Many of the things we’re proud to achieve in life are the product, not just of our talent and effort, but also our ability to handle pressure. From studying for exams, to preparing for job interviews, to giving a big speech or presentation, it’s hard to conceive of any career-defining moments that aren’t peppered with pressure.
Although pressure signals stress and anxiety, one of the oldest findings in modern psychology is that a moderate amount of pressure can actually boost performance. This is why top athletes will generally perform better in competitions than in training, and why professional musicians will be more motivated if they’re in front of an audience than practicing at home. In general, the more skilled you are at something, the more you’re able to translate external or situational pressure into a performance-enhancing ingredient.
That said, when pressure levels exceed our optimal threshold they can negatively impact our performance, mostly by hijacking our focus and attention (away from the task, and onto our negative emotions), lowering our confidence, and causing stress and anxiety. For example, research found that up to 60% of students experience test anxiety during exams, and a whopping 93% of people feel anxious in job interviews. Then there is the “fear of public speaking,” which ranks as one of the top phobias in the modern world.
What, then, can you do to improve your ability to deal with pressure, or at least avoid choking under pressure in critical career moments? Here are four science-based recommendations that can help.
1) Know your threshold.
Humans are a psychologically diverse species. One of the traits that make each of us unique is our propensity to deal with stress. Some call this emotional intelligence, others call it grit or resilience. The most widely used academic term for this trait is actually emotional stability. Leaving labels aside, all of these traits enhance your ability to cope with pressure, making you more cool-headed, and less emotionally reactive.
Regardless of your individual personality, the first step to managing high-pressure situations is understanding your stress tolerance level. Practical tips for building self-awareness include getting feedback from trusted colleagues and friends, evaluating your performance under different degrees of pressure, paying attention to your emotional reactions in potentially triggering situations, and taking a personality assessment. (Here’s a short free test you can try.)
Among these strategies, an easy first step is to pick one or two trusted colleagues and ask:
- Do you think I perform well under pressure?
- Do I look nervous or tense in high-stakes situations?
- Do you see any changes in my behavior when I’m under calm or high-pressure situations?
- Do I generally seem calm and composed to you?
The more people you ask, the better sense you will get of your reputation for dealing with stress and pressure. Your colleagues may even point out specific situations that trigger your stress response, perhaps ones you never noticed before.
Any feedback that tells you something about you that you (a) didn’t know and (b) needed rather than wanted to hear, is useful feedback. Fundamentally, knowing your personal pressure triggers will help you avoid them, or practice managing your reactions in those moments.
2) Identify your pressure triggers. (And practice.)
Once you have a better sense of your personality, and how it affects or relates to your propensity to deal with pressure, you should be better able to identify the exact triggers that exceed your default comfort levels. Do you get stressed by a high workload or looming deadlines? Does failing to meet your social or family obligations make you anxious? Are there things about your lifestyle, like following an unhealthy diet, or conflicts with your romantic partner, work colleagues, or relatives, that weigh on you?
While your overall potential to handle pressure will depend primarily on your personality, regardless of how calm or reactive you are, there will be particular situations that evoke more negative reactions than others — and these are very personal and individual. For instance, you may be someone who is never stressed at work but gets easily annoyed by family, or someone who enjoys working with others but is easily stressed by their boss.
Fortunately, we can all learn to minimize situations that put too much pressure on us by planning, prioritizing, picking our battles, and going outside our comfort zones within reason — without going over the tipping point. As with any skill or ability, practice is key, and generally underrated as a means to mitigate and prevent pressure, including on recruitment tests, job interviews, and presentations. Research shows that practice improves the performance in all these instances, mostly by mitigating anxiety.
For example, if you know that your boss is a source of stress for you, try to assess how you can change your interactions with them. When communicating with your boss, pick a medium you prefer (in person, email, Slack, Zoom, etc.) and the format of the interaction. Schedule a one-on-one meeting in advance, so you can prepare, practice, and focus). Establish a few points you want to cover in these moments to get what you need to do your job well (what they expect, what you need to deliver, and how you need to communicate).
You may also want to try engaging with your boss on a more casual, social basis: breakfast, lunch, coffee, drinks. Get to know each other on an informal basis, break the ice, and establish a healthy rapport.
In general, planning ahead of time and establishing communication norms with the people who stress you out will increase the familiarity and predictability of your interactions, and decrease the stress and anxiety you feel around them. This is true even for stressful situations that not revolving around specific people, like public speaking or job interviews. The more predictable you can make the situation, the less stressed you will feel.
3) Use these strategies to help you cope in the moment.
There will obviously be situations in which pressure is unavoidable and your only option is to “face the music and dance.” Research shows that if you turn the following practices into daily or weekly habits, your ability to manage pressure when it comes on quickly will improve: breathing exercises, such as deep breathing, better sleep quality (particularly the night before a big, high-pressure event), mindfulness and meditation, physical exercise, and thinking techniques, such as cognitive reappraisal, whereby you learn to reinterpret a stressful situation as less stressful.
To mitigate the pressure before a big event, it’s also useful to avoid having too many coffees or Red Bulls. The pressure you feel at any given moment is largely caused by your own thoughts, ideas, and interpretations of things. This is why two people will experience very different levels of pressure in the same situation, and why a fast heartbeat could either signal intense physical activity or anxiety: the difference is not what your body does, but what your mind thinks.
Pressure and stress, just like anger or happiness, is mostly a state of mind. When it shows up unexpectedly, despite your other efforts, you can de-emphasize the seriousness of a stressful situation by focusing less on yourself, finding something or someone else to focus on, trying to enjoy certain aspects of the situation, and leveraging effective self-presentation (humor, honesty, or vulnerability).
If you’re nervous during a job interview, for instance, you may be better off admitting it right away, than trying to hide it or fake confidence. Saying something like, “I’m really sorry, but my nerves are getting to me right now. Forgive me if I take a few deep breaths to relax,” may be a better tactic in gaining sympathy than denial or deception. Once you regain your composure, continue to lean on the tactic of honesty: Speak about your interest in the job, opening up about why you’re passionate, rather than worrying about performing or making a good impression. After all, if you really care about the job — which would explain your nerves — then finding an honest way to convey it will be impactful.
Remember: Everybody gets nervous, except for those who are overconfident. The people worth working with will prefer humility over narcissism. Don’t force yourself to be someone you’re not in any scenario. When your nerves come on suddenly, turn your genuine vulnerability into an honest expression of who you are.
4) Don’t avoid pressure entirely.
You will probably want to keep some level of pressure in your life. It will ensure that you develop strength and resilience, that your competitive instincts get activated, and that you go outside your comfort zone to achieve bigger things. If you’re never experiencing any pressure, then you’re probably not aiming high enough.
There are plenty of situations that show how feeling too little pressure can impair your performance: being bored at work, being disinterested in impressing others, or doing something that’s so easy you don’t even have to focus. It’s only by testing your limits that you can learn about your talents, stretch yourself mindfully, and develop your potential.
There is no better feedback than failure, and failing at something difficult and meaningful is the best incentive to bounce back and become a better version of yourself.
In short, pressure is an important part of life, and learning to manage it appropriately will benefit you. Although this is more of an art than a science, you can leverage some of these science-based suggestions to practice more effective pressure management.