Humanity’s collective response to pressure might be summed up best in the iconic classic song by Queen and David Bowie: “Pressure…pushing down on me, pressing down on you, no man asks for.” But why? How can we feel a weight physically that isn’t technically there? Then consider those people who claim that they perform better under pressure. Are they superhuman, fibbers, or just perceiving pressure differently? Let's recap August's Basecamp with Co-Founder Pat and Neuroscientist Dr. Huberman to break down what pressure is, how it's different from stress, how it affects us, and most importantly, some strategies for mitigating pressure and controlling how you respond to it.
The Pressure Principle’s Principal (Spoiler Alert: It’s YOU!)
Let's start with the basics: what is pressure? The number one thing everyone needs to understand about pressure is that it's internalized and is not coming from an outside source. When we care about the outcome of a given situation and think we will be judged on our effort, we internally create pressure. Stress, a word often used interchangeably with pressure, is different. Stress happens in the body when demand outweighs the resources we have to fulfill a need. In essence, we 100 percent create all the pressure we feel, and we can prevent it.
Now, some people believe pressure helps them achieve at a higher level. These are the folks that say things like, “I perform better under pressure.” For most people, the more pressure we feel the worse we perform. However, what some might see as performing better, i.e. being motivated to act especially in the face of procrastination, won’t likely be at their highest potential. Let’s examine the science behind pressure and why it inhibits peak performance.
“In the end – everything is internal.” - Pat Dossett
The Science Behind Pressure’s Effect on Peak Performance
When we talk about peak performance, we often see it explained by way of an inverted U-shaped diagram that looks like a hill. Engagement with any task we perform is driven by arousal, which is a perfect combination of alertness and attention. If someone is performing a task and is not aware they aren't performing well, as their arousal grows so does their performance. However, there is a point when arousal goes up and performance plummets – it's the intersection where pressure is introduced. In this case, more attention not only doesn't increase performance, but it also goes down and fast. Everyone wants to live at the top of the diagram, in peak performance, but to do that, you have to control your response to pressure.
So before we get into how to adjust our pressure response, let’s talk about two concepts, homeostasis and allostasis. The first is the oft-referred homeostasis, the body and brain's drive to maintain balance. Homeostasis is widely regarded as the state of being we always want to be in, but…maybe not. There’s another state of being called allostasis in which the brain and body adjust and adapt to the circumstances and demands you face as they happen. Over any given 24-hour period, we are in a flux of change – the body changes temperature, digestion changes, etc. We don’t live in a world of homeostasis, we live in a world of allostasis. How you conceptualize pressure affects the body and brain’s ability to find balance and how your physiology works overall.
Visualize this classic experiment in allostasis. There are two rats, each one lives in a cage with a running wheel and they are placed next to each other. Rat One chooses when he runs and receives all the positive effects of running like increased endurance, boost in mood, and greater fitness. Now, whenever Rat One gets on the wheel and runs, it makes Rat Two’s wheel go and he has to run. Rat Two does not get to decide when he runs and as a result, feels pressured to run and takes on the negative effects of running such as increased blood pressure and inflammation. Internal pressure is what makes the difference. The beauty of that knowledge is knowing we can change it. The essence of peak performance is being able to disassociate from the pressure, not internalizing and responding to the pressure.
"Keep in mind – The brain can convert the direction of response 180 degrees. That's how powerful thoughts and conceptions are. They control your physiology in many cases." - Dr. Huberman
3 Little Hacks for Reprogramming Your Pressure Responsivity
Pat and Dr. Huberman talked about something called “Setting the Horizon.” You can do this by creating an action step that is within immediate reach of the goal you want to achieve, giving you autonomy from the pressure. The action step to the performance is key, as much or more so than the actual performance. Everything flows from the action step. The step may feel minute, but the neurochemical pay-off is quite substantial because it links your internal state to your external state.
Pressure is a constricting force like a boa constrictor around your neck, or maybe something a little more relatable and less immediately fatal, like too-tight jeans at a buffet. However, how you represent pressure in your mind is something you can control, and the way you can do that is to find tools that work for you every time. Wins beget wins, so that little first step will lead you to the next and the next and so on until you have removed pressure from the equation.
Try these 3 ways to improve your response to pressure:
1. Put Down Your Thoughts - Journaling what you feel or expect to feel can help separate the feeling and your response to it. When writing your feelings down, create greater context and certainty around yourself and your values as it will help you control your feelings of pressure. When you reflect on the bigger picture, you will begin to reframe the situation that is causing you to feel pressured.
2. Perform a Physiological Sigh - Reduce your internal levels of arousal or as your mom says, calm down. Take two inhales through the nose followed by an extended exhale through the mouth. Not only will this create a relaxed physiological response in the body, but it will also stop the thought process causing you to feel pressure. Do as many as needed.
3. Practice Panoramic Vision - Attention follows visual attention. Take direct control over the process by dilating your gaze to include a wider aperture, and in doing that, you change the aperture of your cognition. To practice panoramic vision, try to expand your visual field, not by looking around or moving your head or eyes, but by trying to see yourself in the environment that you’re presently in. You want to literally expand your view so you can see the ceiling and the floor and the walls if you’re indoors. If you’re outdoors, see as far and wide as you can.
Don’t let pressure get you down! Try a few of these micro-steps to stop the pressure monster in its tracks and optimize your performance.