There’s no doubt that we live in a world that is chock full of both stress and pressure. There are so many things that we feel we have to accomplish that it feels like there aren’t enough hours in that day to do what needs to get done. We have responsibilities at work. We have responsibilities to our loved ones. We have responsibilities to ourselves. All these various responsibilities can carry a heavy emotional and physical weight. If we don’t finish everything that is making a demand on our attention, we feel that we have somehow failed. We’ve let ourselves, or someone we care about, down.
It doesn’t help that everyone we know is in exactly the same stress and pressure filled boat. We see how our friends and neighbors scramble and compare our efforts to theirs. If we don’t accomplish as much as they do in the time allotted then, again, we feel that we’ve failed.
The Difference Between Stress and Pressure
It is a common fact that many people use the words pressure and stress interchangeably. They might say that they are totally stressed out by a presentation they have to make the next day or that the pressures of all the responsibilities they have at work are really getting to them. In reality, stress and pressure are two very different things.
Stress is what occurs when too many demands are made on our time or attention. When this occurs we feel hurried and spread too thin. It seems there is not enough of us to go around. This is because in a stressful situation we don’t have enough resources, be it time, money, energy, etc., to deal with all the demands. So, you could say that stress is a task intensive, resource deficient situation.
Pressure, on the other hand, occurs when a personal or professional result or outcome depends on individual performance. Typically, a pressure situation arises out of a single situation. You have to make the shot to win the game. You’re only going to get one chance to impress the client. In a pressure situation, it all comes down to one person and one moment.
The reason that pressure and stress typically get confused is twofold.
Breathing is a part of our autonomic nervous system. In simple terms, this means that we breathe without having to think about it. Our brains adjust our respiration to fit our level of activity. Most of the time this is a good thing. Our brains automate our breathing so that we’re free to do other things. However, sometimes this situation doesn’t work out as planned.
When we’re stressed or pressured and the flight or flee reaction is triggered, our brain's response is to act as if we are in mortal danger. This means that our breathing automatically becomes shallower and more rapid. This breathing pattern, in turn, reinforces the idea that we’re about to engage in a fight for our lives. The more we breathe this way, the more stressed and pressured we feel.
A way to break this cycle is to intentionally take the controls of our respiration from the unconscious to the conscious. We can do this by intentionally breathing slower and more deeply. When we breathe slowly and deep, we send a signal to the brain that we are not actually in danger. This interrupts the fight or flee reaction and reduces the physical and mental effects of stress and pressure that we are experiencing.
One of the best ways to perform this pattern interrupt is with what’s known as a cleansing breath. To perform a cleansing breath, simply exhale completely while counting slowly to four. Next inhale slowly and completely while counting to seven. Hold your breath for a moment and then exhale again while performing another slow four count. This is one breath cycle. Repeat as necessary, until you begin to feel more relaxed, calmer, less stressed or pressured and more in control.
Open Up and Say Ommmm
One of the best ways to manage pressure and stress, or more specifically the effects of pressure and stress, is to meditate. The practice of meditation is ancient, going back thousands of years. At the same time, modern medicine has documented the physical advantages of this ancient practice when it comes to stress and pressure relief.
One of the first things to understand about meditation is that it is easy to do. You don’t need to assume a certain position to make it work. You don’t need to chant. You don’t need years of practice to see positive effects. All you need is a quiet room and a comfortable position in order to begin to clear your mind. You simply sit (or stand or lay) and concentrate on removing all stray thoughts from your mind. Your goal is to still that little voice inside your head. When a stray thought pops up, banish it by refusing to follow the thought. Keep this up and, over time, you’ll find that when your mind becomes quiet, you emerge from meditating feeling calmer, more focused, happier and more in control.
Meditation works by altering your brain wave frequency. Normally, when we are awake, our brains are operating in a high frequency mode, known as beta wave. In this state, we are focused outward, looking at the world. We are receiving information, processing this information and behaving accordingly. What we are doing, biologically, in a beta state is surviving. We view the world looking for dangers and opportunities. It is a highly reactive brain state and it is the brain state that we experience when under pressure or stress.
When we meditate, we intentionally slow our thought processes down. We slow down the brain, making it less reactive and more reflective. As the brain slows down, the brainwave state changes from beta waves to alpha waves and then to theta waves. Each subsequent state is calmer and more relaxed than the previous state, so that by the time a theta state is achieved nearly all of the negative effects of stress and pressure have been minimized or eliminated entirely. When you emerge from a session of meditation, the theta state is maintained for some time. Because you have actually rewired your brain, you are able to look at the world in a completely different way. You begin to see solutions where before you saw problems. You begin to see opportunities where before you saw obstacles.
More Coping techniques
- Count Backwards. It sounds simple, but counting backwards from 100 is a great way to distract yourself from pressure and reset your mindset. This easy trick is the perfect way to get started doing a task that you've been putting off. Simply sit back, close your eyes, and count backwards thinking only of the numbers instead of what is stressing you out.
- Exercise. Nothing works like exercise when it comes to dealing with pressure. Not only does the act itself take your mind off of whatever is stressing you out, it also helps your brain to release positive endorphins that can make you feel great. People who exercise regularly report feeling less stress and pressure at work and at home.
- Believe in Yourself. Positive thinking can be one of the most powerful tools at your disposal. The simple act of believing in yourself and knowing that you're doing your best is a great way to turn pressure into motivation. The next time you're faced with overwhelming pressure, tell yourself that you can do it. Whatever tasks lay before you, think positively about them and envision yourself completing them.
- Enjoy What You Do. It never hurts to enjoy what you do, although this can be a difficult way of dealing with pressure. Look for the little things in the task that you like doing and complete them. You'll find that once you start working you're motivated to keep going. People who enjoy their jobs report feeling less pressure and higher levels of motivation than those who don't like what they do for a living.
- Stand Up and Take a Break. If nothing else is working, then stand up and take a break. Taking 5 minutes for yourself every hour is a great way to reset and refocus on the task at hand. Studies have shown that people who socialize at work, or even just stand up and stretch their legs, get more done than those who sit at their desk worrying over the task at hand.
If you aren't careful, pressure can sneak up and overwhelm you. Before you know it, you're a mess. Sitting in your chair, sweating, heart racing, and dreading the thought of doing any work. Fortunately, there are some tricks to dealing with pressure. With a little practice, you can turn nerve-wracking stress into pure motivation.
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