48.0%.

No player has ever been considered more reliable under pressure, and he was just slightly worse under pressure than he was under normal game conditions. Far more impressive than most, but still not proof that anyone performs better under high pressure.

Pressure affects everyone. It influences some more than others.

Regardless of your present ability to deal with pressure, you can do better. There are numerous tools and strategies available for those that want to deal successfully with pressure. The responsibility to use them is yours.

“There’s a lot of stress out there, and to handle it, you just need to believe in yourself; always go back to the person that you know you are, and don’t let anybody tell you any different, because everyone’s special and everyone’s awesome.” – McKayla Maroney

What Happens to Your Mind and Body Under Pressure?

Some people like to think they do their best work under pressure. We do our best when the stakes are highest. Right? Wrong!

Several studies have shown just the opposite. Under pressure, we naturally play “not to lose” rather than to win. There is more emphasis placed on avoiding risk than doing excellent work. It’s natural to take an approach that will reduce the likelihood of failure and criticism. This isn’t the time that people pursue an outstanding result.

Safety becomes the target. Mediocrity is the result.

The Biology of Pressure

When your brain is faced with danger, even an imaginary danger, it begins a cascade of physiological responses to prepare for that danger.

Unfortunately, these responses are geared toward enhancing your ability to respond physically. You’re in a better physiological state to run or fight.

However, your ability to make wise decisions is greatly compromised. How many times have you made a decision that you regret under stress? In those moments, the instinct is to make a decision that will relieve the pressure as soon as possible. The long-term consequences are ignored.

It all starts in the hypothalamus, which is a structure located in the brain.

Two pathways are stimulated when you feel stressed:

  • One leads to the production and release of corticoids. These chemicals allow the body to tap into the energy stored in the body.
  • The other pathway involves adrenaline. This results in the shaky, jittery feeling you get before give a speech. There are other signs of high adrenaline levels:
    • Increased heart rate
    • Increased blood pressure
    • Slowed digestion
    • Dry mouth
    • Increased sweating
    • Enhanced blood clotting
    • Increased muscle tension
    • Increased breathing rate

These are excellent responses to stress if you need to avoid being eaten by a sabre tooth tiger or you’re attacked in an alley. However, they aren’t good responses if you’re not in physical danger.

Long-term stress is highly damaging to the body and to brain tissue.

“A lot of directors don’t want the pressure of a movie

the size of Pearl Harbor. But I love it. I thrive on it.”

– Michael Bay

The Mind Under Pressure

The hormones and chemicals released into your bloodstream don’t just affect your body, they affect your mind, too.

The mind undergoes changes when dealing with pressure:

  1. The instinct of self-preservation is also stronger when under stress. People are far more likely to engage in selfish behaviors while under pressure.
  2. Thinking becomes more short-term. Your brain wants relief now. You’re more likely to take the easy way out and feel better right now than to consider the long-term consequences.
  3. The upside gets more attention than the downside when making decisions. For example, after a bad stretch at work, quitting becomes more attractive. More attention is paid to the upside of quitting than to the pitfalls of quitting and being without a job. When you’re happier at work, you’ll pay more attention to the negatives of quitting.
  4. Stress reduces the brain’s ability to ignore distractions. This is part of the reason workers are more likely to make mistakes when under stress. It’s more challenging to stay focused on the work at hand.
  5. Short-term memory, attention, and judgement are impaired. The likelihood of impulsive behavior is increased.

While it was believed that stress over-engages and stimulates the brain, the truth lies in the other direction. Stress disengages a small bundle of neurons in the frontal cortex. This area is involved in decision making. In a sense, pressure makes you “dumber.”

“I gave up my struggle with perfection a long time ago. That is a concept I don’t find very interesting anymore. Everyone just wants to look good in the photographs. I think that is where some of the pressure comes from. Be happy. Be yourself, the day is about a lot more.”

– Anne Hathaway

Join me tomorrow for Part 2 of this series on Stress and your Health!

What negative effects of stress have you experienced and how have you counteracted it?

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