Tight deadlines. Asking for feedback. Tense disagreements. Do you thrive under pressure? Or do you tend to stumble when the stakes are high?
Responding with resilience under pressure is not only important but necessary in order to succeed. The higher the stakes, the more pressure we feel—and depending on your reaction, a sense of pressure can either enhance or hurt your performance. The good news is that anyone can learn how to rise to the occasion when it matters most. It just takes practice.
Here are three ways to thrive when the stakes are high:
1. Unleash Your Inner Stoic
Stoicism is an ancient philosophy with modern benefits. Founded in Greece in the 3rd century BCE, Stoicism is based on the belief that we do not control external events, only ourselves and our responses. Therefore, we can and should use obstacles in our lives to our advantage. It turns out the Stoics were on to something: Recent studies show that viewing pressure as a threat undermines your ability to perform well by impairing your short-term memory, attention, and judgment—not exactly a recipe for doing your best work.
When you can reframe pressure as a challenge, you’re able to approach the situation with higher self-efficacy (your belief in your ability to succeed) and obtain better results. This concept—known as adversarial growth—triggers a cycle: You’re able to focus on solving or overcoming a problem, rather than merely surviving or avoiding a threat. This active, growth-oriented approach makes it easier to deal with the issue at hand and strengthens you for high-pressure situations in the future. For example, if you receive a negative performance review at work, you’re more likely to get a better review next time if you direct your attention and energy towards how you can improve, rather than focusing on your flaws.
2. Escape The “Performance Pressure Paradox”
It would be logical to assume that when the stakes are high, we’re pushed to do our best work. However, research from Harvard Business School shows that in fact, the exact opposite happens: The more pressure we feel, the more preoccupied with the possibility of failure we become. As a result, we’re more likely to shy away from creative ideas and make mistakes. This phenomenon is called the performance pressure paradox and it keeps us from reaching our full potential when it matters most.
Take the pressure down a notch by focusing on each individual task needed to accomplish your goal, rather than trying to sprint towards the desired result from the starting line. Your self-efficacy is higher when you’re faced with a smaller, more manageable steps—and with more confidence comes less fear and sharper focus. Pitching a new idea to your manager may seem daunting, for example, but finding two references that support your suggestion is an easier task. This strategy redirects your attention and effort from the pressure of delivering big results to the steps that will get you there—substantiating the quality of your work in the process.
3. Slow Your Response
When you feel threatened, your body automatically goes into fight-or-flight mode: a physical, evolutionary reaction that constricts oxygen flow to the brain so that your energy is devoted to reacting to the threat at hand. When this happens, you’re less able to think “smartly” and tend to make more rash, impulsive decisions.
The key is to catch yourself in the stress response before it has the chance to ramp up by watching for physical warning signs, such as sweaty palms or a rapid heartbeat. Then, you can slow down your response by practicing mindful techniques that take you from panicked to present. Try a simple deep breathing technique, such as 4-7-8:
1. Inhale through the nose for a count of 4
2. Hold for a count of 7
3.Exhale through the mouth for a count of 8
This simple exercise can help nudge you out of an emotional headspace by physically calming your body and activating your prefrontal cortex, which is the rational decision-making part of your brain.
You get to determine whether you break or thrive under pressure. By flipping the script and taking small steps to surmount your stress, you can leverage your energy to climb above high-pressure situations—and even use them to your advantage.
Elior Moskowitz is the Content Coordinator at meQuilibrium. A frequent Cup of Calm contributor, she also writes for various major business journals and lifestyle publications. Elior holds a B.A. in Psychology and English, with special training in both positive psychology and mental health counseling.