How to Cope Under Pressure

Emma Young, BPS Digest, explores the problem of coping under pressure. September 2019.

You’re preparing for an important meeting, and the pressure’s on. If it’s bad now, how will you cope when you actually have to perform? Will you fly? Or will you sink? 

Psychologists have a lot to say about how to cope under pressure… both the chronic kind, which might involve ongoing high expectations at work, for example; and the acute, single-event variety such as a vital meeting, a make-or-break presentation, or a sports match.

The stress mindset

A concept that’s increasingly recognised as important in relation to pressure is your “stress mindset”. If you recognise that stressful challenges can sharpen your focus, strengthen your motivation, and offer learning and achievement opportunities, then you have a “positive” stress mindset. In contrast, viewing stress as unpleasant, debilitating and negative constitutes a “negative” stress mindset. And there’s evidence that this is harmful. A 2017 study led by Anne Casper found that when faced with a day that they know is going to be challenging, people with a positive stress mindset come up with coping strategies, boost their performance, and end the day feeling more energised. For people with a negative stress mindset, the opposite happens. 

Alia Crum at Stanford University is one of the best-known advocates of the positive stress mindset. She’s found that it’s not just adults who benefit. In a study of adolescents, Crum and her colleagues found that those who believed in the potential benefits of stress were less prone to feeling stressed in the wake of difficult life events. “These findings suggest that changing the way adolescents think about stress may help protect them from acting impulsively when confronted with adversity,” the researchers concluded. 

If you do have a negative stress mindset, there are ways to turn it around. In another study, Crum’s team found that adult participants who’d watched a film clip that focused on the “enhancing” nature of stress, and were then put into a stressful social situation, afterwards felt more positive and showed greater cognitive flexibility than participants who’d first watched a “stress is bad” clip.  

If you’re feeling anxious because you’re under increased pressure at work, or there’s a particularly challenging opportunity/stressful event (you now know which adjective you should pick…) coming up, one short-term fix might be to go and watch a horror movie. Deliberately scaring ourselves can calm the brain, leading to a “recalibration of our emotions,” according to a US study led by Margee Kerr which involved visitors to an immersive theatre attraction at the ScareHouse in Pittsburgh. Those volunteers who were more stressed or tired beforehand showed the biggest emotional benefits afterwards. 

There is also some tentative evidence from Heidi Fritz and others that taking a cheerful perspective on life is associated with less stress over time, while self-defeating humour — the sort that involves disparaging yourself — is associated with more distress. 

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