Coping Under Pressure
Survive and Thrive Under Pressure
Do you ever have so much to do that you don't know where to begin? Maybe you sometimes feel overburdened by others' expectations of you, or disappointed with the progress you've made on a task. When you're under pressure, it's easy to feel like this.
Pressure is an everyday part of our working lives. Philosopher Thomas Carlyle said, "No pressure, no diamonds," suggesting that, in manageable doses, it can energize and motivate you to perform and achieve. Too much of it, however, can tip the balance the other way. The trick to making pressure work for you, and not against you, is to find the "sweet spot" between having too little and too much of it.
Here, we look at how to keep in control when pressure starts to weigh you down.
Where Does Pressure Come From?
There are two kinds of pressure – internal and external.
Internal pressures stem from pushing yourself too hard, or from worrying about your ability to meet others' expectations of you and those that you have of yourself. You might drive yourself to be your company's number one salesperson, for example, or doubt your ability to perform at a speaking engagement.
External pressures come from the circumstances or the people around you – a micromanager, for example, making you work in a certain way, or giving you a hefty workload that exceeds your capacity to deal with it.
Some external pressures have little connection with your job, but the way you react to them can negatively impact how you work. A long commute, illness, financial difficulties, family responsibilities, bereavements, or a dangerous workplace can all weigh heavily on you and affect how you behave.
In extreme cases, you may even feel pressured to take risks, to act against your values, or to take part in illegal activities, such as "massaging" figures to reduce your organization's tax bill. Read our article, When to Speak Up, for advice on how best to handle these dangerous situations.
Measuring the Toll of Too Much Pressure
The idea that increasing pressure stimulates people to perform better and better, until an optimum point is reached, dates back to 1908. Psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson found that, when pressure exceeds this optimum point, it has the opposite effect and people's performance starts to suffer. This conclusion still holds today.
The negative impact of pressure first shows with mild dissatisfaction and a minor deterioration in the quality of a person's work. When the pressure becomes excessive, he or she can succumb to stress, anxiety and unhappiness.
If the situation doesn't quickly improve, and the excessive pressure is prolonged, he runs the risk of burning out. Worse still, he could become physically ill or develop psychological and emotional issues such as depression, or behavioral problems like aggressiveness.
Be careful not to confuse pressure with stress – they are quite different. Pressure can be a very positive quality. Experiencing it, yet feeling calm and in control, can spur people on to achieve great things. It's only when it keeps building and that sense of calm and order is replaced by a feeling of being out of control that stress happens, and has a wholly negative effect.
How to Thrive Under Pressure
A sensible lifestyle is central to coping with pressure, so exercise regularly, drink alcohol moderately, maintain a healthy diet, and get plenty of sleep. These commonsense steps aren't enough on their own, however. Responding proactively to pressure can help you to manage its negative impact on you. Here are some strategies to help.
Stay on Top
Pressure is a positive force when you're in command of the situation. Lose your sense of control, however, and you can quickly feel overwhelmed and anxious. Developing an internal locus of control can boost your ability to monitor and deal with rising pressure, because you believe that you are responsible for your own success and that you can have a positive influence on the situation you're in.
Managing Pressure Based Around the Inverted-U
Consider how your ability, personality and self-confidence, and the complexity of your work, might influence how much pressure you feel. Addressing your "weak spots" and balancing these influences can help you to optimize your performance. The Inverted-U model is a useful tool for doing this.
Manage Your Response
With a positive mindset, pressured situations can be opportunities to shine, learn and develop. Use them as your motivation to succeed. Cognitive Restructuring can help you to turn negative situations around so that they work in your favor. Root Cause Analysis, the Drill Down Technique, and the 8D Problem Solving Process can help you to find solutions, instead of dwelling on problems.
Try to tackle pressure head on, too, because it's unlikely to go away by itself. Prioritizing can help you to identify where to focus your energy, and the JD-R model shows a way to cope with naturally highly pressured and demanding roles.
Boost Your Self-Belief…
Pressure often stems from doubting your abilities. Our Reflected Best Self, Finding Your Unique Strengths, and StrengthsFinder tools can help you to appreciate your qualities and work on your self-belief.
…And Your Self-Control
We all know that our emotions can run high when we have "a lot on our plate," so it's important to develop your ability to cope in these situations. Check out our articles on managing your anger, showing patience, and using emotional intelligence for more on this.
Relaxation exercises are a great way of putting things into perspective when you're under pressure. Take a look at our article on physical relaxation techniques for some handy techniques for "winding down."
Without energy, you're likely to feel "flattened" by pressure, and lack the drive to tackle it. So, pump up your energy levels to regain your focus, and to improve your ability to withstand and respond to it.
Ask for Help
Don't be afraid to ask for help if you feel under too much pressure. Decide where the pressure is coming from and ask your boss, your colleagues, friends, family, or whoever in your support network is appropriate for advice or help.
You experience pressure when you worry about living up to your own or other people's expectations. You may also feel it in situations that you have no control over, and when you don't have the time or the means to do what is being demanded of you.
Excessive pressure can bring on the psychological, physical, emotional, and behavioral problems associated with stress, so being able to deal with it effectively is an essential skill. By consciously opting to respond positively and confidently, and by focusing on solutions, you and your team members can go beyond simply coping and learn to thrive.
Apply This to Your Life
- Create an "ideal vision" of yourself by considering your core values and how well you live by them. Think about the type of person you aspire to be, for example "I want to be calm under pressure," or, "I want to think positively." When you've created your ideal "you" persona, make it a priority to make it a reality. Work on developing a different trait each day.
- Plan and rehearse when possible. For example, if you feel pressured by having to deliver a speech, practice by repeating it and then mixing up the content and working through it backwards, paragraph by paragraph. Learn your subject inside out, too, so that you're able to handle questions and improvise if necessary.
- Positively visualize how you'll feel when the pressure has subsided. "Seeing" yourself at that point will help you to successfully get there without buckling.
- Work on boosting your competencies and skill levels. The better you are on "normal" days, the more smoothly you'll be able to step up a gear when pressure bites. Sign up for training days, attend workshops and lectures, and grab any opportunities for professional development that come your way.
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