Using science to handle the effects of pressure

The gap between our aspirations and our accomplishments often comes down to the ability to withstand pressure in critical moments. Faced with high-intensity, all or nothing situations, it is all most people can do not to choke. But is there a way to condition your mind and body for precisely these types of situations? In Performing Under Pressure, Hendrie Weisinger and J.P. Pawliw-Fry bring a wealth of scientific data to bear on this question. Their answer is a resounding “Yes!”

The book is divided into 3 sections. The first part explains the physiological and psychological reality of pressure in great detail. It is not simply a mental phenomenon. It is not, “all in your head,” something you can simply brush off and dismiss if you just have a positive mindset. No. The fight-or-flight reaction and the feeling of pressure is deeply rooted in evolutionary psychology.

Pressure can effect our procedural memory and cognitive ability, causing us to forget even deeply ingrained tasks. Your body can also be negatively effected, as pressure drives up your heart rate and makes your legs go weak. This is tied to our most basic survival instincts. While such mechanisms were indispensable when human beings were escaping predators hundreds of thousands of years ago, now they can actually get in the way of us performing at our best.

The second part gives practical tips for how to improve your performance under pressure. Because pressure often arises from our cognitive appraisals, the ways in which we process and assess the world, one effective way of handling pressure is to change our appraisals, to remove any cognitive distortions.

One example from the book, is the difference between saying “I need a car” and “I want a car.” In other words, telling yourself that acquiring a new sports car is a matter of survival, life and death, will warp your nervous system. This will trigger your survival instincts and cause a massive amount of pressure, where it is unnecessary.

The final part of the book is what the authors call the “COTE of Armor” for pressure management. The COTE has four components: Confidence, Optimism, Tenacity, and Enthusiasm. These four traits work in tandem to create a mindset that can take arms against a sea of pressure over the longterm.

Self-confidence has been proven to improve success and performance generally. Confidence is different from self-esteem. It is not a matter of thinking good thoughts about yourself. It is actually deeply connected to your physiology. Your posture can actually increase or diminish your confidence on a biological level. The benefits of optimism are self-evident to an extent. Stress and pressure are always going to have a greater negative impact when we go into situations expecting the worst.

The final two parts of the COTE of Armor, Tenacity and Enthusiasm, are the keys to maintaining the defense against pressure over a long period of time. One way of thinking about it, is that it is okay, even inevitable, to choke under pressure sometimes. It is going to happen. But if you are equipped with Tenacity and Enthusiasm, you will get up again. The brain is very moldable and can get locked into negative feedback loops, “death spirals.” Tenacity and Enthusiasm enable you to get back on your feet, even after a major failure.

Performing Under Pressure stands out from other books on the topic for its practicality and its being thoroughly grounded in up to date scientific research. By better understanding how the human brain and body respond to and, in fact, create pressure, we can handle it that much better.

Performing Under Pressure is available for purchase here.

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