Hendrie Weisinger Ph.D.

Thicken Your Skin


Pressure Anxiety: A Contemporary Plague

Do You Feel You Have To Continually Produce Results? Do You Feel The Heat 24/7?

Posted Mar 29, 2015

Liz Fluger
Source: Liz Fluger

     For twenty years, I have taught that learning to perform in the pressure of the moment in key situations is the pathway to success in a career, the impetus for my new book,  Performing Under Pressure: The Science Of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most (Crown, 2015).  I know that is still true but in the last few years, I’ve observed through my clinical practice and in the pressure management seminars that I conduct, that the senior executives and professionals I talk to most often want to know: “How can I stop feeling pressured 24/7?” “How can I ‘de-pressurize?’” “How can I lessen the feelings of pressure I experience every day?”  

Unfortunately, simply getting better at what they do is not likely going to help anymore. This is because the underlying pressure they feel every day has little to do with performance pressure— the pressure of performing in a courtroom, in the case of a trial lawyer, or hitting a presentation out of the park in a meeting with the executive board. The daily pressure they experience arises more from a sense of the workload they have to carry on their shoulders everyday, without relief.

In Greek mythology, Zeus punished Atlas for defying the gods by ordering him to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. That is the kind of weight we often feel in our everyday lives—particularly at work. And at times, it can be crushing. When Atlas, overwhelmed by the unrelenting pressure of carrying his load, asked Hercules to help him, Hercules (wisely) declined.

Learning how to reduce the daily pressure we experience is an equally important success skill and for good reason ---it prevents you from catching what I have discovered to a contemporary plague ---I call it pressure anxiety.

Be clear that pressure anxiety differs from performance anxiety or the general state of anxieties that millions experience.   Performance anxiety is the distress or fear aroused in an individual by the requirement to perform a task in front of others.  It’s often called stage fright.  A singer, for example, may experience performance anxiety when auditioning, but feels far from anxious when singing the same song in the shower.   It is not the task of singing that makes the singer anxious, it is the context –performing in front of others.  Millions of people have performance anxiety and there are numerous ways to help individuals overcome it.

In contrast, pressure anxiety is feeling oriented ---not task oriented.  Specifically, it is the perpetual feeling that you have to continually produce (or be weeded out).  There is no task to perform—just the feeling that you have to be producing results and the uncertainty of whether you can.  Where as general anxieties are more defuse ---free floating—pressure anxiety is content specific.  It’s not pleasant---always thinking that you have to be producing and doubting whether you can.

Experiencing these daily feelings of pressure does not enhance our lives—it undermines them. At heart, these feelings of pressure are rooted
in the primal, evolutional concern that “I have to produce or I will be weeded out.” It is an early warning survival mechanism. For our early ancestors, a failure to perform under pressure often meant death. If he or she couldn’t sprint fast enough to escape a predator, or maintain focus while navigating a treacherous path, he or she might not have survived. There was no second chance; literally he was one and done. “I have to produce to survive,” was a daily and realistic concern based on the fact that our ancestors’ existence was dependent on being able to perform effectively in the do or die moments they encountered.

That fear kept Early Man almost continually on point and ready to act. Today, many of us continue to experience pressure in the same way as our ancestors—our brains experience
such situations as “do or die.” As a result, we remain on high alert, creating nonstop pressure— pressure not to fail because we fear “extinction,” and pressure to succeed so we can continue to carry the “load.”  No wonder pressure feels like a burden.ut04ttttt

This kind of nonstop anxiety has become a plague in our work-life. It keeps millions of us up
at night. Here is how the manager of a high-end Madison Avenue store put it: “Everyday, I wake up wondering if I can make our sales goals. The butterflies start right away.”

Pressure anxiety may seem irrational. A mediocre presentation to a client is not akin to death, and probably, in and of itself, will not lead to the end of a professional relationship. Similarly, your daughter being turned down from her first choice college will not end her life, although she may feel that way at the time. We often tell ourselves and our kids not to overreact to these kinds of temporary set-backs—to be rational—but the anxiety makes it hard to hold that thought in mind

Sometimes, of course, the pressure is real. A college graduate in his first sales job is given three months to meet his goals or he will be let go. While it is true that this is not physically a do or die situation, it is in effect a do-or die situation in terms of this job, and failure may make it more difficult for him to get another sales position. No wonder those first three months are filled with feelings of, “I have to produce” or else... ” There is some truth to that line of thinking.

Twenty years ago a student proclaiming, “I didn’t get into a top school, my life is over,” was a wild exaggeration. It is still an exaggeration, but there may be some truth to it if the person hopes
to get into one of the top medical or law or business schools. It is not so surprising that in today’s hyper-competitive world, students walk around thinking “I have to get good grades, or else.”

And that is the kind of pressure so many of us face in our lives. For example, the annual American Psychological Association report entitled “Stress in America” shows that 72 percent of adults admit to feeling stressed about money at least some of the time, and 22 percent say that they experience extreme stress about money.

I should point out that stress and pressure differ, but they are related. Stressful feelings result when demands placed upon us outweigh our resources to respond. People stressed about money feel the demands on their finances outweigh their financial resources—too many bills, not enough cash. This stress can quickly transform into feelings of pressure: I have to earn more money, or I won’t be able to afford my kid’s college tuition, or make my mortgage payment. If the individual is confident he could make more money, the pressure he experiences would lessen. But for most people, the chances of earning dramatically more, quickly, are unlikely, so the pressure they experience day in and day out ratchets up.

This feeling of pressure can occur in all kinds of settings. Studies reported by The American Psychological Association indicate that students feel under more pressure than ever before. Some experience periods of depression, and may even need to take a leave of absence from school. By the time they get into the work world, their susceptibility to pressure anxiety is often in full bloom..04

My point is that the pressure resulting from the conviction that you have to produce results day in and day out is not helpful. Yet, for a number of reasons, it is trending upward in the U.S

  • Global competition.  Competition is a natural pressure inducer.  Look at the element of competition in terms of contemporary college admissions. Since the 1950’s, the number of students from China, Hong Kong, Japan, and Europe attending American universities has soared. Ninth grade students who want to go to an elite school are already thinking, “I have to get top grades in every class to get into Stanford.” And that’s true. If he or she doesn’t produce, she is out; it is not a figment of her imagination. The same kind of competitive forces are seen in the workplace. Today’s workforces are infinitely more diverse than they were even 30 years ago. Job applicants come from all over the world. Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland A’s and creator of “money ball,” told me that he had 1500 applicants for two front office analytical positions, many from China, Hong Kong, as well as Ivy League colleges such as Harvard, M.I.T. and Yale. Global competition adds more pressure to our lives, not just in getting a job, but in keeping it.7.04
  • Longevity. In the 1970’s, people turning 60 were looking towards retirement. A few decades later, 60 years olds are in the height of their career and are often thinking about second careers. Many 70’ year olds are flourishing at work. More and more people are staying in
the work force for a longer time, reducing the number of jobs available for younger workers.  You don’t have to be a mathematician or an economist to realize that more people in the work force increases the competition for what is a limited number of jobs. Thirty years ago, 35 year olds were not competing with 65 year olds. Today they are. And that element of competition increases pressure and pressure anxiety.
  • The 24/7 Pressure of Technology. It used to be that our workday was
8 hours long and it was a rarity for people to work at home. Today, computers allow people to work at home, airports, and over coffee at Starbucks. While technology makes work easier, it also allows us to work more. Twenty years ago, managers were reading newspapers and maga- zines while waiting for their next flight. Today, they are hard at work on their computers.Cell phones allow us to call or text others from anywhere. But they allow us to be reached anywhere, too. In effect, most of us are on call 24/7. Such instant communication creates the expectation and demand that we respond faster. “Why didn’t you answer me? I texted you ten minutes ago,” is not an uncommon comment.  So while technology can make things easier, it can also increase the pressure we feel as it forces us to work harder and respond faster.

Global competition, increased longevity, and 24/7 technologies are but a few of the factors that are driving an increase in our feelings of pressure. Some describe it as a contemporary plague.

And the question is not how we can perform better under pressure.  Most individuals who experience pressure anxiety are already maxed out on effort and time and performing at a very high level.   It’s how we can lessen our anxiety and reduce the feeling of pressure so it doesn’t get in the way of our performance.

In Part 2, I will provide strategies for reducing pressure anxiety and whether or not you have  this contemporary plague or observe it in others.