No really! You don’t!
It seems to be such a commonly held belief that pressure improves performance. If you are among the many people who hold this to be true, here is why I think you are performing despite pressure, rather than because of pressure.
When you perceive any threat (such as a looming deadline or negative consequences of under-performing), your body’s fight & flight response is activated.
When you are in this response, your body is geared up for running away from a physical danger or fighting a threat.
Even if you can’t actually run away or fight the threat, your body responds as if you can. This is why we experience physical symptoms of stress, such as a racing heart, shortness of breath and muscle tension. All of these physical changes would be really helpful if you did need to run or fight.
The fight & flight response makes it difficult to conentrate
Have you ever been trying very hard to concentrate and the harder you try and the more pressure you put yourself under, the more easily distracted you feel?
This is because we go into scan-mode in order to spot danger and run away from it. This would be very helpful if you were an early human at risk of being eaten by a predator!
What this usually means for us today is that it is very difficult to focus and concentrate on a task when you are feeling under pressure.
As far as your body is concerned, if you start concentrating on something like your laptop, a predator could sneak up on you and eat you!
The fight & flight response makes it difficult to think straight
Have you ever been in an exam and as soon as you get out of the exam room you think of all the things you should have written about? Or you figure out what you should have said in an interview on the way home in the car?
In the fight & flight response, the body and brain’s resources are diverted to where they are going to be most helpful for getting out of danger. In your body, your blood is diverted away from areas like the digestive system towards the big muscles in your arms and legs.
If you were running away or fighting you need your arms and legs to be functioning at their best – you don’t need to be eating a massive sandwich.
Just as your resources are diverted in your body, they are also diverted in the brain.
Your brain activity is diverted away from the pre-frontal cortex when you are in the fight & flight response. This area of the brain is where all your higher cognitive function happens such as problem solving, reasoning and planning. Instead, your brain is more active in the emotion (namely fear) centres of the brain.
As far as your body is concerned, you don’t need to be coming up with the theory of relativity while you are running away any more than you need to be eating a massive sandwich!
It is physically harder to think when you are under pressure!
When the pressure is gone, you can more easily access the pre-frontal cortex again which is why you suddenly remember everything after you have stepped out of the exam or the interview room.
We tend to misattribute what has worked for us
It is more difficult to perform under pressure but this is not to say that you can’t perform under pressure. So maybe you are thinking:
- ‘Yeah but I did well in my exams’
- ‘Yeah but I got the job when I was under pressure in the interview’
- ‘Yeah but I met the deadline when I needed to’
If you have had success following a time of high pressure and stress, it is easy to view this as cause and effect. But maybe this isn’t actually the case. Maybe you did well despite the pressure rather than because of the pressure.
What if you could have got the same result or better and felt better in the process by taking some of the pressure off?
Can you think of a time when you didn’t care so much and didn’t put yourself under pressure and performed better than you expected to?
Relaxation can be a great way to calm the fight & flight response and taking breaks can help you to reduce the pressure you put on yourself.
Why not give it a try and find out if you really do work better under pressure?
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