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. 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 stay 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 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, they can succumb to stress, anxiety and unhappiness.
If the situation doesn’t quickly improve, and the excessive pressure is prolonged, the person runs the risk of burning out. Worse still, they 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 you are responsible for your own success and that you can have a positive influence on the situation you’re in.
- Managing Pressure With 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. Try to tackle pressure head on, too, because it’s unlikely to go away by itself.
- Be Organized: Taking control of your workload enables you to manage it when pressure starts to build. The Demand-Control Model can help you to do this.
- Boost Your Self-Belief: Pressure often stems from doubting your abilities. Try to appreciate your qualities and work on your self-belief.
- Work on 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 article on using emotional intelligence for more on this.
- Energize Yourself: 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 pressure.
- 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, colleagues, friends, family, or whoever in your support network is appropriate, for advice or help.