You’re about to give a presentation and you’ve researched, prepared and rehearsed as much as you possibly can. As you stand up in front of your boss and colleagues, you’re nervous but you can feel the adrenaline kicking in — and you can think quickly and clearly.
Lots of people thrive under pressure, but not all. For some, a stressful situation like a presentation, exam or project deadline triggers a “deer in the headlights” response. It doesn’t matter how hard you’ve worked or how many hours you have put in, your mind goes blank with panic and you struggle to focus.
Of course, whether we cope well under pressure can depend on what you’re doing. People with a fear of public speaking may struggle with presenting, but handle a tight deadline well. But why do some of us perform better when under stress?
“Myths usually contain a magical grain of truth and there is such a thing as good stress,” says Lorna Evans, a psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy.
“When we have some real pressure or a work deadline, we are able to really get stuff done, smash the deadline and produce some great creative work. Our brain registers the deadline as a threat, releasing adrenaline and cortisol into our bodies to give us energy to activate, move and do great work.”
However, things change if this “good” stress tips over into anxiety, which can cause us to feel overwhelmed and unable to cope. Some people may be prone to catastrophising — expecting the worst case scenario — or negative thought patterns, which may make this reaction more likely.
“Yes, pressure does give us a rush of adrenaline and cortisol to give us energy and helps us focus our attention, which may be great for jumping high and remembering facts,” Evans explains. “However, when this pressure tips into anxiety, our thinking is often affected and one of the first things to disappear is our creativity.”
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“Positive” stress mindset
Whether we thrive under pressure also depends on your mindset towards stress. For some people, a stressful challenge can hone their focus, boost their motivation and offer a learning and achievement opportunity.
This is known as a “positive” stress mindset, in which someone is focused on the beneficial aspects of a tricky situation. In contrast, people with a “negative” stress mindset are more likely to view stress as unpleasant and debilitating.
In 2017, a study led by University of Mannheim researcher Anne Casper found that when faced with a day that they know is going to be challenging, people with a positive stress mindset come up with coping strategies and boost their performance. For people with a negative stress mindset, however, the opposite happens.
There is some evidence that people can be helped to develop a positive stress mindset. However, whether stress can be positive still depends on the level of stress. It’s universally acknowledged that extreme stress is more likely to have a negative impact on our wellbeing.
How we react to a pressured situation also depends on a number of external and environmental factors too, including the COVID-19 crisis. During this time of heightened anxiety, it is normal for someone who usually copes well under pressure to struggle.
“Today a major factor for everybody in the workplace is the pandemic and its impact on our lives,” says Evans. “As the boundaries between work and home life blur, there is an impact on our coping strategies and resilience to performing under pressure.”
Other factors that have a great impact on performance at work are having a good boss, supportive peers and a workplace with a positive culture. Whether you can handle pressured situations also depends on your support network outside of work too.
How to handle stress
“Our own ability to notice our own process and what we need when we are under pressure will make a big difference in how we perform,” Evans says.
“Your body is the most important tool you have to notice how pressure is affecting you. This usually shows up as impacting our sleep, headaches or feeling dizzy, stomach problems or IBS, dry mouth, breathlessness, no interest in sex and tension in the muscles.”
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There are also several steps you can take to help reduce stress too, including taking regular time off from work and leaving your desk frequently.
“Get active, move your body to burn off adrenaline and cortisone, this will also help you sleep better,” Evans says. “What would you enjoy that will help you switch off from work? Cooking, gardening, watching Netflix, yoga, bath, playing a video game, meditation and music can all help.”