Throwback Blog Post: How to Thrive Under Pressure

No matter how good you are at planning, the pressure never goes away. So, I don’t fight it, I feed off it. I turn pressure into motivation to do my best.” – Dr. Ben Carson

Recently, I experienced two high-pressure situations. In both instances, I was called on to produce significant work in a tight time frame. My first response in each instance was to reply, “It cannot be done; there is not enough time.” Internally I was saying, “If you knew you needed this, why didn’t you let me know sooner rather than now when it is impossible?” This was an attempt by my amygdala, the fight or flight part of my brain, to take over and sidestep the pressure cooker I was about to get into. But before the amygdala hijack could play out, I stayed in the present and asked myself, “Why was I called on to do this?” A scene in the hit movie Crimson Tide came to mind. Before the submarine gets underway, Gene Hackman’s character says to the crew, “There is trouble in Russia, so they called on us.” I couldn’t help but mull over that statement. I decided to reply, “Yes, I can do it.” A few minutes later, I chastised myself for making such a bold statement. The pressure seemed to escalate once I committed myself to the task. I was in deep water. I was in over my head. I could tell because I was biting my nails.

While I had grossly miscalculated the amount of pressure I would experience as I engaged more in the task, I had equally underestimated the growth that the pressure would produce in my life after I completed the task. Without the pressure, I would probably never know my capacity. Without those experiences, I would not have been able to write the following three lessons that I believe can help you thrive under pressure. In retrospect, the pressure brought out my finest hour. And it can do the same for you. 

Pressure Point 1: Your Language

There is always a running dialogue in our inner world. Nevermore so when we are under pressure. More often than not, it is a self-defeating prophecy. It is interesting to note that we talk more to ourselves than we do to others. Negative self-talk can nail us to the wall of inaction and stagnate our progress. Self-pity becomes our dungeon. Eventually, we turn on ourselves with phrases that start with, “I can’t________” and “I am not____________.” Under pressure, we can choose to become our own biggest critics or cheerleader. I recommend the latter.  

Susan David, author of #1 Wall Street Journal Best Seller, Emotional Agility, observes that the more attention we give to the negative internal chatter, the more we sap valuable mental resources that could be put to better use. Any attempt to suppress this chatter is futile. The solution is not suppression or denial but undergirding your language with the truth. 

Find solid ground on what is true. In pressure moments we focus mainly on our shortfalls. We agonize over what we don’t have or can’t do, adding to the pressure. By focusing on what we are rich in at the present moment, we can turn pressure into power. One way is to consider our values over our momentary feelings. 

As a person of faith, I draw my values from the Scriptures to create an internal dialogue based on truth. “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me,” is one such truth I load into the database of my inner world. This artery of truth puts down the rebellious internal dialogue. The outlook drawn from quantifying my values over my feelings changed my approach to the task I had under pressure. 

Pressure Point 2: Your Mind

To thrive under pressure, you have to be ready to mentally thole it. According to psychotherapist and author Amy Morin, “your mind can be your biggest asset or your worst enemy.” The battles we face are largely won or lost in our minds. The words or stories we tell ourselves form the basis of thinking we adopt. We must win the war of narratives in our minds before we can handle the pressures of life. Dr. Stephen Covey said, “Internal victories must precede external victories.” The intended outcome of pressure is to emerge refined. In the heat of the mounting pressure during World War II, Winston Churchill once said, “These are not dark days, these are great days – the greatest days our country has ever lived.” What if we viewed pressure in a similar way? Mental discipline is a crucial additive here. 

The discipline of the mind is a key to handling the pressures we face in life. Take a proactive approach. Strengthen your mind by working on your attitude and imagination. You will dramatically improve your chances of success under pressure. In the pressure cooker, picture what you want to see. Begin with the end in mind.  I visualized the completed task. From there, I worked backward to reproduce it. In pressure moments, our vision becomes the lodestar, keeping us on course to live out our purpose. 

Pressure Point 3: Your Emotions

Our emotions draw power from our thinking. As we think, so do our emotions flow. When we are steeped in negative thinking, our emotions become a reflection of that thinking. And in pressure moments, it is imperative to submit our emotions to wholesome thoughts

Left to run wild, negative emotions can become the ball and chain that keeps us stuck in a destructive cycle of cogitation. A recent New York Times article highlighted procrastination as a “coping mechanism for decisions or tasks that induce negative emotions.” Unfortunately, pressure can be a self-inflicted wound when we delay tasks or decisions until the last minute. Repeated enough times, stress is the eventual outcome of this unsolicited pressure.

An emotion reset can be helpful when you are under pressure. You do this by changing your thinking. Think of a moment in your life when you excelled or succeeded at something. Did you notice a change of emotion matching your thinking as your mind got fully immersed at that moment? By reminding yourself that you can succeed, you become less harsh with yourself. This will help keep your composure in the furnace of pressure. 

Final Thought:  Susan David stresses that “navigating our inner world – our everyday thoughts, emotions, and stories – is the single most determinant of success.” The way we handle these inner controls is key when we are under pressure. A larger portion of handling pressure has to do with controlling the temperature of our inner world with the thermostat of sober thinking, composed emotions, and wholesome self-talk. This is where true success in life begins. 

Keep on Keeping on!

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