How to Take the Stress Out of Pressure
Not too long ago, a friend of mine convinced me to run a 5K race with her. She had three years of cross country experience under her belt—I had none. When we started training, we quickly fell into a pattern: I’d be red faced and out of breath while we ran, and she’d be gracefully trekking along, pressuring me to keep at it.
I started getting anxious before each training session, and my thoughts quickly turned from encouraging words to, “What if I never get in shape for this thing?” It all became too much—so I dropped out of the 5K pact all together. Too much pressure, too much stress, too much anxiety, I thought.
Even if you haven’t dropped out of a 5K race, this story might feel familiar. Pressure always seems to equal stress, and it often feels like there’s no way around it beyond avoiding the pressure completely or suffering through. But experts say that's not always the case. Pressure and stress don’t have to co-exist—and we have the power to keep them separate from each other.
Pressure and stress don’t have to co-exist.
Below, six tips on how to motivate—not stress—yourself with pressure:
1. Understand Pressure
Pressure gets a bad rap, but it can actually be a good thing. The pressure we feel when we’re going after a job promotion, trying to come through on a promise to a loved one, trying to push ourselves to accomplish something new (like a 5K run)—that’s pressure that can motivate us to grow and achieve new things.
When we react to pressure with fear, that's when stress creeps in, explains psychologist Derek Roger, Ph.D., in a recent Harvard Business Review article.
When we react to pressure with fear, that's when stress creeps in.
Roger has spent more than 30 years researching why some people thrive in tough situations and others don’t. One of the things he learned: Pressure and stress are connected by rumination. What was once motivating pressure becomes something else entirely when we start doubting our abilities or when we worry about all the things outside of our control.
This kind of negative thinking can tie negative emotions—like anxiety or self-doubt—to our goals, and that’s when we started to get stressed. If we can’t break from that worry cycle, it can stop us from ever seeing the finish line.
In my 5K situation, for example, worrying about the race is exactly what made the process of training so stressful. Instead of seeing my friend’s training partnership as a way to kick my motivation into high gear, I started to let my self-doubt turn me against the entire experience. Pressure met stress, and I threw in the towel.
2. Know That Pressure Is Doable
An important distinction between pressure and stress is what the situation is asking of you. Hendrie Weisinger, Ph.D., author of Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most, told Forbes that if you’re being asked to do something that you don’t have the resources to do, that’s stress. If you’re feeling like you need to perform at a certain level or deliver a certain quality of product, that’s pressure.
Pressure is doable. You have it within you to deliver and to perform your best.
Notice the biggest difference? Pressure is doable. You have it within you to deliver and to perform your best. Use that definition of pressure to give you confidence and a concrete way to tell if you're actually in over your head.
3. Combat Stress With Meaning
If you’re facing a doable situation and you still find yourself stressed, it might just be because you're pursuing something meaningful. When you’re focused on the things that matter most to you, you have more invested and therefore you’re more affected by its outcome.
Recognizing your "why" can help you convert stress into motivation. An extreme example: A SEAL commander, Curt Cronin, told HBR that they intentionally create feelings of stress when training Navy SEALs. “When the stress of the training seems unbearable, we can own it, knowing that ultimately it is what we have chosen to do—to be a member of a team that can succeed in any mission,” Cronin said.
If you’re feeling stressed by pressure, try writing down the “why” behind your goal. Why do you care about what you’re pursuing, and why is it meaningful to you? Revisit that note each time the stress starts to stir up.
4. Start Your Day With Mindfulness
To minimize the obsessive and anxious thoughts that link pressure and stress, it’s important to monitor the time you spend drifting off into “What If” land. (What if I mess up my sales pitch on Thursday? What if I disappoint my kids by missing one of their play performances?)
Roger explains in HBR that we can tend to go there when we’re waking up for the day. It’s easy to let our thoughts wander and turn into stress when we’re putting together breakfast or staring at ourselves in the mirror before brushing our teeth.
The more focused you can get on something other than your ruminating thoughts, the better.
To combat that tendency, stay mindful by getting some light exercise in the morning or practicing mindfulness techniques. Try picking up a familiar object, like your favorite coffee mug or sweater, and noticing new things about it. Look out a window and notice every detail as if you had to paint the scene on a canvas. The more focused you can get on something other than your ruminating thoughts, the better.
5. Keep Your Eyes On Your Own Mat
A yoga teacher once told me, “Keep your eyes on your own mat.” Beyond the literal suggestion not to stare at someone else twisted in warrior poses, it served as a reminder to everyone in the class not to compare themselves to each other.
When I worried about training for that 5K, I spent a lot of time comparing myself to my friend’s level of fitness and started to stress that I couldn't compete. When we compare our skills to someone else’s, it’s an unfair assessment that will only lead to more stress.
Although some may see competition as a highly motivating factor, if you’re like me, it can also become intimidating. When competition discourages you, keep your eye on your own mat and focus on your own self improvements.
6. Accept the Pressure
Truth: Fighting pressure will only make things more difficult in the end. When you accept pressure for what it is—maybe a slightly uncomfortable but motivating force—it’ll help you press onwards with more determination.
It can help to recognize that you’ve dealt with pressure before—and you came out on top. If self-doubt starts to creep in, recap the things you’ve previously accomplished with the help of a little pressure. You've done this before—accept and believe that you can rise to the occasion yet again.
As tennis player Billie Jean King perfectly put it, “Pressure is a privilege.” Once you cut stress from pressure, hopefully you too can start to see pressure as a privilege—not a stressor. Next time, I'm crossing that 5K finish line.
Read next: How We Win When We Fail Big on Purpose