Why Do Some of us Perform Better Under Pressure?

man taking an exam

I am my worst critic. I always blame myself for bombing a presentation, screwing up a business pitch, or making a fool of myself in one way or another. People used to tell me that I needed to build my confidence to do better under pressure. I’ve come to realize, however, that my self-criticism has more to do with my perception of my performance than the performance itself. More often than not, I perform absolutely fine.

So, what exactly does it mean to perform well under pressure? How do we excel when all eyes are upon us and how do we recognize when we succeed? To better understand the answers to these questions, I consulted an expert, Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Hinkle, LMFT.

Everyone’s Experience is Unique

First, you have to remember that there are subjective and objective ways of measuring performance, which are influenced by external forces like a job performance review and internal forces like self-esteem. Therefore, everyone may have different perspectives on what it means to perform well under pressure. “A high-pressure situation may be defined in a variety of ways, depending on the person and what you’re doing,” explained Hinkle. “What may be a high-pressure situation to one person, may not be for another.” She argues that it’s more important to evaluate how effective you are at meeting your specific goal — how you feel about your performance and if you reached your desired goal and outcome.

The Role of Survival Responses

The fight-flight-freeze response is something, as mammals, we all have. It’s our instinctual, survival-based reaction to threat. Each person’s response varies based on what kind of trauma they may have experienced in the past.

Unsurprisingly, Hinkle confirmed that past trauma can create a strong reaction to freeze under pressure. A freeze response is exactly what its name suggests: freezing when you feel scared. In the workplace, this can be exhibited as confusion, becoming overwhelmed, or getting tongue-tied. “Knowing yourself and your typical response to stress is key in helping yourself through a high-pressure situation,” said Hinkle.

The importance of nervous system regulation

I do a lot of personal work around regulating my own nervous system so I am not as triggered by external forces. I am a huge believer in ”somatic experiencing” — a trauma resolution form of therapy developed by Dr. Peter Levine, focusing on perceived body sensations — and have found somatic work to be an incredible tool for managing my anxiety and stress. When you learn to de-escalate your anxiety in the moment, by recognizing its signs, you won’t be so afraid of it creeping into your life. However, I still often get anxious about getting anxious!

Hinkle agrees that nervous system regulation is a useful life skill, a skill that takes patience and practice to develop. She suggests starting out with a simple breathing exercise. Since it’s common to start breathing faster and more shallowly in times of stress and pressure, learning to become conscious of your breath can be extremely helpful. “Set your intention to practice long, slow, deep breaths on a regular basis,” recommended Hinkle. “The more you practice, the more naturally this will come to you in times of stress.”

The Benefits of Staying Present

Even though I only meditate for about five to ten minutes a day, I’ve found it to be helpful with performing well under pressure because it helps me to stay in the present moment. Hinkle suggests mindfulness as a tool when under pressure. It helps with managing expectations.

She reiterates that mindfulness is something you can practice anytime, even with routine activities. For example, she suggests practicing mindfulness while washing your dishes. “Just focus on the dishes: how the water feels, how the dish feels in your hands, the way the soap smells,” she explained. “Watch the process of cleaning and practice observing and describing what you see.“ When you practice mindfulness with everyday tasks, you will be equipped to bring these skills to unexpected, stressful situations.

Self-Compassion and Overcoming the Fear of Failure

It’s hard to stay calm under pressure when you set impossible standards for yourself. I’ve been a perfectionist for most of my life and was never taught the importance of failing. I was taught that failure made you look weak and underprepared and that you should do everything in your power to avoid it. If you’re afraid of failure, however, it’s highly likely that you will clam up under pressure. But why?

Because failing is part of the learning process. If you are trying to avoid failure, you may wind up feeling even more stressed about an already stressful situation. If you can learn to embrace failure and view stressful situations as opportunities to grow, however, you might not dread them so much. You might even look forward to them as a way to challenge yourself personally and professionally. One of the best ways to learn how to embrace failure is to practice self-compassion. “Knowing that you’re doing your best and giving yourself credit for showing up helps you to stay more relaxed,” explained Hinkle, “which in turn improves your performance in the moment.”

When you are used to being hard on yourself, it can feel like you never do well under pressure. It is important to consider, though, whether you truly don’t perform well under pressure or you just psych yourself out. Sometimes it’s as simple as switching your inner dialogue from, “I’m scared about how this is going to turn out,” to “I’ve got this — I’m going to focus on the here and now and do my best.”

That’s the most we can ever do — our best.

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