Original Publication: The Balance
Original Publication Date: November 6, 2016

In today’s high-pressure world, you likely feel as if you are on the line every day. More than ever before, you feel the heat that you have to produce, perform, and get results or else…so you do. Every decision, meeting, presentation, negotiation, or pitch that you make feels as if it has a major impact on your career.

Many factors are contributing to the perceived pressure in your life: the recent economic meltdown, fierce competition for jobs, the advent of the global economy, the erosion of job stability, and the intensified competition to get into top colleges, universities, and graduate programs.

The Danger of Pressure Anxiety

There is a clear and present danger to pressure anxiety. It often becomes generalized to other aspects of your life. The perpetual feeling that you have to perform and the underlying doubts as to whether or not you can continue to produce leads to stressed conversations and relationships at home.

Under pressure, parents often unleash their distress on their kids—making more demands, expressed with a shorter temper. Often, the feelings become so unmanageable that the people involved regularly experience emotional conflict.

All of a sudden, you feel as if you are under siege from every front. Demographics show that people are working longer hours and that the working world is becoming more competitive, leading to increased pressure anxiety.

Pressure Affects Thinking Success

Pressure adversely impacts your cognitive success. There are many tools that make you successful.

At the top of the list are your judgment, decision-making, memory, and attention.

Whether you’re adding up numbers, identifying relevant data, analyzing information, or appraising a job applicant, pressure negatively impacts you. A financial advisor, a real estate agent, or an attorney under pressure to produce can do a disservice to their clients.

Impacts From Pressure

How do you know if the pressure you face is derailing you? Here are three signs that pressure is impacting your best abilities.

You imagine only negative outcomes. When facing your pressure moments—that big presentation, that difficult client (or child/spouse) or crucial conversation—your default cognitive appraisal (how you perceive the impending event) is to see all the potentially negative outcomes. The challenge is that you start to believe the negative scenarios are the only possible outcomes.

This negative type of cognitive appraisal that misrepresents the reality of a situation is known by psychologists as cognitive distortion. Cognitive distortion can be likened to a computer virus in that it will cause your thinking component to crash and transmit errant data to your other performance components.

Cognitive distortions are so powerful they often create feelings of anxiety, helplessness, and depression and/or provoke needless anger di­rected toward those you love. People who are frequently overwhelmed by stress and anxiety typically succumb to distorted thinking styles.

Cognitive distortions are those thinking patterns that needlessly intensify the experience of pressure.

These distortions can surface either before a pressure moment or during a pressure mo­ment, but in either case, their particular brand of thinking derails you.

You magnify the significance of your pressure moments. Magnification is an extreme exaggeration of a situation, or in other words, making a mountain out of a molehill. At work, a sales call becomes “the most important” call of your career and the test your daughter or son is taking is “the most important” test of their life.

Because importance increases pressure, magnification in a pressure moment is sure to intensify thoughts of fear and anxiety, as well as worries about failure vs. success. These worry cognitions ironically become the ones that do stimulate real fear and anxiety and cause you to shrink your working memory.

Magnification often comes into your thinking when you become too attached to the outcome.

While emphasizing the importance of a test or task might increase your effort, the extra pressure you put on yourself typically downgrades your performance.

At Stanford University, a group of students was given a test with the explanation that the results would be used by the faculty to get to know them better. An equal number of students were given the same test but with the message that the results would be important in evaluating their academic future and course planning.

It’s not surprising that the group that was told that the test results were im­portant to their future tested significantly below the other group.

You treat every stressful moment as a pressure moment. The New York Times best-selling book “Performing Under Pressure” defines pressure moments as “stressful moments that matter”.  Pressure moments have three characteristics:

  • The outcome is important.
  • The outcome is uncertain.
  • You are being judged on the outcome.

When all three of these are in place, it’s a pressure moment. In that circumstance, you need to channel all of your resources to ensure the most successful outcome possible.

The inability to distinguish pressure from stress will inevitably have dire consequences.

Every stressful situation—a longer meeting than you expected, a colleague letting you down on deliverables —  can start to feel like a pressure situation when, in fact, it is a mild inconvenience that really has no impact on the success of your day. You start to feel that you are always “under the gun,” that you always have to produce and you start to develop pressure anxiety.

At work, when everything feels like it’s super-important, it ironically intensifies and elicits distressing feelings. When you confuse daily stressful situations for pressure moments, you react physically, mentally, and behaviorally in ways that are out of proportion to the circumstances.

The danger lies in continually confusing stress for pressure, which leads you to lose the ability to think clearly. Misdiagnosing stress as pressure reduces your abilities needlessly.

How to Perform Under Pressure

The first step to managing the pressure in your life is to become more aware of the scenarios when you are allowing pressure moments to derail your best abilities. Then, more proactively approach your pressure moments.

In a study of 12,000 people, the training and performance experts at the Institute for Health and Human Potential (IHHP) learned that most people take a haphazard approach to managing pressure, whereas the top 10% performers have a plan to utilize scientifically-based strategies when under pressure.

Here are three pressure solutions that you can use to be your best when it matters most:

Visualize yourself succeeding. You may have the habit of using a default visualization (thinking of whatever comes to mind, often negatively focused on the things that can go wrong) which predisposes you to act less effectively.

To combat these negative cognitive distortions, remember times you did your best and focus on those successes. It changes your brain chemistry so you can become more effective.

Reframe your thinking. When you magnify the significance of pressure moments or perceive your stressful moments as pressure moments, your natural physiological responses will restrict oxygen to the brain and muscles, making it harder to focus.

Change your mindset, asking yourself how you can view the stressful situations not as overwhelming or a crisis, but as a challenge or opportunity? When you do this, you will get more oxygen to your brain and muscles, improving your performance.

Regulate your breathing. This technique sounds so simple, but it’s tremendously effective. Just breathe before, during and after your pressure moments—it allows you to access your best cognitive thinking.

More information about these three strategies and 19 more pressure solutions is available in the book “Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When it Matters Most”. Like the top 10% performers in the IHHP study, if you recognize the signs that you’re not at your best in your pressure moments and have strategies in place to become more effective, you will perform at your best when you need it most.