5 Mental Tricks to Do Your Best Under Pressureby@vinitabansal
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5 Mental Tricks to Do Your Best Under Pressure

by Vinita BansalSeptember 3rd, 2021
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Pressure is not the situation, but rather how you react to it, which will make you either confident or anxious. When we aim high, pressure and stress obligingly come along for the ride. Pressure is inevitable, stress puts us at the potential whim of our instinctual reactions. When you truly want to make a difference, there’s only one thing that determines whether you will be successful in meeting your desired objectives. Some people perform well under pressure while others simply crumble.

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Formula 1 is a great example of performing under pressure. With millions of people watching and the clock ticking, every tenth counts. When drivers pit, the pressure is on for their crew to get them back on the track as quickly as possible. The entire team must work together to deliver performance under extreme pressure.

The actors who perform onstage or the athletes who participate in competitive sports also need to perform in high-pressure situations. How are they able to deal with the pressure of performing in front of thousands of people who might judge them?

Think about your own work for a while - how do you deal with the pressure of tough feedback? Do you become defensive when criticized, or do you stay open to the information by not taking the feedback personally? Do you shut down and shut people out when work gets a little bit overwhelming? Do you tend to overthink feeling paralyzed by the pressure? Do you procrastinate? Do you yell, scream?

A job interview, giving a presentation to the CEO, speaking in front of a large audience, communicating bad news, participating in a negotiation, meeting a deadline, and making high-risk decisions. Aren’t these opportunities where you need to be at your best even though the stakes are high, or do you feel vulnerable?

How can you bring your best to every situation when you are dealing with the pressure of high expectations? When you can’t really screw up. When it seems like a matter of life and death, though that’s hardly the case. When you really care about the outcome. When you are doing something that matters to you. When you truly want to make a difference. In such situations, there’s only one thing that determines whether you will be successful in meeting your desired objectives - your ability to handle pressure.

When we aim high, pressure and stress obligingly come along for the ride. Stuff is going to happen that catches us off guard, threatens or scares us. Surprises (unpleasant ones, mostly) are almost guaranteed. The risk of being overwhelmed is always there. Regardless of how much actual danger we’re in, stress puts us at the potential whim of our baser—fearful—instinctual reactions.” He adds “There is always a countermove, always an escape or a way through, so there is no reason to get worked up. No one said it would be easy and, of course, the stakes are high, but the path is there for those ready to take it - Ryan Holiday

In other words, pressure is inevitable. It’s not the situation, but rather how you react to it, which will make you either confident or anxious. Your reaction will determine whether you will thrive or barely survive under pressure. You may have all the expertise, skills, and knowledge to do well, but if you don’t know how to handle pressure situations well, if you lose control of your emotions, if you see the situation as a threat, pressure will make you do worse, and lead you to fail utterly.

Crumbling under pressure

Why do some people perform well under pressure while others simply crumble? Is it true that we do our best work when performing under pressure?

Hendrie Weisinger, psychologist and leading expert on emotional intelligence, and J. P. Pawliw-Fry, an international performance coach to Olympic athletes and coaches, state otherwise. Their conclusion based on data collected over fifteen years of research on performing under pressure is this - no one performs well under pressure.

Most of us tend to think we do, but we don't perform as well as we could. You may feel that a deadline makes you more productive, or it’s the highly competitive environment that gets your creative juices flowing, or you generate more value as a team when working under pressure. The reality is under high pressure, the quality of your work is not that great. You may get the job done, but you end up performing poorly.

In Performing Under Pressure, they write,

Pressure is the enemy of success: It undermines performance and helps us fail. When under pressure, air traffic controllers, pilots, and oil rig chiefs make errors in judgment. NBA players, World Cup soccer players, and champion golfers frequently miss their usual shots under pressure. ER doctors and nurses can make inappropriate decisions and incorrect diagnoses. Actors forget their lines, politicians forget their talking points, or otherwise stumble and fumble. Corporate executives, managers, and sales professionals make poor decisions, and parents have less patience with their children. Pressure is more than a nemesis; it is a villain in our lives.

They add,

“pressure disrupts what we value most: our relationships, our careers, our parenting effectiveness, and our core ethical and moral decision-making. The consequences of pressure can break a marriage, derail a career, and cause children to pull away from their parents or feel the need to cheat to meet their parents’ expectations. And it can compromise our very integrity.”

Regardless of the task, pressure ruthlessly diminishes our judgment, decision-making, focus, and performance. Pressure moments can disrupt our thoughts, prevent us from thinking clearly, feel frustrated, and make us act in undesirable ways.

The adverse impact of pressure on our cognitive skills can downgrade our performance, make us perform below our capability, commit more errors and increase the likelihood of failure. Pressure can even make us feel embarrassed and shameful when we do fail because we can act in a way that we will otherwise not act and say or do unusual things.

Consider these pressure moments. Stepping out of an important client meeting and wondering, “why did I make that joke. I was so stupid,” or failing to share your opinion while participating in a critical decision meeting and thinking afterward, “Why didn’t I speak up. We could have made a better decision.” Pressure can either result in wrongful action or inaction. Such events make it much more difficult to deal with the pressure next time.

But there are things you can do to diminish the effects of pressure on your performance.

5 Mental tricks for performing under pressure

Successful people don’t thrive under pressure. They just don’t let pressure impact their performance. They refuse to be overwhelmed by it. They succeed not because of pressure but despite it.

The difference between a successful person and an unsuccessful one is their ability to mitigate the negative effects of pressure.

The ability to handle pressure isn’t some innate talent. Anyone can learn to tackle the damaging effects that pressure can have on their performance. You can learn it too. You can learn to do your best when it matters most. You can learn to perform under pressure. You can achieve your best possible performance when you need it the most. Instead of being overwhelmed by pressure, you can learn to counteract its negative effects.

1. Reappraise anxiety as excitement

A study by Harvard Business School researcher Alison Wood Brooks found that people who see pressure situations as an opportunity and not a threat perform better.

Those who reappraise their anxiety as excitement end up showing more enthusiasm and performing better in subsequent tasks. Reappraisal is a cognitive change in which you don’t actually change the surroundings that are causing negative emotions but instead try to alter your understanding of the circumstances.

She suggests using strategies such as self-talk by saying “I am excited” out loud or messages like “get excited” can lead to generating more excitement and adopting an opportunity mindset as opposed to a threat mindset. Reappraisal from anxiety to excitement positively correlates with better results in a stressful situation and improves subsequent performance.

But aren’t we always told to act cool and have a calm and confident demeanor under pressure?

Brooks' study shows that it doesn’t work. In her experiments, she found out that people who talked about being excited just before the task significantly outperformed those who talked about being nervous or calm or were told to try to remain calm. She writes, “the more often individuals reappraise their anxiety as excitement, the more likely they may be to trigger upward motivational spirals, and the happier and more successful they may become. Instead of trying to “Keep Calm and Carry On,” perhaps the path to success begins by simply saying, “I am excited.”

In Psyched Up, Daniel McGinn draws upon Brooks' study and explains this further. Brooks says, “People have this really strong intuition to try to calm down in stressful situations. You hear it all the time. People either actively say, ‘Calm down,’ or they say, ‘Don’t be anxious.’ The hitch is that it seems quite difficult to find strategies to actually do that.”

He adds - In a perfect world, it might be possible to reappraise one’s feelings of nervousness into an unaroused, nonchalant calm. Brooks suggests that in reality, that’s too great a leap. “The argument is that anxiety and excitement are actually very, very close, but that anxiety and calmness are too far apart,” she says. So instead of aiming for calm, the smarter strategy is to force yourself to make them more subtle, an achievable mental shift from nervousness to excitement.

2. Draw energy from your past successes

Remembering a time when you were able to deal with a similar challenge and succeed in it helps you think about the behaviors and actions that have helped you before. It primes you to stay positive and choose positive actions that help you deal with your pressure situation.

When giving a job interview, think about your past interviews where your experience left a positive impact on the interviewer. When giving a presentation, think about the skills you demonstrated in your previous presentations that left everyone inspired. When making a critical decision, think about all the positive qualities you possess and how you applied them during some of the previous decisions. When dealing with a conflict, think about the strategies you applied that resulted in a positive outcome.

Using your past successes as a gateway to your potential future success can prevent you from feeling overwhelmed by stressful and anxiety-causing situations.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Have I handled a similar situation before in which I was successful?
  • What specifically did I do in those situations to perform at my best?
  • How can I apply some of that learning to the current moment?

Hendrie Weisinger and J. P. Pawliw-Fry write in Performing Under Pressure, “Pressure moments are filled with uncertainty—you are uncertain that you will deliver the goods. Remembering your past successes ignites confidence— you did it before, and you can do it again. As your confidence increases, uncertainty (anxiety) and pressure are diminished, freeing you to approach the task with your best effort. Nervousness becomes transformed into positive enthusiasm that is directed to the task, rather than anxious thinking that is distracting.”

They add, “I’ve done it before. I can do it again” is the mantra of this pressure solution.

3. Enact pre-performance routines

Athletes, comedians, surgeons, actors, theater artists, and probably many other successful people use pre-performance routines to focus attention, limit distractions, and get into a confident mental state. They may practice whatever it is they need to do in their mind drawing energy from the process or listen to their favorite song that distracts them from the anxiety, or simply perform a consistent routine as a sequence of steps that primes them for the task at hand.

Research shows that pre-performance routines help to perform better in stressful situations by decreasing anxiety. Performing a routine before getting into a pressure situation can reduce feelings of anxiety and improve performance.

Create your own warm-up routines that you can use before you get down to performing the task - something deliberate, something short. It can be used to get into a positive mental state right before a difficult conversation, when you need to speak in front of hundreds of people, before giving a job interview, a presentation, attending a crucial meeting, or literally anything that requires you to stop worrying about performance and distract from the anxiety just enough to get the job done.

4. Draw energy from your past successes

In any situation, high pressure or not, unexpected events can throw us off course by taking away our sense of control over the situation. Under high pressure, its impact can be devastating. If you aren’t mentally prepared to handle the unexpected, any deviation from the normal or even a slight change in your circumstance can make you highly anxious, distorting your ability to think clearly, and you may end up making decisions that you will regret later.

In reality, you cannot avoid the unexpected - What if the company providing the third-party software you are using for a product launch shuts down (happened to me)? What if, in the middle of your presentation, a technical glitch prevents you from displaying the content of your presentation? What if, in a difficult conversation, the other person starts shouting or throwing accusatory remarks at you? What if you have a deadline tomorrow and your computer system conk’s off? What if the product you worked so hard to build isn’t received well by others?

In life, there will be times when we do everything right, perhaps even perfectly. Yet the results will somehow be negative: failure, disrespect, jealousy, or even a resounding yawn from the world. Depending on what motivates us, this response can be crushing. If ego holds sway, we’ll accept nothing less than full appreciation. A dangerous attitude because when someone works on a project—whether it’s a book or a business or otherwise—at a certain point, that thing leaves their hands and enters the realm of the world. It is judged, received, and acted on by other people. It stops being something he controls and it depends on them - Ryan Holiday

All these situations, if not highly probable, are possible. They can make you mad if you aren’t prepared to expect the unexpected. The best way to handle them when you are already dealing and performing under pressure is to be prepared to “expect the unexpected.” Think in advance about everything that can go wrong and create a mental solution in your mind using “what-if” scenarios to be less startled by the unexpected.

You cannot predict the future, but you can plan for it. You cannot control the uncertain outcomes, but you can be better prepared to focus on the controllable results. When performing under pressure, knowing the worst that can happen can lift the pressure off by being less dependent on the outcomes and putting more focus on the effort.

5. Visualize a successful outcome

In 1989, United Airlines Flight 232, a DC-10 piloted by captain Al Haynes, crash-landed in Iowa at Sioux City Airport. The craft had lost one engine and all three hydraulic systems, forcing an emergency landing. One hundred and eighty-five people survived the crash. In part, self-preservation is what helped keep Haynes calm, he says. “Panic just won’t do you any good. From day one, you know that if you panic, you’re dead.”

Denny Fitch was a flight instructor and check airman who happened to be a passenger on Flight 232. When Fitch sent word to the cockpit that he was intimately familiar with the systems of a DC-10, Haynes brought him forward, and he and the rest of the crew worked together.

Fitch, who helped save the flight, credits it to old-fashioned optimism. He had a clear vision of the desired outcome “My attitude from the very beginning of that incident was that we weren’t going to crash. We are going to successfully land this thing, with the wheels down, rolling down a runway, and come to a stop. The evacuation doors are going to open, the slides are going to deploy, and 296 people are going to slide out safely. Then we are going to get ground transportation, go to the nearest bar, and I am buying.”

When performing under pressure, adopting a positive attitude by visualizing a positive outcome can render negative thinking ineffective. It can depressurize the moment by replacing anxiety and fear with the confident humility required to do the job. Positive thinking in the form of positive images of the final outcome not only distracts you from fear of failure it also helps you focus on the details for achieving success.

Imagine yourself achieving success and work backward to figure out the steps that lead you there.


  • We all face situations where we need to perform under pressure. It’s not the situation but rather how we react to it that determines whether we are successful in achieving the desired outcomes or not.
  • Left unhandled, stress, anxiety, and fear of failure from the pressure of performance can throw us off course, make us do worse, and lead us to fail utterly.
  • People don’t succeed because of pressure but despite it. They don’t let pressure impact their performance by refusing to be overwhelmed by it.
  • Reappraising anxiety as excitement can help you see the pressure situation as an opportunity and not a threat which leads to better performance.
  • Thinking about your past successes in similar situations can prevent you from feeling overwhelmed by stressful and anxiety-causing situations and draw energy and strategies from your previous achievements.
  • Enacting pre-performance routines can decrease anxiety and lead to better performance.
  • Being mentally prepared to handle the unexpected can make you more flexible, thereby focussing your energy on things that are under your control.
  • Visualizing a successful outcome can help you align your actions with the work you need to do to get there.

Previously published here.