One, if not the most frequent question I am asked when speaking on the topic of performing under pressure is, “What is the difference between stress and pressure?” Most people, even academic researchers, mistakenly use the two terms interchangeably. Here’s the difference:
Stress occurs when you perceive the demands of the situation outweigh your abilities to respond. Too many bills too little cash is a stressful situation most of America can relate too. Stressful situations transform into feelings of being overwhelmed. Your goal is stress reduction.
Pressure occurs when you are in a situation in which you have something at stake and the outcome is dependent on your performance. Pressure moments transform into feelings of having to perform successfully often with attached feeling of impending doom if you don’t. When you are in a pressure moment, your goal is to perform, to deliver the goods.
Most individuals blur the difference and merge the feelings of stress and pressure — they respond to stressful moments as though they are do or die pressure moments thus causing themselves to be on high alert 24/7. This was okay for early man because for him, stressful moments were pressure moments and failure to perform the task at hand—finding food, escaping a predator-did lead to extinction. As man evolved and began to master the tasks his environment demanded upon him, the do- or die pressure moments became less frequent. Every stressful moment was no longer a do or die moment. An unsuccessful hunting day was buffered by the fact that there were still vegetables and fruits. No one would starve.
This is true today. We have many stressful moments, but they are not all pressure moments. When we confuse the two, our emotional response to daily stressful demands is out of proportion. We end up wasting valuable psychological capital that would be better served helping us perform our best in actual pressure moments when we need to do our best. Remember, pressure adversely downgrades our performance so adding “extra pressure” to an already stressful day only makes you perform worse, be it when making decisions or relating to others at work and at home.
A useful tip I’ve learned: every time you feel pressure, ask yourself, “Do I feel overwhelmed,” or “Do I have to produce a specific response.” If you answer, “overwhelmed,” you are most likely experiencing nothing more than the daily stress of multiple demands. Take a few deep breaths to relax, prioritize your tasks, delegate when you can; these are all familiar stress management techniques that can help you right now feel less overwhelmed by the demands upon you.
If you have to produce a specific response, be it a decision or presentation, it’s a pressure moment. Relax, and then direct your attention to the specific task you have to perform so you can produce it.
If you still need further clarification, consider whom you would rather be married to: Stress or Pressure?
If your partner is Stress, you’re told: “Do this, Do This, Do this, and when you are done, do that.”
A barrage of nagging demands (stressors) is made upon you. Upon rational analysis, you are quite certain that reality would dictate no mortal soul could respond satisfactory to the Nag—the demands are endless. While you use to get upset, you learned that your salvation is the realization that although you live with a Nag you really don’t have to do what the Nag requires. Instead, you can deal with the stress of the many demands, by for example using humor or making a compromise or increasing your business travel to get some respite. Exhaustion, frustration, and anger are the frequent feelings associated with living with a Nag.
If your partner is Pressure, there will still be demands made upon you, but with addition. Besides telling you what you have to do, your Pressure also tells you that you better succeed or put yourself at risk. In other words, if pressure could speak, it would say: “You have to do this specific task and you have to do it successfully. Or you are out.” Indeed, many people would testify that their relationship ended when he or she –or their partner– did not perform to expectations. Threatened, anxious, fearful, and insecure are the feelings you are apt to experience when you live with a Pressure partner.
Stress may be a painful Nag—often to get you to do things, for your own good. A pain-in-the neck friend if you will. Pressure is a different story. It threatens you and worsens your performance. It’s no friend. It’s your nemesis, a villain in your life.
Stress & Pressure —while they go together like a horse and carriage, you can have one without the other!
Check out my new online workshop, https://hankweisingerphd.com/b2c/