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Why do some people only work well under pressure?

Why do some people only work well under pressure?


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It is common for people to procrastinate. Putting off tasks until the resulting deadlines get closer and there comes a point at which the person will fire into action. (whether this point leaves the person with enough time to complete task is another question).

Why is it that some people seem to only work well under pressure? Why is it that people find it difficult to discipline themselves and have all their task complete well before deadlines are due?


I have often wondered about this, as I know I do this, even setting myself arbitrary deadlines, not always with the best results. The following is not an opinion, but based on some information found while, ironically, taking a 'break' from my PhD drafting.

According to "In Search of the Arousal Procrastinator", (Pychyl, 2008), the notion of 'working under pressure' could be based on their cognitive dissonance, concluding (in part):

a common theme about self-deception and task delay. We often rationalize our current delay because we don't feel like working on the task by evoking (irrational) beliefs like, "I'll feel more like it tomorrow" or "I work better under pressure." Although this may be the case on rare occasions for some tasks, on the whole these thoughts are simply rationalizations to justify further delay and make us feel good in the short run.

However, according to "Procrastination or 'intentional delay'?" (Novotney), there could be benefits in the procrastination, as it may lead to better planning of what is needed to be done, so the pressure of the deadline is not necessarily entirely harmful.

Other resources cited in the above links:

Ferrari, J. R. (1992). Psychometric validation of two procrastination inventories for adults: Arousal and avoidance measures. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 14, 97-110

Ferrari, J.R., Johnson, J.L., McCown, W.G. (1995). Procrastination and Task Avoidance: Theory, Research, and Treatment. New York: Springer.

Schouwenburg, H.C., Lay, C., Pychyl, T.A., Ferrari, J.R. (Eds.) (2004). Counseling the Procrastinator in Academic Settings. Washington, DC: APA.

Burka, J.B., & Yuen, L.M. (2nd Edition). (2008). Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now. New York City: Da Capo Lifelong Books.


I think it is often a myth that people work better under pressure. Most people who say they work better under pressure have not really tried working under normal conditions. Even if a person thinks he works better under pressure, he may work better under normal conditions. That being said, pressure (more specifically time pressure) helps in providing closure to tasks.

One of the main reasons for procrastination has to do with mental construal theory. Basically goals that are far from a person in time, space or both seem very abstract. So it is difficult to initiate abstract goals. Goals that are close in time and space are more specific. Thus they are easier to implement. To make abstract goals more concrete one should use implementation intentions and mental contrasting. That is, form specific "if then" plans to initiate a goal. Mental constrasting provides both a idealistic and realistic picture of your goal accomplishment.

As an example, suppose you want to get started on some assignment. Mental contrasting would mean that you visualize yourself completing the assignment and the feelings associated with it (e.g. happiness, pride, etc.). Then you would visualize the obstacles preventing you from reaching the goal (e.g. feeling tired, hungry, good tv show on). This provides a sort of "energization" to initiate action. Then you would form the implementation intentions based off these obstacles. However, forming too many implementation intentions could be counterproductive. Note that this assumes that the goal intention is strong in the first place.

Sources

Simpson, W.K., & Pychyl, T.A. (2009). In search of the arousal procrastinator: An investigation of the relation between procrastination, arousal-based personality traits and beliefs about procrastination motivations Personality and Individual Differences, 47, 906-911.

The effect of temporal distance on level of mental construal Nira Liberman,a,* Michael D. Sagristano,b and Yaacov Tropeb

W Leroy, S. (2009). Why is it so hard to do my work? The challenge of attention residue when switching between work tasks. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. Vol. 109. pp 168-181.


Why Do Some People Get More Stressed Than Others?

Stress, in many ways, is health enemy number one. As well as increasing our chances of developing physical health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure and even cancer, chronic stress also increases our chances of developing mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders.

Whether at work, at home, at school, or within the confines of our inner worlds, stress affects everyone. Stress, and whether it's helpful or unhelpful to us, can be visualised in an inverted u-shape. Some stress is good for us: our stress response keeps us safe from danger, gives us mental clarity, increases performance and enables us to get things done - up to a point.

These positive effects of stress go up and up (on our inverted u-shape) until they reach a critical point, beyond which all of these helpful benefits plummet and the opposite results: impaired performance, brain fog, feeling paralysed and unable to complete daily tasks.

This might all sound familiar, and is at the root of our complicated relationship with stress. We know that, at times, stress has helped us out. It might also ring true that some people simply respond differently to stress than others. And that people who seem so in control of their stress levels in some area of their life can surprise us by experiencing immense stress in another. There are various reasons why this is the case, as we explore below.

Why do some people get more stressed than others?

Goal-setting, self-worth, and stress

You might think, 'I'm only stressed about xxx, because I care so much'. This is entirely valid and goes some way to explaining why some people get more stressed than others. The value that we place on achieving our goals is central to our ability to deal with stress. It's entirely normal to feel stress generated by a work project that you care about doing well in, or passing your exams, or fighting for your relationship to survive it's also entirely normal to want to achieve your goals. However, what might separate someone who doesn't feel unhelpfully stressed in these situations, from someone that does, is self-worth. The degree to which meeting life's goals - often that we set for ourselves - relates to our sense of self dictates how stressful we will find meeting these goals, and even more so how we deal with potential failure to reach them.

If our self-worth is contingent on reaching every goal we set ourselves, then we will experience high levels of stress when we are challenged, because to fail is to mean that we aren't good enough.

Unfortunately, higher levels of stress in the face of something that we care about can actually stop us from performing optimally, thus making that utterly-dreaded failure more likely.

Circumstance and choice

Some people simply lead lives that create more opportunities for stress than others. Circumstances related to our financial stability, our relationships, whether people are dependent on us or not (whether children, partner, or an unwell relative or friend), our health, our work situation: some people's lives are more stressful than others. Key to this is the element of choice. How much autonomy a person has in their situation is central to how stressful that situation is.

Consider a person who has just accepted a long-desired position at work with extra, more stressful responsibilities vs. someone who is completely overworked due to poor management or someone who chooses to live a simplistic lifestyle with few possessions vs. someone who has that lifestyle as a result of lacking in means and opportunity. If we have chosen a certain situation for ourselves, we are more likely to benefit from it and see any stress that results as either being invigorating, or as something worth putting the effort into when we feel that we continuously have stress put upon us by forces or people outside of our control - it's not easy to thrive in such circumstances.

Personality and stress

In the psychological field, personality is often spoken about in terms of the Big Five: agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, and openness to experience. We all, if we adopt this framework, exhibit different levels of each of these five factors and that largely manifests as our personality. When it comes to stress, the key factor is neuroticism, and it's opposite: emotional stability.

Where we fall on the spectrum between neuroticism and emotional stability will go some way to determining how we deal with stress. None of us would enjoy being called neurotic, but it's simply an affective term and doesn't necessitate any judgement. If you are high in neuroticism it just means that you are likely very sensitive to internal and external stressors. On the flip side, a person high in emotional stability will be better able to view their situation with a healthy level of detachment, process what is happening to them, and take helpful action.

Our personality is thought to be 50/50 genetics and upbringing, which brings us onto the next important point.

Childhood experiences and adult stress

Our childhood experiences have been shown to affect our adult life in various ways. A lot of focus is put on the idea of attachment between the child and primary care-giver. The nature of this attachment in many ways dictates how we form relationships in adulthood, and how we respond to stress.

A secure attachment between parent and child is one characterised by warmth, attention to needs, and validating behaviours. Children who have secure attachments are more likely to grow into adults who have a good sense of self-worth, who respond to criticism in a healthy manner, and who are willing to take risks without being too afraid of failure or potential challenges.

An insecure attachment (which in attachment theory falls into either avoidant, anxious, or fearful), makes it much more likely that as adults we will respond to stressful situations in unhelpful ways. How our parents responded to our errors or emotional needs as children has a lasting impact on how we view ourselves, and our own perception of our ability to cope, as adults. An insecure attachment in childhood is related to various psychological disorders, such as anxiety and depression, to poor emotional regulation, and also to a sense that we might not be able to trust others or rely on them for support. All of these factors make coping with stress much more challenging.

It is also during childhood that we learn about our sense of choice and autonomy. 'Learned helplessness' is the psychological term used to describe when an individual has learnt, through early life experiences, that they do not have much control over their environment. Experiencing high levels of external stressors in childhood, such as growing up with neglectful parents, or those with substance abuse issues for example, or growing up in poverty, or moving house a lot, or experiencing a bereavement early in life: all of these are examples of situations that may teach a child that they do not have much control over their environment. This lack of sense of autonomy can continue into adulthood and make it much more difficult to respond to stress. We might respond in apathy or by shutting down.

Traumatic past experiences

One of the most clear demonstrations that people respond significantly differently to stress is PTSD - post-traumatic stress disorder. Some veterans sadly develop PTSD, and others who experienced and witnessed similar events do not. The same is true of other trauma: some people are better able to cope with it than others. What is common with individuals who have experienced a highly stressful or traumatic event, whether they develop diagnosed PTSD or not, is that it can affect their ability to cope with future, potentially much more mundane stressors.

If you have suffered a traumatic bereavement, been assaulted, or experienced another kind of major trauma, it can take a really long time to recover, and you may never be fully the same. While you may feel recovered in certain or even most aspects, the ability to cope with stress can be damaged as even small stresses remind us (through alarming thoughts or memories, or physical sensations) of the major stress we experienced before.

The brain and stress

Acute stress is registered in the brain through activation of the amygdala, which, through a series of actions and hormone release, triggers the 'fight or flight' response. This is extremely helpful to us and is an adaptive survival mechanism. Exposure to chronic stress, however, can change the shape of the brain and the neural pathways that dictate much of our thoughts and behaviours.

When we experience stress, even if the stressor disappears quickly, neurologically speaking something more long-term is going on. When we experience stress, the areas of our brain related to decision-making and emotional regulation fire up, as we try to work out what to do. This area of the brain is called the ventral medial pre-frontal cortex. In experiments using fMRI scans, researchers have shown that people who exhibit more activity in this area of the brain when faced with stressful stimuli report less feelings of stress. More activity in this part of the brain indicates more flexibility - or neuroplasticity - in this stress-management centre and therefore more likelihood that the individual would be able to manage their emotions and behaviours in response to stress. Less activity in this area results in more feelings of stress, as our attention is narrowed and we struggle to take in information from outside of our point of focus (i.e. we can't stop thinking about the thing causing us so much stress). When we can't distract ourselves or evaluate the spectrum of options available to us, we feel we have less choice in this way, stress perpetuates stress, and stress-related patterns of behaviour and thinking can set in.

Chronic stress also increases the size of the amygdala, the brain's anxiety centre, and increases the number of neural pathways directed to this area, meaning that long-term stress makes future stress much more difficult to deal with. While it enlarges the amygdala, chronic stress also reduces the size of the hippocampus. This is the area of the brain that is involved in memory function. Not only can this effect short-term memory, but also our ability to access our stored long-term memories which can be so helpful to us when making decisions. The hippocampus is also essential for emotional regulation and learning, and chronic stress causes it to shut down, leading to impulsive behaviours and inability to control emotions.

Chronic stress means that we have cortisol - 'the stress hormone' - running through our bodies for long periods of time. Even after a stressful event has ended, it takes a while for cortisol levels to return to normal. If you are constantly encountering stress, your cortisol levels never get the chance to properly recalibrate. Cortisol increases the levels of free radicals which damage the brain. This damage often reveals itself through 'brain fog', forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating.

Depression is thought to be related to levels of serotonin and dopamine in the brain. Chronic stress reduces our levels of these two neurotransmitters and therefore makes it much more likely that a person with long-term stress will develop depression or another mood disorder.

Different responses to stress

The following are different potentially unhelpful responses to stress, but it's important to note that we can only do the best we can in the situation we are in. There are many reasons why someone might respond to stress in the following ways, and if any of these resonate with you, you should not judge yourself too harshly.

Shutting down or detaching yourself

This can happen emotionally, mentally and physically. Under severe stress, you may find that you emotionally close off, the original stress-induced feelings of anxiety or worry instead replaced with numbness or apathy. You may also find that you have a tendency to detach yourself from people physically, spending less time with your friends or partner. You may also find that you mentally shut down, unable to access the more abstract or creative parts of your thinking. Falling asleep, or suddenly feeling immensely tired, in the face of stress is also a coping mechanism whereby the individual chooses to disengage from what is happening around them, or inside them.

Turning to substances

If we respond to stressful situations by turning to alcohol or drugs, we can become dependent on these substances and our primary response when faced with new stress might be to self-soothe using our chosen vice.

Getting angry

Anger is a complicated emotion it's also a very normal one. The problem being that often we resort to anger to mask other emotions - such as anxiety, fear, guilt or shame - as it is less painful for us to rile against the world than it is to deal with the hurt that we are feeling. Similarly with stress: if anger is our default position when our sense of self feels threatened, when we encounter a stressful situation we are more likely to lash out, with potentially longer-term consequences than the length of our flash of anger.

Self-sabotage

If we feel immensely stressed by a situation, whether work-related, our relationship, or a friendship, and we don't know how (or we simply don't want to) deal with it, we might start behaving in ways to self-sabotage. Self-sabotaging behaviours can arise in the face of stress, as a means of forcing the other people involved in the situation to make decisions on our behalf, for example, behaving in ways that pushes our partner away because we don't know how to break up with them, and we hope they might do it first.

Am I more stressed than I realise?

Many of the above responses to stress result in the same potentially dangerous issue: we don't realise how stressed we are. If we detach, push people away, turn to substances, or deflect our stress with some other short-term fix, we won't necessarily acknowledge how much stress we are under. We may manage to convince ourselves, on the conscious level at least, that we aren't in fact stressed at all. In these cases, we may stay in unhealthy relationships, or cut people off who are actually really important to us we might continue to abuse substances or become progressively more angry and eventually depressed. In our society, being busy is sometimes seen as something of a badge of honour, and stress is seen as part and parcel. Being stressed might become comforting on some level, as we begin to associate it with being successful, with working hard for our goals and with being someone who manages to 'do it all'.

Not facing up to how stressed we are means we aren't likely to do anything about it. Chronic (long-term) stress can result, and in turn can have serious health consequences, both physical and mental. Though we can, by various means, block out mental processes and thoughts that we don't want to - or aren't ready to - listen to, our body has ways that it will let us know that we are dealing with unhealthy levels of stress.

The physical symptoms of stress

  • headaches
  • heartburn / chest pains
  • muscular ache in the neck or back
  • fatigue / insomnia (hair pulling), skin-picking, or other body-focused repetitive behaviours
  • spots
  • cracked lips
  • white spots on fingernails
  • teeth grinding and / or tension in the jaw
  • frequent common colds or flu
  • digestive issues
  • lacking in energy
  • weight gain or difficulty losing weight, particularly around the mid-section
  • missed or erratic menstrual cycles in women and / or severe menstrual cramps

How can I protect myself from stress?

A lot of what is spoken about above comes down to one thing: how we interpret the situation around us. This is, in essence, what determines who struggles with stress more deeply. Stress occurs in response to external or internal stimuli this stimuli can either be interpreted as a threat (leading to stress), or an opportunity / manageable challenge. When we encounter a stressful situation, we typically make two appraisals: what is needed to cope with this situation? And, secondly, do I have the resources available to me to cope with this situation?

A person high in resilience and with a solid sense of self-worth might be more likely to answer yes to the second question, and this is the key to feeling less stressed: having the self-assurance that you do have the resources to cope with what life throws at you. It's important to remember of course that even the most resilient or emotionally stable person might not always have the resources. If you think about your resources as a stockpile of energy, tools and equipment that you can put out in to the world when you need to, we are all susceptible to running out of stock if we don't take care of ourselves. You literally cannot give more than what you have available to you, and if you try there are a multitude of potential consequences waiting to catch you eventually: burnout, relationship breakdown, mental and/or physical ill-health. Our resources can come from various sources: our social interactions, our physical health, the time we have, how supported we are, our emotional energy. So, how can we give ourselves the best possible chance of having the resources we need to deal with stress?

Exercise and diet

Exercise is a great stress-buster it floods your brain with feel-good endorphins and ensures your brain and body are getting the oxygen they need. Taking time away from a stressful situation to exercise also serves as a distraction and may enable you to make better decisions when you return to tackle whatever needs your attention. On a sunny day, try to exercise outside (this can just be a stroll around the park or block), to get a dose of much needed vitamin D.

Anti-oxidant rich foods can protect against the damage caused by free radicals created by stress and taking the time to prepare nutrient-dense food that your body and brain needs is a great part of any self-care routine. Periods of stress also deplete our nutrient stores (leading to some of the physical symptoms listed above such as cracked lips, spots, and white spots on fingernails), so it's really important to give your body the fuel it needs to perform.

Friendship and social support

With a solid social support network in place, you will be better able to deal with stress. This happens for a number of reasons. Firstly, having healthy, fulfilling friendships is good for our sense of self-worth and self-esteem. Secondly, knowing that we have people who care about us and support us makes taking risks, failing, and facing challenges much more doable. In times of stress, we might be worried about reaching out, or may not feel we have the energy. Try to nurture your friendships by staying in touch with people and trying new or well-liked activities together.

Be flexible

The first part of being more mentally flexible is to accept that stress is a part of life. Energy can be wasted fighting with thoughts of 'I shouldn't have to deal with this'. Dealing with stressful situations is hard and can be taxing, but it's unhelpful to think that you shouldn't 'have to' be dealing with stress in the first place. Things come up, people behave in unexpected ways, and this will inevitably manifest in stressful situations. Truly accepting stress as a normal part of life frees you to dedicate your energies towards moving yourself forward and beyond the stressful situation. You will become more flexible in your thinking, better able to come up with a Plan B and to let go of any resentment related to 'having to deal with it' in the first place.

Being flexible also involves accepting the things you cannot change.

Give yourself more choice

This is related to flexibility of mind in some ways: sometimes life can really throw us a curveball that makes being flexible in your thinking really, really challenging. In these circumstances, you might find that you freeze, or fall back on responding some way that you have done in the past. This isn't necessarily the best option, and might - in the long-term - compound unhelpful patterns of behaviour. Try to treat each situation with fresh eyes and a fresh mind - give yourself the choice to respond differently than you have done in the past.

Giving yourself choice might also include allowing yourself some extra time before making a decision, saying no to a social or work opportunity when you feel that you don't have the time or resources, setting boundaries in your relationships so that the domestic and emotional labour of the household and partnership is fairly shared, making sure you draw a line between work and life. Whatever your circumstances, you can make choices to improve your situation. They may be very small choices, but they have the potential for significant change.

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness meditation can help with stress management in a multitude of ways. Meditation has been shown to increase neuroplasticity, specifically in the prefrontal cortex, the area that is so important in decision-making, emotion regulation and therefore in stress management. Mindfulness also reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It also focuses on breathing, particularly the kind of belly-breathing that activates the parasympathetic nervous system. When we are stressed, our breathing becomes more shallow and tends to be focused in the chest this breathing pattern perpetuates our stress, and one way to calm our minds down and reassure our bodies that we aren't under threat is to focus on breathing into the belly, rather than the chest. This breathing calms us down. With a regular mindfulness practice, you might find you can deploy this as a technique to deal with stressful times as an when they arise.

Practicing mindfulness meditation can also help us cultivate more gratitude for the things that we have in our present situation. This stops us from thinking back regretfully for the things we perceive we have lost, and gives us pause when we are consumed by what we think we need to get / achieve / do in order to be happy and less stressed. By focusing on and nurturing how you are in this exact moment, you will find that more options come available to you. You can only start from where you are.

Talk to someone

Beyond leaning on friends and family in times of stress, talking to a professional can also help immensely. Often the stress we are experiencing involves those closest to us (such as our partners, children, friends and colleagues) and therefore it can be hard to express yourself honestly and without fear of consequence to the people in your life. Talking to a therapist can help you unpack why you respond to stress the way you do, and help you build healthier, more effective long-term coping strategies. Particularly cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) might help in terms of learning to challenge the harmful thought patterns that keep you stuck in a state of stress, unable to move forward. You can start your search for the right therapist here.


Should people accept that pressure is a fact of life?

Is it any wonder that many students fail to perform, not because they lack ability, but because of the unique pressure of the exam room - the ticking clock on the wall, invigilators pacing up and down, and the surreal sense that one's very future is in the balance?

We are competitive animals and, however we decide to evaluate each other - whether at exams, job interviews or even on romantic dates - we are occasionally going to get nervous. Removing pressure altogether from life is, in many ways, an impossible dream.

A new test about the psychology of pressure, devised by the BBC's Lab UK, will offer a new look at why some people are particularly prone to pressure, while others cope rather well. The scientists want to find out why some people lose control of their emotions, while others stay in control.

It is not just students who face a psychological ordeal this summer. Olympic athletes, too, are about to come face to face with a life-defining moment - and many will struggle to cope.

When I played at the Olympic Games in Sydney as Britain's top table tennis player I was in the form of my life. But when I walked out into the mega-watt light of the competition arena, I could hardly hit the ball. To put it simply, I choked.

Almost all of us know what it is like to choke. Perhaps we froze during finals, or perhaps we got tongue-tied during a hot date, or maybe we just couldn't remember our lines during a big job interview.

Why does it happen? The neuroscience of choking is rather intriguing, and it can best be understood by considering what happens when you are walking along the street.

None of us actually think about the mechanics of how we walk as we are ambling along - we are thinking about what we are going to have for dinner, or what we are going to say at our next meeting, etc.

But now imagine that you are walking along a narrow path with a 10,000 foot precipice on either side. Now, we might think about how we are moving our feet, the angle of our tread, the precise footfall on the path. And this, of course, is when we are most likely to fall.

Walking is, when you think about it, quite a complex set of movements and if we think too much about them we are far more likely to get confused. This, incidentally, is why walking feels so weird when we are in front of a lot of people, like at graduation.

The same thing happens when we get tongue-tied. We are so anxious about saying precisely the right words that, instead of just saying them, we try to say them. We are, in effect, striving too hard.

Instead of using the subconscious part of the brain, which is the most efficient way to deliver a familiar skill (like talking, walking or remembering a maths formula during an A-level), we use the conscious part. And this is when it all goes wrong.

To put it another way, in order to overcome choking we must trust our subconscious competence. And, it turns out that we are far more likely to do so when we are as familiar as possible with the situation we are about to face.

As Sir Clive Woodward, the rugby coach turned Performance Director of Team GB, put it: "It is no good going into a high-pressure environment unsure of what to expect. You need to be on top of everything."

In preparation for the Olympics, athletes will spend as much time as possible getting used to the competition venue - the lighting, feel, and acoustics.

They will also have studied possible opponents and planned a routine for the hours leading up to the contest, so that everything is smooth and calm. By ensuring that they are not assailed by the unexpected, they are less likely to experience stress.

When it comes to exams, the parallels are obvious. Many students are profoundly spooked by working up against a hard deadline - in which case, diligently practising essays or problems under time constraints, perhaps with a parent or friend acting as invigilator, would help dramatically.

Many students complain of running out of steam because of the nervous energy they expend - in which case, taking a banana and a bottle of water would boost mental performance.

Others complain about the noise of invigilators pacing around - in which case a pair of earplugs can help to regain focus. Many students are vexed by the unfamiliar format of an exam paper, or the tone of the questions - in which case deep familiarity with past papers, as well as chief examiners' reports, will work wonders.

All these small things are easy to do, but often forgotten.

Of course, even when we are well prepared, we may still feel terribly nervous - but at least we will be more equipped to deal with our nerves than if we have failed to prepare.

Furthermore, we may also benefit from reminding ourselves that the big moment is, from a different perspective, not that big after all.

Even a huge exam is not as important as, say, a loving family, or good health. And even a huge job interview can be put into perspective by looking up at the stars and remembering that it is all rather trivial in the grand scheme of things.

Many athletes attempt to change their frame of reference, in this way, just before big matches. At one competition, I remember hearing an opponent muttering under his breath: "It is only bloody ping pong!."

It seemed to calm him. He defeated me by three games to one.

Pressure is an integral part of life, of course, and sometimes we are going to stumble.

But so long as we remember to trust our subconscious competence, and, where appropriate, to alter our frame of reference, we will already be half way to defeating the curse of choking.

Matthew Syed is the author of Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice.


How Deep Pressure Stimulation Works

When you apply deep pressure to the body, the body switches from running its sympathetic nervous system to its parasympathetic nervous system. This is the so-called switch from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest”.

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is the “alert” system in the body. This is the one in charge when you’re facing a stressful situation at work, driving through heavy traffic in a storm, or when you receive an unexpected bill in the mail.

When the SNS takes the lead for too long, you feel anxious, tired, on edge, and irritable. You don’t sleep as well and your digestive system might act up.

Unfortunately kids with autism spectrum and sensory processing disorders spend a lot of time stuck in the sympathetic nervous system. Even when they do calm down, it takes very little to retrigger this system.

The parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), however, brings a sense of calm and peace to the mind and body.

When the parasympathetic nervous system takes over, your heart rate slows, muscles relax, and circulation improves. Your body produces endorphins, which are the “happy” hormones that make you feel amazing after a good run.

As deep pressure is applied to the body, the parasympathetic nervous system comes online, calming your child and bringing a sense of well-being.

In tandem with this change comes a release of dopamine and serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitters of the brain. These hormones help with motivation, impulse control, attention, memory, social behavior, sleep, and digestion.

Benefits Observed With Deep Pressure Therapy

Not all individuals will experience every benefit, but the potential positive effects include:

  • General sense of calm that can last up to a few hours after therapy
  • Decreased overall anxiety when practiced regularly
  • Increased happiness
  • Improved social interactions
  • Increased communicativeness
  • Better sleep
  • Improved focus
  • Lowered incidence of seizures
  • Lowered hypersensitivity to touch
  • Improved ability to tolerate the school environment
  • Decrease in self injury

The Crucial Question

Why do we work? Why do we drag ourselves out of bed every morning instead of living lives composed of one pleasure-filled adventure after another? What a silly question. We work because we have to make a living. Sure, but is that it? Of course not. When you ask people who are fulfilled by their work why they do the work they do, money almost never comes up. The list of non-monetary reasons people give for doing their work is long and compelling.

Satisfied workers are engaged by their work. They lose themselves in it. Not all the time, of course, but often enough for that to be salient to them. Satisfied workers are challenged by their work. It forces them to stretch themselves—to go outside their comfort zones. These lucky people think the work they do is fun, often in the way that doing crossword puzzles or Sudoku is fun.

Why else do people work? Satisfied people do their work because they feel that they are in charge. Their work day offers them a measure of autonomy and discretion. And they use that autonomy and discretion to achieve a level of mastery or expertise. They learn new things, developing both as workers and as people.

These people do their work because it’s an opportunity for social engagement. They do many of their tasks as part of teams, and even when they’re working alone, there are plenty of opportunities for social interaction during work’s quiet moments.

Finally, these people are satisfied with their work because they find what they do meaningful. Potentially, their work makes a difference to the world. It makes other people’s lives better. And it may even make other people’s lives better in ways that are significant.

Of course, few occupations have all these features, and none, I suspect, have all these features all the time. But features of work like these are what get us out of the house, get us to bring work home with us, encourage us to talk about our work with others, and make us reluctant to retire. We wouldn’t work if we didn’t get paid, but that’s not at the core of why we do what we do. And in general, we think that material rewards are a pretty bad reason for working. Indeed, when we say of someone that “he’s in it for the money,” we are not merely being descriptive we’re passing judgment.

These diverse sources of satisfaction from work raise some very big questions. Why is it that for the overwhelming majority of people in the world, work has few or none of these attributes? Why is it that for most of us, work is monotonous, meaningless, and soul deadening?

Why is it that as capitalism developed, it created a model for work in which opportunities for the nonmaterial satisfactions that might come from it—and inspire better work—were reduced or eliminated? Workers who do this kind of work—whether in factories, fast-food restaurants, order-fulfillment warehouses, or indeed, in law firms, classrooms, clinics, and offices—do it for pay.

Try as they might to find meaning, challenge, and room for autonomy, their work situation defeats them. The way their work is structured means that there really is little reason to do these jobs except for pay.

According to a massive report published in 2013 by Gallup, the Washington, D.C.-based polling organization, there are twice as many “actively disengaged” workers in the world as there are “engaged” workers who like their jobs.

Gallup has been measuring international employee satisfaction for almost two decades. In total it has polled 25 million employees in 189 different countries. The latest version gathered information from 230,000 full-time and part-time workers in 142 countries. Overall, Gallup found that only 13% of workers feel engaged by their jobs. These people feel a sense of passion for their work and they spend their days helping to move their organizations forward.

The vast majority of us, some 63%, are not engaged. We are checked out, sleepwalking through our days, putting little energy into our work. And the rest of us are actively disengaged, actually hating our jobs.

In other words, work is more often a source of frustration than one of fulfillment for nearly 90% of the world’s workers. Think of the social, emotional, and perhaps even economic waste that this statistic represents. Ninety% of adults spend half their waking lives doing things they would rather not be doing at places they would rather not be.

The questions Gallup asks capture many of the reasons for work I just listed. The opportunity to do our work “right,” to do our best, to be encouraged to develop and learn, to feel appreciated by coworkers and supervisors, to feel that our opinions count, to feel that what we do is important, and to have good friends at work are all aspects of work that the survey taps. And for the overwhelming majority of people, work falls short—very short. The question is why?

Why We Work (September 2015) is published by Simon & Schuster/TED.


Smart People Choke Under Pressure

People perceived as the most likely to succeed might also be the most likely to crumble under pressure.

A new study finds that individuals with high working-memory capacity, which normally allows them to excel, crack under pressure and do worse on simple exams than when allowed to work with no constraints. Those with less capacity score low, too, but they tend not to be affected by pressure.

"The pressure causes verbal worries, like 'Oh no, I can't screw up,'" said Sian Beilock, assistant professor of psychology at Miami University of Ohio. "These thoughts reside in the working memory." And that takes up space that would otherwise be pondering the task at hand.

"When they begin to worry, then they're in trouble," Beilock told LiveScience. "People with lower working-memory capacities are not using that capacity to begin with, so they're not affected by pressure."

The findings are detailed this week's issue of Psychological Science.

Working memory, also known as short-term memory, holds information that is relevant to performance and ensures task focus. It's what allows us to remember and retrieve information from an early step of a long task, such as long-division math.

"In these math problems students have to perform subtraction and division, and if you're trying to hold information in your memory and you start worrying about performance, then you can't use your entire mental capacity to do the math," Beilock explained.

The study analyzed 93 undergraduate students from Michigan State University to determine their working-memory capacities. The students were divided into two groups, a high working-memory group (HWM) and a low working-memory group (LWM). Each person was given a 24-problem math test in a low-pressure environment. The HWM group did substantially better.

Then the two groups were given the same test, but were told that they were part of a "team effort" and an improved score would earn the team a cash reward. They were also told their performance was being evaluated by math professors.

Under this higher, real world pressure situation, the HWM group's score dropped to that of the LWM group, which was not affected by the increased pressure.

Since working memory is known to predict many higher-level brain functions, the research calls into question the ability of high-pressure tests such as the SAT, GRE, LSAT, and MCAT to accurately gauge who will succeed in future academic endeavors.


If your manager commonly engages in presenteeism, they may expect staff to do the same

This is why hard-driving, Type A bosses might seem to lack empathy. If you think the boss could be less understanding of that flu you’ve come down with, you’re less likely to call out sick, even if you should.

But according to other research from the University of East Anglia, people who feel under pressure and severely stressed by colleagues or bosses will turn up to work when sick, as well those who are highly motivated. Employees feeling harassed or discriminated against by will feel more anxious about asking for leave.

Add your story. (Credit:Alamy)

Back to bed

It’s just a little cold, you’re thinking. It’s only been a day or so of sneezing and stuffiness, you tell yourself. And off to the office you go. But, in reality, when you are mildly sick you might be better off staying home to rest before you feel totally rotten.

Michael Tam, staff specialist in general practice at Fairfield Hospital, in Sydney, Australia advises taking time off at the beginning of a bad cold, especially if you work in an industry where you will be in close contact with lots of people, such as hospitality, or in a caring role.

Even if you work in an office, Tam offers the same advice, since staying away will prevent the spread of the illness. Got a stomach bug? Stay away from work for two days after vomiting and diarrhoea stops.

In some countries, there is no guaranteed paid sick leave. (Credit: iStock)

The pay problem

In many countries, you’re guaranteed some paid sick time by law in full-time jobs and in some permanent part-time roles, such as in Australia. In other countries, like the US and some Asian nations, there are few, if any, guarantees. So, it makes sense that in some sectors where your pay or job security depends on showing up, it’s more likely you’ll go to work ill, according to Kinman’s research.


How to answer the question “How do you work under pressure?”

Even if you are confident about your ability to work under pressure, the goal of your answer is to convince your employer of that. Here are some things you need to consider when preparing to answer this question:

1. Use the STAR method

STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action and Result. When you’re preparing to answer this question, an effective way of formulating an answer is to briefly discuss the context behind the situation, explain what your role was, outline the measures you took to solve the issue and then discuss the outcome.

You need to show that you have a good record of working under pressure. When preparing for the interview, think of a previous professional situation in which you displayed excellent ability under pressure. Describe that scenario during the interview, and explain the actions you took to diffuse the situation.

In addition to listening to your response, the interviewer may also evaluate your thought process, previous experiences and your ability to formulate an argument. Instead of a quick reply that you can handle pressure well, a thorough answer in the STAR method may better convince your potential employer that you possess the ability to work well under pressure.

2. Be honest

It’s best to be completely honest when discussing your abilities in a job interview. Try to think of ways in which you can use the truth to your advantage. Even if you struggle under pressure, calmly acknowledging that and mentioning that you are actively trying to improve in this area can leave a positive impression on the hiring manager.

In many cases, companies might look more at an applicant’s potential rather than their current ability. Showing that you are aware of your shortcomings and are willing to work on them may give a positive impression.

3. Stay calm and collected

Interviewers often observe nonverbal cues. Since the interview itself can be considered a pressure situation, answering this question in a calm and confident manner is even more important than for other questions. As you verbally express your confidence, your tone and demeanor should be fully aligned with your words. This manner may help you gain the interviewer’s trust and help them feel confident that the rest of your answers are also truthful.

4. Mention your ability to manage stress

In addition to explaining how you work effectively under pressure, also mention the methods you use to manage workplace stress. This part of your answer may show the interviewer that you can handle the effects of constant pressure and indicate that you are able to perform well. Since constant stress can have a negative effect on overall productivity, employers value team members who can find ways of relieving work-related stress.


This Is The Psychological Reason Why Some People Are So Hard On Themselves

In her book Edge States, Joan Halifax explains that human beings are transformed when pushed to the boundaries of their understanding, comfort and capability. She attributes this in part to Kazimierz Dabrowski's theory of positive disintegration, which is the idea that crises and stress are not just important for psychological maturation, but usually necessary. "Living systems that break down can reorganize at a higher and more robust level," she argues. "If they learn from the breakdown experience."

Some people seem to do this naturally, seeking out wisdom and self-understanding when confronted with challenging times. Others intentionally push themselves out of their comfort zones in order to grow. This willingness to endure discomfort and capitalize on challenge is a trademark among successful, fulfilled individuals. But what really differentiates them from the rest is not only their ability to learn from their life experiences, but the depth at which they feel them in the first place.

The psychological reason why some people are so hard on themselves isn't necessarily a matter of low self-esteem. It's more likely a product of the need for affect, which is the intensity at which people want to feel anything. Positive disintegration is often correlated with a higher degree of over-excitability, which is another way to say that people who develop themselves thoroughly often feel they are in a state of crisis, whereas other people would not perceive those circumstances to be as dire, or in need of a similar response.

In his book on the psychology of superstition, Dr. Stuart Vyse explains that people who are high in their need for affect "differ in the amount of desire for feeling emotions," and that they "find the expression of emotion, even if its sadness, to be a pleasant experience." Such people are more likely to feel anxiety over everyday occurrences, or find horror movies cathartic. Most of all, they are often pushed to relentlessly better themselves. which, one could argue, is really a gift.

Though it may feel counterintuitive, the best way to take advantage of this is to actually lean into it. The Cut reported that when it comes to responding to stress and other heightened states of emotion, things like excitement and fear can look a lot alike. Alison Wood Brooks calls this "anxiety reappraisal," and argues that given how easily these experiences can easily translate into positively or negatively, it's all about what meaning we assign to them.

Supporting this theory is research from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which explains why feeling "bad" is actually essential for mental health. "People who habitually accept their emotional experiences were more likely to report greater psychological health six months later," Harvard reported on the research. " This was true regardless of gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. Further, people who accepted these emotions were less likely to respond negatively to stressors."

One of the main things that separates people who grow from challenges from people who become perpetual victims of their circumstances is their ability to approach the edge without falling off of it. In her aforementioned book, Halifax explained that "edge states" are the transformative aspects of being human that must be carefully balanced. Embracing self-criticism can only be positive in healthy doses, and if it's used for the sake of self-development, not self-degradation.

At the same time, it calls into question the way that we usually think about being honest and critical with ourselves. Maybe it's so difficult to silence our inner critics because at some level, we realize it is also our greatest teacher.


How and Why We Lie at Work

Although every society condemns lying, it is still a common feature of everyday life. Research suggests that Americans average almost two lies per day, though there is huge variability between people. In fact, the distribution of lies follows Pareto’s principle: 20% of people tell 80% of the lies, and 80% of people account for the remaining 20% of lies.

So how do you deal with a coworker you suspect of lying? It depends on the type of lie, and the type of liar, you’re dealing with.

Frequent liars have two salient characteristics. First, they are morally feeble, so they don’t see lying as unethical. Second, whereas most people lie when they are under pressure (e.g., anxious, afraid, or concerned), recurrent liars do it even when they are feeling good or in control of things – because they get a kick out of it. For these reasons, studies have found that frequent liars are more likely to admit to lying. If there’s nothing wrong with it, why hide it?

If you’re dealing with a frequent liar, he or she probably has strong social skills and a fair amount of brains. For example, neuropsychological evidence suggests that lying requires higher working memory capacity, which is strongly related to IQ. As Swift said, “he who tells a lie is not sensible how great a task he undertakes for in order to uphold one lie he must invent twenty others.” Accordingly, effective lying also requires a vivid imagination, particularly when it comes to producing excuses and bending the truth studies have indicated that creative people and original thinkers can be more dishonest. As Francesca Gino and Dan Ariely have noted in their research, “a creative personality and a creative mindset promote individuals’ ability to justify their behavior, which, in turn, leads to unethical behavior.”

In addition, effective liars tend to have higher levels of emotional intelligence, which lets them manipulate emotional signs in communication, monitor their audience’s reactions, and avoid something called non-verbal leakage – when our body language doesn’t match what we’re saying.

The key point with frequent liars is not to pinpoint whether they are telling the truth, but whether we can predict what they are likely to do. I may say “I enjoy working with you,” and I could be lying. However, so long as I keep pretending that I like working with you when we work together, then who cares about how I really feel about you? When lies are based on objective facts – “I graduated from Stanford” or “I will finish this project by Monday” – then they are self-defeating, because they damage the reputation of the liars when they are found out so while it can be tempting to feel responsibility to punish the liar, recognize that simply exposing the lie may have the same effect.

Systematic liars are therefore as problematic as people who are systematically late: all you need to do is work out their typical patterns of behavior and plan around them. Unless you want them to stop lying to you, in which case you can gently expose their deceptions to show them you are not as stupid as they think.

Further Reading

HBR Guide to Office Politics

An infrequent liar has a different psychological makeup. Many of their lies are the product of insecurity. These are lies motivated by fear, and they provide temporary psychological protection to the liar’s ego. For a trivial example, when asked whether you know someone important or have read a popular book, you may instinctively answer “yes” in order to avoid rejection. But this in turn actually increases your insecurity – what if you’re found out? – which will increase your probability of continuing to lie in the future.

Such insecurity-driven lies are often an attempt to gain status – exaggerating an achievement or claiming undue credit for a project. Status-enhancing lies are also often used to establish or maintain close bonds with others, for instance by making empty promises (offering help you can’t follow through on) or framing oneself as an insider rather than an outsider (saying bad things about Joe even if you don’t mean them, just to get along with Jane.)

The best way to deal with insecure liars is to make them feel accepted. Insecure liars are extremely self-critical, so it takes time and effort to compensate for their neurotic perfectionism and make them feel appreciated. Show them that you value them for who they are, rather than who they would like to be.

Whether you are dealing with a frequent liar or an insecure liar, there are a couple of important caveats. First, remember that while most of us perceive lying as a deliberate attempt to misrepresent the truth, as Nietzsche noted, “the most common lie is that which one lies to himself lying to others is relatively an exception.” Both pathological liars and insecure liars are capable of self-deception. A great deal of psychological research suggests that people will generally act “dishonestly enough to profit, but honestly enough to delude themselves of their integrity.” Furthermore, it is quite plausible that the evolutionary basis of self-deception was to enhance our ability to deceive others, since it is much harder to persuade others of anything when we have not been able to persuade ourselves. To paraphrase George Orwell, “if you want to keep a secret you must also hide it from yourself.” And when someone is capable of distorting reality in their favor, they are not technically lying, just incapable of – or unwilling to – see the truth.

The key decision, in such situations, is whether we should help the individual see things in a different way. Truth can be taxing from a psychological point of view, when it inflicts a wound to the person’s ego. As Diderot pointed out: “We swallow greedily any lie that flatters us, but we sip only little by little at a truth we find bitter.” Before you accuse a colleague of lying, ask yourself whether he’s actually deliberately misleading others – or just sincere in a mistaken belief.

The second big caveat: not all lies are immoral. In fact, lies may be pro-social – “Mm, this is delicious!” or “Your new boyfriend seems nice,” or “That looks great on you.” Lies can even be ethical, such as when Nazis knock on the door and ask about the Jews hiding in the attic. This is why adults teach children to appreciate white lies and to develop a healthy degree of dishonesty, and why many people become “too honest” after they’ve had a couple of drinks. Indeed, successful interpersonal functioning often requires the ability to mask one’s inner feelings. Total honesty can take the form of amoral selfishness. Self-control is a moral muscle that not may inhibit not just dishonesty, but also honesty, when the goal is to behave in socially desirable or altruistic ways.

It is easy to get upset when someone lies to us, but there are many shades of dishonesty, and many motivations to lie. There are also many ways to react to a lie. Yes, you may feel insulted at being the target of deception, but reacting emotionally or confrontationally can backfire. A better approach is to politely demonstrate to the liar that they have failed to deceive you. Or just pretend to have fallen for it, which effectively means to deceive them back.


Study: Athletes Perform Better Under Pressure When They Make a Fist With Their Left Hand

PROBLEM: Thirty percent of penalty kicks in professional soccer are missed, as are 20-30 percent of NBA free throws, despite practice scenarios in which those numbers are notably lower. Studies have suggested that the reason is primarily psychological -- they fail not from lack of focus, but "because attention is directed toward the execution of the action" -- since most perform better at these rote but accuracy-dependent aspects of the game (which they've nearly perfected from a mechanical aspect with thousands of hours of practice) in low-pressure situations. So, like so many of us, they're always looking for ways to get out of their heads.

According to the researchers, freaking out is primarily associated with the left hemisphere of the brain, while the right hemisphere deals more with mechanical actions. Meanwhile the cortex of the right hemisphere controls movements of the left side of the body, and the left hemisphere controls the right side of the body. So they figured that if you can purposely activate the right hemisphere -- in this case, by making a fist or squeezing a ball with your left hand -- it will improve physical performance and draw focus away from the ruminating left hemisphere.


METHODOLOGY: In three experiments, German researchers had athletes perform their respective sports -- soccer (penalty kicks), tae kwon do, and badminton -- in casual environments. They then put them in front of large audiences or cameras to create "high-pressure environments" and measured the change in performance. Some of the athletes made fists with their left hand (or held a small ball in their left hand), and some made fists with their right.

Of note, only right-handed athletes were involved.

RESULTS: Athletes who made a fist with their left hand did better under pressure than when they made a fist with their right hand -- and often as well as in the low-pressure practice scenarios.

CONCLUSION: "Hemisphere-specific priming" appears to discourage over-thinking in high-pressure situations. Activating the right hemisphere of the brain by doing a simple action with the left side of the body (making a fist, in this case) appears to negate context-related declines in complex motor performance.

IMPLICATIONS: Lead researcher Juergen Beckmann, PhD, put it pretty profoundly: "Consciously trying to keep one's balance is likely to produce imbalance." Simple (brain-hemisphere-dependent) tasks that activate motor portions of the brain while drawing activity away from the ruminating portions can help experienced athletes perform (in terms of accuracy and complex body movements done from muscle memory) without being messed up by nerves. "Just let it happen be the ball."

Will all the professional soccer players be making fists with their left hands next time they take a penalty kick? Yes. They should, at least.

Let's all try it, too. Even if you don't play soccer (or badminton or tae kwon do), it should apply beyond sports, to other rote activities that have to be done under pressure. Like when you end up bagging your own groceries, and everyone in line is staring at you, and produce is flying down the conveyor belt, but you need to keep the bread on top. And the bottles on the bottom. And the bread on the bottom. No, that's wrong! Breathe, clench your left foot, and just let it happen.

The study, "Preventing Motor Skill Failure Through Hemisphere-Specific Priming: Cases From Choking Under Pressure" will be published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.


How Deep Pressure Stimulation Works

When you apply deep pressure to the body, the body switches from running its sympathetic nervous system to its parasympathetic nervous system. This is the so-called switch from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest”.

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is the “alert” system in the body. This is the one in charge when you’re facing a stressful situation at work, driving through heavy traffic in a storm, or when you receive an unexpected bill in the mail.

When the SNS takes the lead for too long, you feel anxious, tired, on edge, and irritable. You don’t sleep as well and your digestive system might act up.

Unfortunately kids with autism spectrum and sensory processing disorders spend a lot of time stuck in the sympathetic nervous system. Even when they do calm down, it takes very little to retrigger this system.

The parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), however, brings a sense of calm and peace to the mind and body.

When the parasympathetic nervous system takes over, your heart rate slows, muscles relax, and circulation improves. Your body produces endorphins, which are the “happy” hormones that make you feel amazing after a good run.

As deep pressure is applied to the body, the parasympathetic nervous system comes online, calming your child and bringing a sense of well-being.

In tandem with this change comes a release of dopamine and serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitters of the brain. These hormones help with motivation, impulse control, attention, memory, social behavior, sleep, and digestion.

Benefits Observed With Deep Pressure Therapy

Not all individuals will experience every benefit, but the potential positive effects include:

  • General sense of calm that can last up to a few hours after therapy
  • Decreased overall anxiety when practiced regularly
  • Increased happiness
  • Improved social interactions
  • Increased communicativeness
  • Better sleep
  • Improved focus
  • Lowered incidence of seizures
  • Lowered hypersensitivity to touch
  • Improved ability to tolerate the school environment
  • Decrease in self injury

Should people accept that pressure is a fact of life?

Is it any wonder that many students fail to perform, not because they lack ability, but because of the unique pressure of the exam room - the ticking clock on the wall, invigilators pacing up and down, and the surreal sense that one's very future is in the balance?

We are competitive animals and, however we decide to evaluate each other - whether at exams, job interviews or even on romantic dates - we are occasionally going to get nervous. Removing pressure altogether from life is, in many ways, an impossible dream.

A new test about the psychology of pressure, devised by the BBC's Lab UK, will offer a new look at why some people are particularly prone to pressure, while others cope rather well. The scientists want to find out why some people lose control of their emotions, while others stay in control.

It is not just students who face a psychological ordeal this summer. Olympic athletes, too, are about to come face to face with a life-defining moment - and many will struggle to cope.

When I played at the Olympic Games in Sydney as Britain's top table tennis player I was in the form of my life. But when I walked out into the mega-watt light of the competition arena, I could hardly hit the ball. To put it simply, I choked.

Almost all of us know what it is like to choke. Perhaps we froze during finals, or perhaps we got tongue-tied during a hot date, or maybe we just couldn't remember our lines during a big job interview.

Why does it happen? The neuroscience of choking is rather intriguing, and it can best be understood by considering what happens when you are walking along the street.

None of us actually think about the mechanics of how we walk as we are ambling along - we are thinking about what we are going to have for dinner, or what we are going to say at our next meeting, etc.

But now imagine that you are walking along a narrow path with a 10,000 foot precipice on either side. Now, we might think about how we are moving our feet, the angle of our tread, the precise footfall on the path. And this, of course, is when we are most likely to fall.

Walking is, when you think about it, quite a complex set of movements and if we think too much about them we are far more likely to get confused. This, incidentally, is why walking feels so weird when we are in front of a lot of people, like at graduation.

The same thing happens when we get tongue-tied. We are so anxious about saying precisely the right words that, instead of just saying them, we try to say them. We are, in effect, striving too hard.

Instead of using the subconscious part of the brain, which is the most efficient way to deliver a familiar skill (like talking, walking or remembering a maths formula during an A-level), we use the conscious part. And this is when it all goes wrong.

To put it another way, in order to overcome choking we must trust our subconscious competence. And, it turns out that we are far more likely to do so when we are as familiar as possible with the situation we are about to face.

As Sir Clive Woodward, the rugby coach turned Performance Director of Team GB, put it: "It is no good going into a high-pressure environment unsure of what to expect. You need to be on top of everything."

In preparation for the Olympics, athletes will spend as much time as possible getting used to the competition venue - the lighting, feel, and acoustics.

They will also have studied possible opponents and planned a routine for the hours leading up to the contest, so that everything is smooth and calm. By ensuring that they are not assailed by the unexpected, they are less likely to experience stress.

When it comes to exams, the parallels are obvious. Many students are profoundly spooked by working up against a hard deadline - in which case, diligently practising essays or problems under time constraints, perhaps with a parent or friend acting as invigilator, would help dramatically.

Many students complain of running out of steam because of the nervous energy they expend - in which case, taking a banana and a bottle of water would boost mental performance.

Others complain about the noise of invigilators pacing around - in which case a pair of earplugs can help to regain focus. Many students are vexed by the unfamiliar format of an exam paper, or the tone of the questions - in which case deep familiarity with past papers, as well as chief examiners' reports, will work wonders.

All these small things are easy to do, but often forgotten.

Of course, even when we are well prepared, we may still feel terribly nervous - but at least we will be more equipped to deal with our nerves than if we have failed to prepare.

Furthermore, we may also benefit from reminding ourselves that the big moment is, from a different perspective, not that big after all.

Even a huge exam is not as important as, say, a loving family, or good health. And even a huge job interview can be put into perspective by looking up at the stars and remembering that it is all rather trivial in the grand scheme of things.

Many athletes attempt to change their frame of reference, in this way, just before big matches. At one competition, I remember hearing an opponent muttering under his breath: "It is only bloody ping pong!."

It seemed to calm him. He defeated me by three games to one.

Pressure is an integral part of life, of course, and sometimes we are going to stumble.

But so long as we remember to trust our subconscious competence, and, where appropriate, to alter our frame of reference, we will already be half way to defeating the curse of choking.

Matthew Syed is the author of Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice.


How to answer the question “How do you work under pressure?”

Even if you are confident about your ability to work under pressure, the goal of your answer is to convince your employer of that. Here are some things you need to consider when preparing to answer this question:

1. Use the STAR method

STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action and Result. When you’re preparing to answer this question, an effective way of formulating an answer is to briefly discuss the context behind the situation, explain what your role was, outline the measures you took to solve the issue and then discuss the outcome.

You need to show that you have a good record of working under pressure. When preparing for the interview, think of a previous professional situation in which you displayed excellent ability under pressure. Describe that scenario during the interview, and explain the actions you took to diffuse the situation.

In addition to listening to your response, the interviewer may also evaluate your thought process, previous experiences and your ability to formulate an argument. Instead of a quick reply that you can handle pressure well, a thorough answer in the STAR method may better convince your potential employer that you possess the ability to work well under pressure.

2. Be honest

It’s best to be completely honest when discussing your abilities in a job interview. Try to think of ways in which you can use the truth to your advantage. Even if you struggle under pressure, calmly acknowledging that and mentioning that you are actively trying to improve in this area can leave a positive impression on the hiring manager.

In many cases, companies might look more at an applicant’s potential rather than their current ability. Showing that you are aware of your shortcomings and are willing to work on them may give a positive impression.

3. Stay calm and collected

Interviewers often observe nonverbal cues. Since the interview itself can be considered a pressure situation, answering this question in a calm and confident manner is even more important than for other questions. As you verbally express your confidence, your tone and demeanor should be fully aligned with your words. This manner may help you gain the interviewer’s trust and help them feel confident that the rest of your answers are also truthful.

4. Mention your ability to manage stress

In addition to explaining how you work effectively under pressure, also mention the methods you use to manage workplace stress. This part of your answer may show the interviewer that you can handle the effects of constant pressure and indicate that you are able to perform well. Since constant stress can have a negative effect on overall productivity, employers value team members who can find ways of relieving work-related stress.


If your manager commonly engages in presenteeism, they may expect staff to do the same

This is why hard-driving, Type A bosses might seem to lack empathy. If you think the boss could be less understanding of that flu you’ve come down with, you’re less likely to call out sick, even if you should.

But according to other research from the University of East Anglia, people who feel under pressure and severely stressed by colleagues or bosses will turn up to work when sick, as well those who are highly motivated. Employees feeling harassed or discriminated against by will feel more anxious about asking for leave.

Add your story. (Credit:Alamy)

Back to bed

It’s just a little cold, you’re thinking. It’s only been a day or so of sneezing and stuffiness, you tell yourself. And off to the office you go. But, in reality, when you are mildly sick you might be better off staying home to rest before you feel totally rotten.

Michael Tam, staff specialist in general practice at Fairfield Hospital, in Sydney, Australia advises taking time off at the beginning of a bad cold, especially if you work in an industry where you will be in close contact with lots of people, such as hospitality, or in a caring role.

Even if you work in an office, Tam offers the same advice, since staying away will prevent the spread of the illness. Got a stomach bug? Stay away from work for two days after vomiting and diarrhoea stops.

In some countries, there is no guaranteed paid sick leave. (Credit: iStock)

The pay problem

In many countries, you’re guaranteed some paid sick time by law in full-time jobs and in some permanent part-time roles, such as in Australia. In other countries, like the US and some Asian nations, there are few, if any, guarantees. So, it makes sense that in some sectors where your pay or job security depends on showing up, it’s more likely you’ll go to work ill, according to Kinman’s research.


Smart People Choke Under Pressure

People perceived as the most likely to succeed might also be the most likely to crumble under pressure.

A new study finds that individuals with high working-memory capacity, which normally allows them to excel, crack under pressure and do worse on simple exams than when allowed to work with no constraints. Those with less capacity score low, too, but they tend not to be affected by pressure.

"The pressure causes verbal worries, like 'Oh no, I can't screw up,'" said Sian Beilock, assistant professor of psychology at Miami University of Ohio. "These thoughts reside in the working memory." And that takes up space that would otherwise be pondering the task at hand.

"When they begin to worry, then they're in trouble," Beilock told LiveScience. "People with lower working-memory capacities are not using that capacity to begin with, so they're not affected by pressure."

The findings are detailed this week's issue of Psychological Science.

Working memory, also known as short-term memory, holds information that is relevant to performance and ensures task focus. It's what allows us to remember and retrieve information from an early step of a long task, such as long-division math.

"In these math problems students have to perform subtraction and division, and if you're trying to hold information in your memory and you start worrying about performance, then you can't use your entire mental capacity to do the math," Beilock explained.

The study analyzed 93 undergraduate students from Michigan State University to determine their working-memory capacities. The students were divided into two groups, a high working-memory group (HWM) and a low working-memory group (LWM). Each person was given a 24-problem math test in a low-pressure environment. The HWM group did substantially better.

Then the two groups were given the same test, but were told that they were part of a "team effort" and an improved score would earn the team a cash reward. They were also told their performance was being evaluated by math professors.

Under this higher, real world pressure situation, the HWM group's score dropped to that of the LWM group, which was not affected by the increased pressure.

Since working memory is known to predict many higher-level brain functions, the research calls into question the ability of high-pressure tests such as the SAT, GRE, LSAT, and MCAT to accurately gauge who will succeed in future academic endeavors.


How and Why We Lie at Work

Although every society condemns lying, it is still a common feature of everyday life. Research suggests that Americans average almost two lies per day, though there is huge variability between people. In fact, the distribution of lies follows Pareto’s principle: 20% of people tell 80% of the lies, and 80% of people account for the remaining 20% of lies.

So how do you deal with a coworker you suspect of lying? It depends on the type of lie, and the type of liar, you’re dealing with.

Frequent liars have two salient characteristics. First, they are morally feeble, so they don’t see lying as unethical. Second, whereas most people lie when they are under pressure (e.g., anxious, afraid, or concerned), recurrent liars do it even when they are feeling good or in control of things – because they get a kick out of it. For these reasons, studies have found that frequent liars are more likely to admit to lying. If there’s nothing wrong with it, why hide it?

If you’re dealing with a frequent liar, he or she probably has strong social skills and a fair amount of brains. For example, neuropsychological evidence suggests that lying requires higher working memory capacity, which is strongly related to IQ. As Swift said, “he who tells a lie is not sensible how great a task he undertakes for in order to uphold one lie he must invent twenty others.” Accordingly, effective lying also requires a vivid imagination, particularly when it comes to producing excuses and bending the truth studies have indicated that creative people and original thinkers can be more dishonest. As Francesca Gino and Dan Ariely have noted in their research, “a creative personality and a creative mindset promote individuals’ ability to justify their behavior, which, in turn, leads to unethical behavior.”

In addition, effective liars tend to have higher levels of emotional intelligence, which lets them manipulate emotional signs in communication, monitor their audience’s reactions, and avoid something called non-verbal leakage – when our body language doesn’t match what we’re saying.

The key point with frequent liars is not to pinpoint whether they are telling the truth, but whether we can predict what they are likely to do. I may say “I enjoy working with you,” and I could be lying. However, so long as I keep pretending that I like working with you when we work together, then who cares about how I really feel about you? When lies are based on objective facts – “I graduated from Stanford” or “I will finish this project by Monday” – then they are self-defeating, because they damage the reputation of the liars when they are found out so while it can be tempting to feel responsibility to punish the liar, recognize that simply exposing the lie may have the same effect.

Systematic liars are therefore as problematic as people who are systematically late: all you need to do is work out their typical patterns of behavior and plan around them. Unless you want them to stop lying to you, in which case you can gently expose their deceptions to show them you are not as stupid as they think.

Further Reading

HBR Guide to Office Politics

An infrequent liar has a different psychological makeup. Many of their lies are the product of insecurity. These are lies motivated by fear, and they provide temporary psychological protection to the liar’s ego. For a trivial example, when asked whether you know someone important or have read a popular book, you may instinctively answer “yes” in order to avoid rejection. But this in turn actually increases your insecurity – what if you’re found out? – which will increase your probability of continuing to lie in the future.

Such insecurity-driven lies are often an attempt to gain status – exaggerating an achievement or claiming undue credit for a project. Status-enhancing lies are also often used to establish or maintain close bonds with others, for instance by making empty promises (offering help you can’t follow through on) or framing oneself as an insider rather than an outsider (saying bad things about Joe even if you don’t mean them, just to get along with Jane.)

The best way to deal with insecure liars is to make them feel accepted. Insecure liars are extremely self-critical, so it takes time and effort to compensate for their neurotic perfectionism and make them feel appreciated. Show them that you value them for who they are, rather than who they would like to be.

Whether you are dealing with a frequent liar or an insecure liar, there are a couple of important caveats. First, remember that while most of us perceive lying as a deliberate attempt to misrepresent the truth, as Nietzsche noted, “the most common lie is that which one lies to himself lying to others is relatively an exception.” Both pathological liars and insecure liars are capable of self-deception. A great deal of psychological research suggests that people will generally act “dishonestly enough to profit, but honestly enough to delude themselves of their integrity.” Furthermore, it is quite plausible that the evolutionary basis of self-deception was to enhance our ability to deceive others, since it is much harder to persuade others of anything when we have not been able to persuade ourselves. To paraphrase George Orwell, “if you want to keep a secret you must also hide it from yourself.” And when someone is capable of distorting reality in their favor, they are not technically lying, just incapable of – or unwilling to – see the truth.

The key decision, in such situations, is whether we should help the individual see things in a different way. Truth can be taxing from a psychological point of view, when it inflicts a wound to the person’s ego. As Diderot pointed out: “We swallow greedily any lie that flatters us, but we sip only little by little at a truth we find bitter.” Before you accuse a colleague of lying, ask yourself whether he’s actually deliberately misleading others – or just sincere in a mistaken belief.

The second big caveat: not all lies are immoral. In fact, lies may be pro-social – “Mm, this is delicious!” or “Your new boyfriend seems nice,” or “That looks great on you.” Lies can even be ethical, such as when Nazis knock on the door and ask about the Jews hiding in the attic. This is why adults teach children to appreciate white lies and to develop a healthy degree of dishonesty, and why many people become “too honest” after they’ve had a couple of drinks. Indeed, successful interpersonal functioning often requires the ability to mask one’s inner feelings. Total honesty can take the form of amoral selfishness. Self-control is a moral muscle that not may inhibit not just dishonesty, but also honesty, when the goal is to behave in socially desirable or altruistic ways.

It is easy to get upset when someone lies to us, but there are many shades of dishonesty, and many motivations to lie. There are also many ways to react to a lie. Yes, you may feel insulted at being the target of deception, but reacting emotionally or confrontationally can backfire. A better approach is to politely demonstrate to the liar that they have failed to deceive you. Or just pretend to have fallen for it, which effectively means to deceive them back.


This Is The Psychological Reason Why Some People Are So Hard On Themselves

In her book Edge States, Joan Halifax explains that human beings are transformed when pushed to the boundaries of their understanding, comfort and capability. She attributes this in part to Kazimierz Dabrowski's theory of positive disintegration, which is the idea that crises and stress are not just important for psychological maturation, but usually necessary. "Living systems that break down can reorganize at a higher and more robust level," she argues. "If they learn from the breakdown experience."

Some people seem to do this naturally, seeking out wisdom and self-understanding when confronted with challenging times. Others intentionally push themselves out of their comfort zones in order to grow. This willingness to endure discomfort and capitalize on challenge is a trademark among successful, fulfilled individuals. But what really differentiates them from the rest is not only their ability to learn from their life experiences, but the depth at which they feel them in the first place.

The psychological reason why some people are so hard on themselves isn't necessarily a matter of low self-esteem. It's more likely a product of the need for affect, which is the intensity at which people want to feel anything. Positive disintegration is often correlated with a higher degree of over-excitability, which is another way to say that people who develop themselves thoroughly often feel they are in a state of crisis, whereas other people would not perceive those circumstances to be as dire, or in need of a similar response.

In his book on the psychology of superstition, Dr. Stuart Vyse explains that people who are high in their need for affect "differ in the amount of desire for feeling emotions," and that they "find the expression of emotion, even if its sadness, to be a pleasant experience." Such people are more likely to feel anxiety over everyday occurrences, or find horror movies cathartic. Most of all, they are often pushed to relentlessly better themselves. which, one could argue, is really a gift.

Though it may feel counterintuitive, the best way to take advantage of this is to actually lean into it. The Cut reported that when it comes to responding to stress and other heightened states of emotion, things like excitement and fear can look a lot alike. Alison Wood Brooks calls this "anxiety reappraisal," and argues that given how easily these experiences can easily translate into positively or negatively, it's all about what meaning we assign to them.

Supporting this theory is research from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which explains why feeling "bad" is actually essential for mental health. "People who habitually accept their emotional experiences were more likely to report greater psychological health six months later," Harvard reported on the research. " This was true regardless of gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. Further, people who accepted these emotions were less likely to respond negatively to stressors."

One of the main things that separates people who grow from challenges from people who become perpetual victims of their circumstances is their ability to approach the edge without falling off of it. In her aforementioned book, Halifax explained that "edge states" are the transformative aspects of being human that must be carefully balanced. Embracing self-criticism can only be positive in healthy doses, and if it's used for the sake of self-development, not self-degradation.

At the same time, it calls into question the way that we usually think about being honest and critical with ourselves. Maybe it's so difficult to silence our inner critics because at some level, we realize it is also our greatest teacher.


Why Do Some People Get More Stressed Than Others?

Stress, in many ways, is health enemy number one. As well as increasing our chances of developing physical health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure and even cancer, chronic stress also increases our chances of developing mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders.

Whether at work, at home, at school, or within the confines of our inner worlds, stress affects everyone. Stress, and whether it's helpful or unhelpful to us, can be visualised in an inverted u-shape. Some stress is good for us: our stress response keeps us safe from danger, gives us mental clarity, increases performance and enables us to get things done - up to a point.

These positive effects of stress go up and up (on our inverted u-shape) until they reach a critical point, beyond which all of these helpful benefits plummet and the opposite results: impaired performance, brain fog, feeling paralysed and unable to complete daily tasks.

This might all sound familiar, and is at the root of our complicated relationship with stress. We know that, at times, stress has helped us out. It might also ring true that some people simply respond differently to stress than others. And that people who seem so in control of their stress levels in some area of their life can surprise us by experiencing immense stress in another. There are various reasons why this is the case, as we explore below.

Why do some people get more stressed than others?

Goal-setting, self-worth, and stress

You might think, 'I'm only stressed about xxx, because I care so much'. This is entirely valid and goes some way to explaining why some people get more stressed than others. The value that we place on achieving our goals is central to our ability to deal with stress. It's entirely normal to feel stress generated by a work project that you care about doing well in, or passing your exams, or fighting for your relationship to survive it's also entirely normal to want to achieve your goals. However, what might separate someone who doesn't feel unhelpfully stressed in these situations, from someone that does, is self-worth. The degree to which meeting life's goals - often that we set for ourselves - relates to our sense of self dictates how stressful we will find meeting these goals, and even more so how we deal with potential failure to reach them.

If our self-worth is contingent on reaching every goal we set ourselves, then we will experience high levels of stress when we are challenged, because to fail is to mean that we aren't good enough.

Unfortunately, higher levels of stress in the face of something that we care about can actually stop us from performing optimally, thus making that utterly-dreaded failure more likely.

Circumstance and choice

Some people simply lead lives that create more opportunities for stress than others. Circumstances related to our financial stability, our relationships, whether people are dependent on us or not (whether children, partner, or an unwell relative or friend), our health, our work situation: some people's lives are more stressful than others. Key to this is the element of choice. How much autonomy a person has in their situation is central to how stressful that situation is.

Consider a person who has just accepted a long-desired position at work with extra, more stressful responsibilities vs. someone who is completely overworked due to poor management or someone who chooses to live a simplistic lifestyle with few possessions vs. someone who has that lifestyle as a result of lacking in means and opportunity. If we have chosen a certain situation for ourselves, we are more likely to benefit from it and see any stress that results as either being invigorating, or as something worth putting the effort into when we feel that we continuously have stress put upon us by forces or people outside of our control - it's not easy to thrive in such circumstances.

Personality and stress

In the psychological field, personality is often spoken about in terms of the Big Five: agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, and openness to experience. We all, if we adopt this framework, exhibit different levels of each of these five factors and that largely manifests as our personality. When it comes to stress, the key factor is neuroticism, and it's opposite: emotional stability.

Where we fall on the spectrum between neuroticism and emotional stability will go some way to determining how we deal with stress. None of us would enjoy being called neurotic, but it's simply an affective term and doesn't necessitate any judgement. If you are high in neuroticism it just means that you are likely very sensitive to internal and external stressors. On the flip side, a person high in emotional stability will be better able to view their situation with a healthy level of detachment, process what is happening to them, and take helpful action.

Our personality is thought to be 50/50 genetics and upbringing, which brings us onto the next important point.

Childhood experiences and adult stress

Our childhood experiences have been shown to affect our adult life in various ways. A lot of focus is put on the idea of attachment between the child and primary care-giver. The nature of this attachment in many ways dictates how we form relationships in adulthood, and how we respond to stress.

A secure attachment between parent and child is one characterised by warmth, attention to needs, and validating behaviours. Children who have secure attachments are more likely to grow into adults who have a good sense of self-worth, who respond to criticism in a healthy manner, and who are willing to take risks without being too afraid of failure or potential challenges.

An insecure attachment (which in attachment theory falls into either avoidant, anxious, or fearful), makes it much more likely that as adults we will respond to stressful situations in unhelpful ways. How our parents responded to our errors or emotional needs as children has a lasting impact on how we view ourselves, and our own perception of our ability to cope, as adults. An insecure attachment in childhood is related to various psychological disorders, such as anxiety and depression, to poor emotional regulation, and also to a sense that we might not be able to trust others or rely on them for support. All of these factors make coping with stress much more challenging.

It is also during childhood that we learn about our sense of choice and autonomy. 'Learned helplessness' is the psychological term used to describe when an individual has learnt, through early life experiences, that they do not have much control over their environment. Experiencing high levels of external stressors in childhood, such as growing up with neglectful parents, or those with substance abuse issues for example, or growing up in poverty, or moving house a lot, or experiencing a bereavement early in life: all of these are examples of situations that may teach a child that they do not have much control over their environment. This lack of sense of autonomy can continue into adulthood and make it much more difficult to respond to stress. We might respond in apathy or by shutting down.

Traumatic past experiences

One of the most clear demonstrations that people respond significantly differently to stress is PTSD - post-traumatic stress disorder. Some veterans sadly develop PTSD, and others who experienced and witnessed similar events do not. The same is true of other trauma: some people are better able to cope with it than others. What is common with individuals who have experienced a highly stressful or traumatic event, whether they develop diagnosed PTSD or not, is that it can affect their ability to cope with future, potentially much more mundane stressors.

If you have suffered a traumatic bereavement, been assaulted, or experienced another kind of major trauma, it can take a really long time to recover, and you may never be fully the same. While you may feel recovered in certain or even most aspects, the ability to cope with stress can be damaged as even small stresses remind us (through alarming thoughts or memories, or physical sensations) of the major stress we experienced before.

The brain and stress

Acute stress is registered in the brain through activation of the amygdala, which, through a series of actions and hormone release, triggers the 'fight or flight' response. This is extremely helpful to us and is an adaptive survival mechanism. Exposure to chronic stress, however, can change the shape of the brain and the neural pathways that dictate much of our thoughts and behaviours.

When we experience stress, even if the stressor disappears quickly, neurologically speaking something more long-term is going on. When we experience stress, the areas of our brain related to decision-making and emotional regulation fire up, as we try to work out what to do. This area of the brain is called the ventral medial pre-frontal cortex. In experiments using fMRI scans, researchers have shown that people who exhibit more activity in this area of the brain when faced with stressful stimuli report less feelings of stress. More activity in this part of the brain indicates more flexibility - or neuroplasticity - in this stress-management centre and therefore more likelihood that the individual would be able to manage their emotions and behaviours in response to stress. Less activity in this area results in more feelings of stress, as our attention is narrowed and we struggle to take in information from outside of our point of focus (i.e. we can't stop thinking about the thing causing us so much stress). When we can't distract ourselves or evaluate the spectrum of options available to us, we feel we have less choice in this way, stress perpetuates stress, and stress-related patterns of behaviour and thinking can set in.

Chronic stress also increases the size of the amygdala, the brain's anxiety centre, and increases the number of neural pathways directed to this area, meaning that long-term stress makes future stress much more difficult to deal with. While it enlarges the amygdala, chronic stress also reduces the size of the hippocampus. This is the area of the brain that is involved in memory function. Not only can this effect short-term memory, but also our ability to access our stored long-term memories which can be so helpful to us when making decisions. The hippocampus is also essential for emotional regulation and learning, and chronic stress causes it to shut down, leading to impulsive behaviours and inability to control emotions.

Chronic stress means that we have cortisol - 'the stress hormone' - running through our bodies for long periods of time. Even after a stressful event has ended, it takes a while for cortisol levels to return to normal. If you are constantly encountering stress, your cortisol levels never get the chance to properly recalibrate. Cortisol increases the levels of free radicals which damage the brain. This damage often reveals itself through 'brain fog', forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating.

Depression is thought to be related to levels of serotonin and dopamine in the brain. Chronic stress reduces our levels of these two neurotransmitters and therefore makes it much more likely that a person with long-term stress will develop depression or another mood disorder.

Different responses to stress

The following are different potentially unhelpful responses to stress, but it's important to note that we can only do the best we can in the situation we are in. There are many reasons why someone might respond to stress in the following ways, and if any of these resonate with you, you should not judge yourself too harshly.

Shutting down or detaching yourself

This can happen emotionally, mentally and physically. Under severe stress, you may find that you emotionally close off, the original stress-induced feelings of anxiety or worry instead replaced with numbness or apathy. You may also find that you have a tendency to detach yourself from people physically, spending less time with your friends or partner. You may also find that you mentally shut down, unable to access the more abstract or creative parts of your thinking. Falling asleep, or suddenly feeling immensely tired, in the face of stress is also a coping mechanism whereby the individual chooses to disengage from what is happening around them, or inside them.

Turning to substances

If we respond to stressful situations by turning to alcohol or drugs, we can become dependent on these substances and our primary response when faced with new stress might be to self-soothe using our chosen vice.

Getting angry

Anger is a complicated emotion it's also a very normal one. The problem being that often we resort to anger to mask other emotions - such as anxiety, fear, guilt or shame - as it is less painful for us to rile against the world than it is to deal with the hurt that we are feeling. Similarly with stress: if anger is our default position when our sense of self feels threatened, when we encounter a stressful situation we are more likely to lash out, with potentially longer-term consequences than the length of our flash of anger.

Self-sabotage

If we feel immensely stressed by a situation, whether work-related, our relationship, or a friendship, and we don't know how (or we simply don't want to) deal with it, we might start behaving in ways to self-sabotage. Self-sabotaging behaviours can arise in the face of stress, as a means of forcing the other people involved in the situation to make decisions on our behalf, for example, behaving in ways that pushes our partner away because we don't know how to break up with them, and we hope they might do it first.

Am I more stressed than I realise?

Many of the above responses to stress result in the same potentially dangerous issue: we don't realise how stressed we are. If we detach, push people away, turn to substances, or deflect our stress with some other short-term fix, we won't necessarily acknowledge how much stress we are under. We may manage to convince ourselves, on the conscious level at least, that we aren't in fact stressed at all. In these cases, we may stay in unhealthy relationships, or cut people off who are actually really important to us we might continue to abuse substances or become progressively more angry and eventually depressed. In our society, being busy is sometimes seen as something of a badge of honour, and stress is seen as part and parcel. Being stressed might become comforting on some level, as we begin to associate it with being successful, with working hard for our goals and with being someone who manages to 'do it all'.

Not facing up to how stressed we are means we aren't likely to do anything about it. Chronic (long-term) stress can result, and in turn can have serious health consequences, both physical and mental. Though we can, by various means, block out mental processes and thoughts that we don't want to - or aren't ready to - listen to, our body has ways that it will let us know that we are dealing with unhealthy levels of stress.

The physical symptoms of stress

  • headaches
  • heartburn / chest pains
  • muscular ache in the neck or back
  • fatigue / insomnia (hair pulling), skin-picking, or other body-focused repetitive behaviours
  • spots
  • cracked lips
  • white spots on fingernails
  • teeth grinding and / or tension in the jaw
  • frequent common colds or flu
  • digestive issues
  • lacking in energy
  • weight gain or difficulty losing weight, particularly around the mid-section
  • missed or erratic menstrual cycles in women and / or severe menstrual cramps

How can I protect myself from stress?

A lot of what is spoken about above comes down to one thing: how we interpret the situation around us. This is, in essence, what determines who struggles with stress more deeply. Stress occurs in response to external or internal stimuli this stimuli can either be interpreted as a threat (leading to stress), or an opportunity / manageable challenge. When we encounter a stressful situation, we typically make two appraisals: what is needed to cope with this situation? And, secondly, do I have the resources available to me to cope with this situation?

A person high in resilience and with a solid sense of self-worth might be more likely to answer yes to the second question, and this is the key to feeling less stressed: having the self-assurance that you do have the resources to cope with what life throws at you. It's important to remember of course that even the most resilient or emotionally stable person might not always have the resources. If you think about your resources as a stockpile of energy, tools and equipment that you can put out in to the world when you need to, we are all susceptible to running out of stock if we don't take care of ourselves. You literally cannot give more than what you have available to you, and if you try there are a multitude of potential consequences waiting to catch you eventually: burnout, relationship breakdown, mental and/or physical ill-health. Our resources can come from various sources: our social interactions, our physical health, the time we have, how supported we are, our emotional energy. So, how can we give ourselves the best possible chance of having the resources we need to deal with stress?

Exercise and diet

Exercise is a great stress-buster it floods your brain with feel-good endorphins and ensures your brain and body are getting the oxygen they need. Taking time away from a stressful situation to exercise also serves as a distraction and may enable you to make better decisions when you return to tackle whatever needs your attention. On a sunny day, try to exercise outside (this can just be a stroll around the park or block), to get a dose of much needed vitamin D.

Anti-oxidant rich foods can protect against the damage caused by free radicals created by stress and taking the time to prepare nutrient-dense food that your body and brain needs is a great part of any self-care routine. Periods of stress also deplete our nutrient stores (leading to some of the physical symptoms listed above such as cracked lips, spots, and white spots on fingernails), so it's really important to give your body the fuel it needs to perform.

Friendship and social support

With a solid social support network in place, you will be better able to deal with stress. This happens for a number of reasons. Firstly, having healthy, fulfilling friendships is good for our sense of self-worth and self-esteem. Secondly, knowing that we have people who care about us and support us makes taking risks, failing, and facing challenges much more doable. In times of stress, we might be worried about reaching out, or may not feel we have the energy. Try to nurture your friendships by staying in touch with people and trying new or well-liked activities together.

Be flexible

The first part of being more mentally flexible is to accept that stress is a part of life. Energy can be wasted fighting with thoughts of 'I shouldn't have to deal with this'. Dealing with stressful situations is hard and can be taxing, but it's unhelpful to think that you shouldn't 'have to' be dealing with stress in the first place. Things come up, people behave in unexpected ways, and this will inevitably manifest in stressful situations. Truly accepting stress as a normal part of life frees you to dedicate your energies towards moving yourself forward and beyond the stressful situation. You will become more flexible in your thinking, better able to come up with a Plan B and to let go of any resentment related to 'having to deal with it' in the first place.

Being flexible also involves accepting the things you cannot change.

Give yourself more choice

This is related to flexibility of mind in some ways: sometimes life can really throw us a curveball that makes being flexible in your thinking really, really challenging. In these circumstances, you might find that you freeze, or fall back on responding some way that you have done in the past. This isn't necessarily the best option, and might - in the long-term - compound unhelpful patterns of behaviour. Try to treat each situation with fresh eyes and a fresh mind - give yourself the choice to respond differently than you have done in the past.

Giving yourself choice might also include allowing yourself some extra time before making a decision, saying no to a social or work opportunity when you feel that you don't have the time or resources, setting boundaries in your relationships so that the domestic and emotional labour of the household and partnership is fairly shared, making sure you draw a line between work and life. Whatever your circumstances, you can make choices to improve your situation. They may be very small choices, but they have the potential for significant change.

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness meditation can help with stress management in a multitude of ways. Meditation has been shown to increase neuroplasticity, specifically in the prefrontal cortex, the area that is so important in decision-making, emotion regulation and therefore in stress management. Mindfulness also reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It also focuses on breathing, particularly the kind of belly-breathing that activates the parasympathetic nervous system. When we are stressed, our breathing becomes more shallow and tends to be focused in the chest this breathing pattern perpetuates our stress, and one way to calm our minds down and reassure our bodies that we aren't under threat is to focus on breathing into the belly, rather than the chest. This breathing calms us down. With a regular mindfulness practice, you might find you can deploy this as a technique to deal with stressful times as an when they arise.

Practicing mindfulness meditation can also help us cultivate more gratitude for the things that we have in our present situation. This stops us from thinking back regretfully for the things we perceive we have lost, and gives us pause when we are consumed by what we think we need to get / achieve / do in order to be happy and less stressed. By focusing on and nurturing how you are in this exact moment, you will find that more options come available to you. You can only start from where you are.

Talk to someone

Beyond leaning on friends and family in times of stress, talking to a professional can also help immensely. Often the stress we are experiencing involves those closest to us (such as our partners, children, friends and colleagues) and therefore it can be hard to express yourself honestly and without fear of consequence to the people in your life. Talking to a therapist can help you unpack why you respond to stress the way you do, and help you build healthier, more effective long-term coping strategies. Particularly cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) might help in terms of learning to challenge the harmful thought patterns that keep you stuck in a state of stress, unable to move forward. You can start your search for the right therapist here.


Study: Athletes Perform Better Under Pressure When They Make a Fist With Their Left Hand

PROBLEM: Thirty percent of penalty kicks in professional soccer are missed, as are 20-30 percent of NBA free throws, despite practice scenarios in which those numbers are notably lower. Studies have suggested that the reason is primarily psychological -- they fail not from lack of focus, but "because attention is directed toward the execution of the action" -- since most perform better at these rote but accuracy-dependent aspects of the game (which they've nearly perfected from a mechanical aspect with thousands of hours of practice) in low-pressure situations. So, like so many of us, they're always looking for ways to get out of their heads.

According to the researchers, freaking out is primarily associated with the left hemisphere of the brain, while the right hemisphere deals more with mechanical actions. Meanwhile the cortex of the right hemisphere controls movements of the left side of the body, and the left hemisphere controls the right side of the body. So they figured that if you can purposely activate the right hemisphere -- in this case, by making a fist or squeezing a ball with your left hand -- it will improve physical performance and draw focus away from the ruminating left hemisphere.


METHODOLOGY: In three experiments, German researchers had athletes perform their respective sports -- soccer (penalty kicks), tae kwon do, and badminton -- in casual environments. They then put them in front of large audiences or cameras to create "high-pressure environments" and measured the change in performance. Some of the athletes made fists with their left hand (or held a small ball in their left hand), and some made fists with their right.

Of note, only right-handed athletes were involved.

RESULTS: Athletes who made a fist with their left hand did better under pressure than when they made a fist with their right hand -- and often as well as in the low-pressure practice scenarios.

CONCLUSION: "Hemisphere-specific priming" appears to discourage over-thinking in high-pressure situations. Activating the right hemisphere of the brain by doing a simple action with the left side of the body (making a fist, in this case) appears to negate context-related declines in complex motor performance.

IMPLICATIONS: Lead researcher Juergen Beckmann, PhD, put it pretty profoundly: "Consciously trying to keep one's balance is likely to produce imbalance." Simple (brain-hemisphere-dependent) tasks that activate motor portions of the brain while drawing activity away from the ruminating portions can help experienced athletes perform (in terms of accuracy and complex body movements done from muscle memory) without being messed up by nerves. "Just let it happen be the ball."

Will all the professional soccer players be making fists with their left hands next time they take a penalty kick? Yes. They should, at least.

Let's all try it, too. Even if you don't play soccer (or badminton or tae kwon do), it should apply beyond sports, to other rote activities that have to be done under pressure. Like when you end up bagging your own groceries, and everyone in line is staring at you, and produce is flying down the conveyor belt, but you need to keep the bread on top. And the bottles on the bottom. And the bread on the bottom. No, that's wrong! Breathe, clench your left foot, and just let it happen.

The study, "Preventing Motor Skill Failure Through Hemisphere-Specific Priming: Cases From Choking Under Pressure" will be published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.


The Crucial Question

Why do we work? Why do we drag ourselves out of bed every morning instead of living lives composed of one pleasure-filled adventure after another? What a silly question. We work because we have to make a living. Sure, but is that it? Of course not. When you ask people who are fulfilled by their work why they do the work they do, money almost never comes up. The list of non-monetary reasons people give for doing their work is long and compelling.

Satisfied workers are engaged by their work. They lose themselves in it. Not all the time, of course, but often enough for that to be salient to them. Satisfied workers are challenged by their work. It forces them to stretch themselves—to go outside their comfort zones. These lucky people think the work they do is fun, often in the way that doing crossword puzzles or Sudoku is fun.

Why else do people work? Satisfied people do their work because they feel that they are in charge. Their work day offers them a measure of autonomy and discretion. And they use that autonomy and discretion to achieve a level of mastery or expertise. They learn new things, developing both as workers and as people.

These people do their work because it’s an opportunity for social engagement. They do many of their tasks as part of teams, and even when they’re working alone, there are plenty of opportunities for social interaction during work’s quiet moments.

Finally, these people are satisfied with their work because they find what they do meaningful. Potentially, their work makes a difference to the world. It makes other people’s lives better. And it may even make other people’s lives better in ways that are significant.

Of course, few occupations have all these features, and none, I suspect, have all these features all the time. But features of work like these are what get us out of the house, get us to bring work home with us, encourage us to talk about our work with others, and make us reluctant to retire. We wouldn’t work if we didn’t get paid, but that’s not at the core of why we do what we do. And in general, we think that material rewards are a pretty bad reason for working. Indeed, when we say of someone that “he’s in it for the money,” we are not merely being descriptive we’re passing judgment.

These diverse sources of satisfaction from work raise some very big questions. Why is it that for the overwhelming majority of people in the world, work has few or none of these attributes? Why is it that for most of us, work is monotonous, meaningless, and soul deadening?

Why is it that as capitalism developed, it created a model for work in which opportunities for the nonmaterial satisfactions that might come from it—and inspire better work—were reduced or eliminated? Workers who do this kind of work—whether in factories, fast-food restaurants, order-fulfillment warehouses, or indeed, in law firms, classrooms, clinics, and offices—do it for pay.

Try as they might to find meaning, challenge, and room for autonomy, their work situation defeats them. The way their work is structured means that there really is little reason to do these jobs except for pay.

According to a massive report published in 2013 by Gallup, the Washington, D.C.-based polling organization, there are twice as many “actively disengaged” workers in the world as there are “engaged” workers who like their jobs.

Gallup has been measuring international employee satisfaction for almost two decades. In total it has polled 25 million employees in 189 different countries. The latest version gathered information from 230,000 full-time and part-time workers in 142 countries. Overall, Gallup found that only 13% of workers feel engaged by their jobs. These people feel a sense of passion for their work and they spend their days helping to move their organizations forward.

The vast majority of us, some 63%, are not engaged. We are checked out, sleepwalking through our days, putting little energy into our work. And the rest of us are actively disengaged, actually hating our jobs.

In other words, work is more often a source of frustration than one of fulfillment for nearly 90% of the world’s workers. Think of the social, emotional, and perhaps even economic waste that this statistic represents. Ninety% of adults spend half their waking lives doing things they would rather not be doing at places they would rather not be.

The questions Gallup asks capture many of the reasons for work I just listed. The opportunity to do our work “right,” to do our best, to be encouraged to develop and learn, to feel appreciated by coworkers and supervisors, to feel that our opinions count, to feel that what we do is important, and to have good friends at work are all aspects of work that the survey taps. And for the overwhelming majority of people, work falls short—very short. The question is why?

Why We Work (September 2015) is published by Simon & Schuster/TED.