Stress surrounds us. In school, at work, and just about anywhere else that it can cram itself into, stress is probably the single most annoying thing about living in the 21st century. Especially because it’s often accompanied by its best friend: pressure.
As a quick touch up on definitions, stress refers to the situation of too many demands and not enough resources (such as time, money, or energy) to meet them. Pressure is a situation in which you feel that something at stake is dependent on the outcome of your performance — and let’s face it, both of them suck.
Unfortunately though, like some things in life, they’re unavoidable. So what better way to do something about that than learning, adapting, and overcoming?
Last week, my team and I were nearing the culmination of a project that we’d been working on for the past month. We had created an elaborate timeline at the beginning of the project, with specific action items and deadlines for some time, and at first, it was going pretty well. We’d been making good progress and really making headway with the research we’d been doing.
But flash forward to a couple of weeks later and we have 48 hours left and what seemed like hundreds of loose ends. Naturally, we were all grinding to get our work to the finish line, but having our work left to do with not much time, we were all on our own a little bit.
Here’s the problem though: instead of accelerating my pace and being motivated by the time crunch, I froze.
In other words, while everybody worked their brains off, I accomplished next to nothing, cracking under the pressure of time.
Looking back, and as a matter of fact, even during that whole experience, I was so frustrated with myself. I was annoyed that I was unable to perform despite the ticking time and upon reflection, it had me thinking “how will I ever succeed if I can’t work when I’m stressed and under pressure?”
I’m no future teller, but I can pretty much say with confidence that I won’t. The reality is that unfavourable conditions are inevitable, and if we want to be people that thrive in spite of that, we have to learn to do something about things like this that will hinder our success. And that’s exactly why I wanted to write this article and learn how one can improve their ability to handle and work under pressure.
But first, let’s answer a question that I’m genuinely curious about:
Are some people just inherently better at handling with stress than others?
The neurological explanation
The short answer is YES. Everyone is different, and surprise! Our personal abilities related to stress management reflect that.
Several different factors whether it be emotional, psychological, circumstantial, or neurological, affect the way a person responds to stress; some of us better than others.
For example, one explanation for the varying degrees to which people face stress can be their sense of self-worth. As put by Alice McGurran, who has a Master’s of Physchology:
If our self-worth is contingent on reaching every goal we set ourselves, then we will experience high levels of stress when we are challenged, because to fail is to mean that we aren’t good enough.”
Additional research on this matter points out that the desire to perform at a high level has significant influences on the brain. One of these influences is that it limits the amount of information you can hold in your mind at one time (reducing what is called working memory), which can limit the complexity of what you can accomplish mentally.
Housed in the prefrontal cortex, our working memory is what allows us to retain information in our head in order to accomplish tasks like calculations or reasoning. However, it’s something you could call a “limited resource”, meaning that if we’re doing an activity that requires a lot of cognitive horsepower while also stressing, we lose our ability to perform functions as best we can.
Essentially, with the extra burden of negative thoughts, worries, and doubt, we’re wasting our brainpower, making it harder to do the brain-y things we need to do.
Then, there’s also the matter of personality. Due to genetics and other factors such as our upbringing and environment, some people are simply better at handling, processing and reacting to stressful situations.
Often, one’s ability to do so depends on one aspect of your personality, which is called neuroticism. As one of the 5 key indicators which influence our personality, a person’s neuroticism can affect their capacity to maintain their balance under stressful circumstances.
Neuroticism can be measured on a spectrum, the other end being emotional stability — the more emotionally stable, the better at keeping their composure under stress.
How to perform better under pressure
There are a plethora of articles available on the internet to read about how strategies like meditating, resting, exercising, eating, and relaxing can help you be better prepared to cope with stress. But at the end of the day, those are mainly lifestyle changes — things that will improve your ability to handle stress in the future, not to ensure you can work well right then, right there.
So, let’s go over actions you can take before, during, and after a stressful situation in order to improve your ability to handle pressure and work under stress.
When you know a deadline is approaching, an important event is coming up, or a stressful situation is on its way, the best thing you can do is prepare.
This will look different for everyone and every situation, however some things you could do include:
- Practicing for the event at which you’ll need to perform
- Planning ahead and setting deadlines to better manage your time
- Resting and relaxing to calm yourself and clear your mind (by sleeping, meditating, practicing yoga, going for a walk, etc.)
- Trying some positive self-talk, or if that seems to out there, self-thought to affirm some of your positive qualities or skills
If you’re someone who prefers a more concrete solution, you could even try…
| Conducting a pre-mortem
Some time ago, I was introduced to the strategy of using a pre-mortem in order to prepare before starting a project. Essentially, all you need to is think about the worst-case scenario(s) of your situation and then work backwards to determine what would’ve led you to fail.
Then, after brainstorming all the possible problems you may encounter, think about what actions you can take to ensure that they don’t. This may seem like an all-too-simple solution but at times, it can be extremely helpful not only to come up with pre-made solutions to potential problems, but also to bring peace of mind.
Here’s the real deal: what you can do during a stressful situation to offset that crippling feeling of pressure.
| Get rid of the fear of failure
I can confidently say that most times that I’m feeling stressed and under pressure, one of the main reasons for that is the fear of failure. “You only have one chance — you better not waste it”. “You can’t mess up because you’ll let your others down.” “You have to do your absolute best”
These are all thoughts relating to the fact that a lot of times, we believe we must “try your best” and of course, you should; why put anything but your best foot forward when you’re completing a task?
However, if you’re stressed and only focused on doing your absolute best, sometimes that can prohibit you from doing anything at all.
It’s easy to want to perform your absolute best, but the moment you start putting more value in doing something perfectly rather than doing it in the first place, you’re in for a bad experience.
If this is something that you face, try to start measuring success as getting something done rather than getting it done perfectly. (Yes, I just rephrased the infamous done>perfect)
| Don’t overthink
On the same note, when time is scarce and the stakes are high, the last thing you should do is overthink. It’ll just complicate things.
Try to make clear and firm decisions and keep pushing through, no matter your confidence. Even if you may feel like everything you’re doing is wrong, showing up and doing is better than not trying at all, and at the end of the day, second-guessing, doubt and uncertainty aren’t going to get you any closer to reaching your goal.
| Look at the bigger picture, but don’t disengage
In the heat of the moment, it can feel like the challenge you’re facing is life and death. However true that may be, sometimes it’s important to take a step back and remind yourself that this is just one of many opportunities or experiences you will get in life.
As important as an opportunity may seem, considering that it’s not the only one you will ever get will help you re-evaluate the amount of pressure you put on yourself and your expectations, lifting some of the weight off your shoulders.
An important note here, though, is that you shouldn’t disengage from the situation. Just because you’re able to see the bigger picture doesn’t mean that you should go on thinking “I don’t even care” or “This doesn’t even matter”, because that’s counterintuitive to the goal at hand. That’s why it’s important to strike a balance between perspective and acting passive or resigned.
| Remind yourself why you’re doing it
In addition to the last point, asking yourself the reason behind which you’re doing it can also benefit you.
Before jumping straight to the “in it to win it”, try to determine the greater purpose behind the time and energy you’re putting into the task and let that drive you. Ideally, this reason should be something that you truly believe in and are eager to do. I think it would be very hard to stay motivated under pressure if the reason for which you’re working is simply to please somebody else or out of compulsion.
| Reframe the challenge
There’s nothing like some good ol’ trickery. When you’re feeling stressed and down-in-the-dumps, reframing the problems you’re facing might help you change the way you see and react to them.
One good way to look at anything is an opportunity for growth. As much as the competitive side of you may want to barge in and take over, internalize the fact that there are things to be learned in every situation, no matter if you’re the winner or loser.
Next, though I think this one is a little bit easier said than done, try looking at your challenges as fun. This may sound weird at first, but putting a positive spin on something that feels solely negative could actually reap some good results on your attitude and performance.
| Regroup, slow down and be present
When you’re working under pressure, everything can feel like it’s going 100 miles a minute (yes, I’m Canadian and I DID just use the imperial system), but for this same reason, it’s important to ensure that your brain isn’t running this fast.
Giving yourself a second to breathe and gather yourself can do wonders, even if you feel like there’s absolutely no time to spare. A clear mind will allow you to think more flexibly, creatively, and attentively, and you’ll thank yourself later for it.
| Plan & Prioritize
The final, and I think, the best thing you can do when you’re working under pressure is to use the time you take to regroup to then plan.
Personally, I tend to get overwhelmed when I’m in a stressful situation because of the number of things I need to do. And I’m sure I’m not alone — it’s easy to feel scrambled and all over the place with several responsibilities and not a lot of time.
Listing your tasks, breaking them down and prioritizing them can make everything seem a lot better.
Once you have your list of tasks, you can use The Eisenhower Model to prioritize and move forward. All you have to do is classify each task as
- (1) urgent and important;
- (2) important but not urgent;
- (3) urgent but not important;
- (4) neither urgent nor important.
and then plan accordingly.
Afterward, evaluate how the situation went. I don’t mean thinking about whether or not you achieved the result you were striving for (other than if it was to do it and learn from it — in that case, hooray!) but more so about the way that you responded to stress. Were you able to keep your composure? Did you let yourself work to the best of your ability rather than to perfection? How did you feel throughout the situation?
Doing so and reflecting as you experience more and more situations will hopefully help you to understand the most common causes for the stress or pressure that you face and what your tendencies are in order to get you closer to being that one person who can maintain their calm and composure no matter the circumstances.
Always remember: Your ability to perform under pressure is not set in stone. With the right mindset and the motivation to improve, you can always get better!
Thanks so much for reading my article. Even if you’re someone who considers themselves moderate at handling stress/pressure, I hope that you took something away.
If we’ve never met, hey! My name’s Aneka and I’m a high school student trying to learn, grow, and challenge myself to new limits in order to drive change in the world. I’d love to connect with you on Linkedin, over email, or in the comments section. Have a good one!