BEing Blog 17 – The Pressure Cooker of Life
Pressure is one of the words we use to describe the demands placed on us by the requirements of our roles, our employers, stakeholders, our families, and possibly most of all, ourselves. Pressure is another word for stress. The Oxford English Dictionary online definition defines stress as:
‘a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.’
Psychology today concurs that:
‘Stress generally refers to two things: the psychological perception of pressure, on the one hand, and the body’s response to it, on the other, which involves multiple systems, from metabolism to muscles to memory.’
Pressure isn’t the issue – pressure is simply a spectrum of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators that create movements, or action. Without pressure there is no action, everything is static, without pressure we wouldn’t survive. There would be no intrinsic pressure from our brain telling us it was time to eat, no motivation to move. So, survival requires pressure.
When pressure becomes unhealthy and unmanageable, we risk the vast physical and mental consequences of stress including chronic anxiety, overwhelm, burn out, and breakdown.
Many of us live performing under huge pressure; pressure to deliver outcomes, pressure for excellence, high demands for accuracy, perfection even, in an imperfect world with imperfect information and resources.
At times of crisis – usually when we are faced with a left-field, unexpected, unwelcomed event or situation – the pressure of high performance, builds: focus narrows even further, and the demands placed on us grow – we feel the pressure building. Biologically our brain is instructing our adrenal gland to dump more cortisol and adrenaline in our system, in readiness for a fight for our survival.
These hormones surge through the entire body, speeding heartbeat and the circulation of blood for action, mobilizing fat and sugar for fast energy, focusing attention to track the danger, and preparing muscles for movement.
This biological response to pressure is universal and experienced by every species on the planet.
We as humans have the ability to engage our left (thinking) side of the brain, at a time when the right (emotional) side of the brain is fighting hard for dominance. When we are able to remain in our logical, thinking brain we increase conscious decision making, leaving our choices and actions less to change by removing some of the power of the subconscious and the history of our past experience.
We are under massive pressure – we get uncomfortable – and we take action.
We often don’t think about our reaction to crisis or pressure as a choice, or at least not at a conscious decision-making level. We leave it to habit, and what has worked for us in the past. However, if we stop to unpick the process we can see that there are three choices we can make each time we are faced with a challenge: two of these require our thinking brain to get into gear, the third is more instinctual and is activated by our ancient, primal instinctual brain.
Our choices are: to persist, to pivot, or to escape.
Persisting is where we push through the discomfort, and maintain the trajectory despite the level of pressure and discomfort we are experiencing. It is a conscious, intent-ful decision to endure the stress of the situation, to stretch the threshold of comfort, and to survive the experience. This is where we build our capability and our resilience. It is the learning zone, and the stretch drives the changes in our brains wiring, where we become more ready and able to deal effectively with crisis in the future, as long as we stay under threshold!
The more often we expose ourselves to pressure and survive, the more we strengthen the neural pathways (our memories) that pressure is survivable, the better we become at preforming under pressure, and the more resilient we are.
New conditions force us to face new tests, new challenges, to read the signs and adjust. This is where pressure sparks innovation, we change the trajectory, and create something new. Innovation through creative thinking finds new ways to solve old problems and takes a risk to find solutions for problems that have never been part of our history. The pivot is powerful, it unlocks new possibilities, and is driven by human creativity. The creative process universally enhances performance, engages individuals, improves outcomes, and drives the action to pivot.
When the going gets too tough, our brain activates the fight/flight/freeze response to stresses that risk our very survival. Our brain has one primary role and that is to ensure survival of the organism – US! Really there is no choice in the need to get out, by the time our ancient brain system is in charge, and adrenaline and cortisol is coursing your veins, your respiration has responded, blood has been redirected to major organs and muscles – you are no longer in charge!
Now, this is incredibly useful when you need super-human strength to face a tiger, or to outrun an enemy, but unfortunately many people are living in a constant state of high alert while perfectly safe and sound in their comfortable homes and workplaces. This is where our cup of life (link to blog) has overflowed; breakdown, meltdown, or shut down is imminent. Performance at any level, let alone peak performance is unobtainable. Here we have post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic anxiety, depression – we are over threshold and need support in dumping stuff out of our cup so we can find space to rest and reset.
Both persist and pivot are learning, stretching pressures that get us out of our comfort zone and moving into our potential. Whereas, here we are flailing out in the wilderness and need to find a way back to comfort and safety.