Are You Under Pressure or Under Stress??

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We often hear phrases like, “I work in a high pressure environment,” and “I have a really stressful job” used interchangeably as if stress and pressure are exactly the same. But according to Hendrie Weisinger, Ph.D., a world renowned psychologist and senior author of “Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most,” (Crown, 2015) there’s a critical difference between stress and pressure. After reading the book, I had an opportunity to speak with Weisinger about this concept.

The Critical Difference Between Stress and Pressure

While we all face both stress and pressure in our personal and professional lives, Weisinger makes a clear distinction between the two.

  • Stress refers to the situation of too many demands and not enough resources – time, money, energy – to meet them.
  • Pressure is a situation in which you perceive that something at stake is dependent on the outcome of your performance.

Stress may involve a variety of problems that lead to feelings of overload. A meeting that runs late, a long list of emails that need responses, and several looming deadlines that need to be addressed may cause a fair amount of stress. But that doesn’t mean you’re under pressure.

Pressure involves feelings–often of an anxious and fearful nature–of a “do or die” type situation. When you’ve only got one shot to get it right–like being at bat in the ninth inning of the World Series with the tying run in scoring position, or a presentation to a client or job interview–you’ll experience pressure.

To help you hone this distinction, Weisinger recommends that any time you feel the “heat,” ask yourself, “Am I feeling overwhelmed by the demands upon me, or do I feel I have to produce a specific result?”  If your answer is the former, a feeling of being overwhelmed, too many demands and not enough resources, you are stressed.  If you are in a situation or entering one in which you feel you have to deliver the goods, that’s pressure.

Responding to Stress Vs. Pressure

Weisinger explains that distinguishing between stress and pressure leads to different courses of action. In a stressful situation, reduction or feeling less overwhelmed becomes the individual’s goal, but in a pressure situation, performing successfully is the goal.

You have lots of choices when you’re under stress. Perhaps you can go for a walk to reduce your stress after a long day at the office. Or maybe you could get your endorphins in motion with some exercise.  You could also ask for help to reduce your burdens or even take a day off.  There are many ways to reduce your load and manage your stress.

You don’t have those same options in a pressure situation. A Navy SEAL who is involved in a do-or-die rescue mission doesn’t have time to start performing yoga. And a helicopter pilot who needs to make an emergency landing needs to put his energy into performing at his best, not reducing his stress level. In true pressure situations, we need to devote every ounce of energy into the task-at-hand. Knowing that you are in a pressure moment is your cue to focus on the performance that will meet the demands of the task at hand.

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The Consequences of Confusing Stress and Pressure

When we don’t understand the critical difference between stress and pressure, we’re at risk of making every small inconvenience feel like a pressure situation. If you walk around constantly thinking you’re under pressure, you’ll believe you have to be successful all the time. That’s a lot of pressure. Weisinger points out that this “distortion” can cause us to feel as though we’re always “under the gun.” When everything seems super-important our distress unnecessarily intensifies.

This overreaction to everyday discomforts takes a toll on our performance because it deletes valuable psychological and physical resources. We lose the ability to think clearly and our energy becomes misplaced as we continue to act as though everyday activities are a matter of life and death.  Weisinger says the research is clear, “no one performs better under pressure.”

Performing Well Under Pressure

The good news is, we all have the ability to reduce inappropriate reactions to stress and pressure. Learning to control distorted thinking, reduce spiked arousal, and decrease impulsive actions are just a few of the keys to reducing our feelings of distress. Distinguishing stress from pressure can prevent you from becoming so worn-out that you eventually burn out.

“Performing Under Pressure” offers 22 practical solutions that can help you perform better in a true pressure situation as well as helping you develop the confidence, optimism, tenacity, and enthusiasm that allow you to do your best on a daily basis. The book is a wonderful mix of empirical studies and firsthand accounts that show how pressure impacts our personal and professional lives.

Amy Morin is a psychotherapist and the author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do: Take Back Your Power, Embrace Change, Face Your Fears, and Train Your Brain for Happiness and Success

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Author Name: Amy Morin
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