Stress Vs Pressure - how to tell the difference.
Updated: May 8
It's National Stress Awareness Month throughout April and it seems as if we are more aware of stress now than ever before after over a year of the coronavirus pandemic resulting in multiple lockdowns, job losses, businesses going under and still many of us face an uncertain and turbulent future.
Today, I want to take a look at stress and pressure in our working lives, the differences between the two, how we can differentiate between them and, crucially how we can tap into one but minimise the other (no prizes for guessing which one we are going to get rid of)
You may be aware of the fine line between stress and pressure - when we are working at our optimal peak we tend to be under slight pressure to get a project or piece of work done to a high standard - often we refer to this as 'working in a flow state'.
However, there is a tipping point of when the pressure becomes too much and we end up in a stressed state which, if left unchecked and if we remain here, we can fall into burnout.
Coming back from burnout can be incredibly hard and, more often than not, we tend to also experience 'rust out' - a state where we seem perpetually exhausted, de-motivated and lacking in all drive and energy.
Psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson devised the Yerkes-Dodson law and the below Human Performance Curve to show the relationship between pressure and performance with the law stating:
"that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point. When levels of arousal become too high, performance decreases"
After experiencing this tumultuous cycle several years ago, I have seen it time and again with my clients. It's not pretty.
So how can we avoid sliding down the scale into distress and languishing in the bored phase?
What's the difference between stress and pressure?
Firstly, we need to understand what stress and pressure mean to us as individuals. My 'stress state' may be a walk in the park for others and vice versa.
Understanding the difference is further complicated by the language we use as we tend to use the two words 'stress' and 'pressure' interchangeably especially when it comes to our working lives.
According to Hendrie Weisinger, Ph.D., a world renowned psychologist and senior author of “Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most,” the differences are:
Stress refers to the situation of too many demands and not enough resources – time, money, energy – to meet them. We feel overwhelmed by how much we must do, that we have limited resources to help us and are therefore under threat. This is when we can experience that ‘freeze, faint, flight or fight’ response.
Pressure is a situation in which you perceive that something at stake is dependent on the outcome of your performance, a job interview or key presentation for example. You feel that you can cope with the demands placed on you as you have the ability and the resources to do so.
How can I tell the difference between stress and pressure?
Weisinger suggests asking yourself the following question when you start to feel anxious:
“Am I feeling overwhelmed by the demands upon me, or do I feel I have to produce a specific result?”
If you are answering in feeling overwhelmed then I am sorry to say that you are stressed, if your answer is more akin to delivering a result then you are under pressure.
Your responses will differ in each state as if you are feeling stressed your aim will be to reduce those feelings of overwhelm, whereas, if you are dealing with pressure your goal will be to deliver on that result.
Dealing with stress and responding to pressure
Ideally, we want to minimise our stress to negligible levels - sorry folks - no promises here on getting rid of stress completely or forever because, well life and work 'aint like that. We are never completely in control, therefore, there will always be the unexpected to deal with.
We can, however, choose how we respond and deal with both stress and pressure to make them work for us.
This involves reframing your mindset about stress by turning it into a positive force as after all, stress is key to our survival.
Positive stress is also known as eustress and this is what drives us – it gets us to finish that project in time, kicks in so we give that winning presentation and surges through us when in an interview or meeting a new client. This is positive pressure.
Distress is the negative stuff, and this debilitates us and can lead to burnout.
In order to determine between the two start by identifying your distress triggers by asking:
How did you feel?
What happened to cause these feelings?
When do these feelings or sensations tend to kick in?
Who was there or, crucially, not there?
Where did it occur?
And the million dollar question - why do you suspect this happened?
Then you can ask yourself "how can I manage these elements?" There may be a multitude of small help points such as asking for help, planning in more depth, setting and sticking to boundaries, saying "no more", explaining the workload you are facing, extending deadlines, etc.
By building and maintaining resilient practices in your daily life you will automatically experience a more positive reaction to distress. The main pillars of resilience to consider are:
Sleep - are you getting enough of it and is it deep and restful sleep?
Exercise - again - are you getting enough and is it pushing you?
Nature - preferably whilst doing some of that exercise malarkey in the fresh air.
Hydration and nutrition - how are you eating and drinking on a daily basis? Covid has not been the kindest to our diets so it may be time to have an honest look at your eating and drinking habits
Interests and hobbies are key to help us switch off from work and non more so than now for when most of us are still working from home. Our passions fuel our energy and drive so consider picking them back up or finding new ones to challenge yourself with.
Support – friends, family, therapy, coaching - anything that helps you cope and thrive. We've become so isolated over the last year so consider the support you need - this may change over time but we all need help at some point so ask for it.
Take a stress step back throughout your day to take stock and review what you have achieved as well as how best to continue to work.
Some key questions to help with this include:
What were my wins?
What did I learn?
What is the worst, best and most likely outcomes?
What is the % of these likely to happen?
This will help you rationalise your distressing thoughts and begin to show you where you need to place your focus and up the pressure if required.
To effectively respond to pressure consider honing in on your skills, knowledge and expertise to determine what will get this project or task over the line.
Ensure you have clarity of the expected outcomes and what is expected of you at each stage you may need to ask:
What is the ideal outcome?
What is the 'good enough' outcome?
How can you make this happen?
By when does this need to be done and how realistic is this time frame?
What do you need in order to do this?
Who can help?
By breaking it down into these stepping stone goals you will gain a clear vision of where your skills and efforts can best be used - basically understanding where you need the pressure.
When you switch your stress to be your driver and no longer being your paralyzer, you will see yourself accomplishing more, being able to handle more complex, pressured tasks and, ultimately, reveal to yourself all that you are capable of.