Sometimes not coping with pressure makes sense

Footy finals time and I am constantly impressed at how well professional athletes cope with the extreme pressure of the game. In addition to the high stakes nature of the competition, these athletes must also navigate daily stressors like constant scrutiny and expectations of perfection which are broadcast widely when not met. The Paul Gallen’s and Jonathon Thurston’s of the world are also men who must also deal with day-to-day challenges like balancing work and family commitments, having arguments with loved ones and facing uncertainty of employment (well, maybe not JT…) It’s not surprising when individual sports stars encounter multiple problems at once, they have a human response. Think Kieran Foran or Benny Barber. For these men, it wasn’t just one issue that undid them, but facing problems in multiple life domains: work, family, and health. These men are incredible, but not invincible.

Think about it. When was the last time you really felt overwhelmed? I’m sure the worst times have been when you felt you were fighting (losing) battles on multiple fronts. Problems with a colleague at work at the same time that you have an injury stops you from going to the gym and trouble paying this month’s mortgage due to raise in interest rates. Multiple issues in different domains.

Stress and pressure are accumulative. A good definition of either of these is “when the demands of the environment exceed your resources to met them”. You see, we each have a finite capacity to manage stress or pressure. You can think about it like revs on the car. Each demand puts the revs up and if you are not able to bring the revs back down what happens? You sit right on the red. And then it only takes a little friction point to push you over the edge. That’s when you see a massive emotional response to an event that seems trivial in hindsight. This is what “not coping” feels like.

Not coping for periods of time is normal. It’s like the mental health equivalent of a common cold – pretty uncomfortable but you will probably recover with a bit of rest. The risk is that an individual sits right on the red for a prolonged period. Like 6 months or 12 months. That’s when the onset of a mental illness becomes more likely.

 

So what puts the revs up? Pretty much everything that demands attention and some things more than others. The most common situations that put the revs up include:

  • The breakdown of a relationship
  • Uncertainty at work, particularly if you may be made redundant
  • Conflict with colleagues (including being bullied)
  • Role overload – more work than you can possibly get done
  • Poor health (injuries, illnesses in you or family)
  • The death of a loved one
  • Getting married. (Seriously.)

Is pressure real or is it just all in your head? Both yes and no but mostly no. Sometimes it’s our perceptions of demands that exaggerate the problem, like wanting to deliver a perfect solution at work when our boss has already said “get it done, it doesn’t have to be pretty”. Mostly though stress and pressure objectively difficult. There is a tangible loss if something isn’t done well (e.g. your job, reputation, status or relationship). Our perceptions can exaggerate the extent to which we perceive that loss as catastrophic. The other thing is, you want someone to care about the loss. The best footy captain is the one who cares deeply about winning, and about the squad. If he (or she) cared less, their performance would not be as good. The cost to that is the pressure they experience. This is true for the NRL as well as for a junior comp.

So, how do I get over it? There are no quick fixes to dealing with pressure and I strongly encourage you that if you want to improve in this area, speak to a psychologist. They are the experts in this field. What I tell my clients is:

  • Have a good work-life balance so that all of your “eggs” are not in the one basket (and that basket goes pear-shaped)
  • Figure out how to switch off. This could be through practical activities like playing a sport or mastering mindfulness.
  • Have friends and hang out with them. Sounds a little basic, right? But what’s the first thing you cut away when you feel you are not coping? Friends, right? Spending time with people you like is critical.
  • Keep your eye on the prize. What are the long term goals you are working towards?
  • Learn how to tolerate suffering. Can you tolerate the discomfort that comes from pursuing the goals above? If not, learn how to.
  • Exercise. Your body responds to pressure like it’s facing a physical threat (e.g. sabre-tooth tiger). The best response to this is exercise.healthy-light-woman-legs
  • Make sure your tempo is sustainable and if it isn’t, make sure it’s temporary.

Some people are born with the ability to manage extreme amounts of pressure, but for most of us it’s a learnt skill. But sometimes it doesn’t matter how hardy you are if the demands exceed the resources. Reach out for help when you know you are approaching the red zone and take action. And if you feel like you are not coping for more than 2 weeks at a time, speak to your GP or a psychologist.


Melissa is the principal psychologist at the Parramatta Psychology Clinic. She has worked with high performance individuals including soldiers in Afghanistan, sports teams, and corporate leaders. She can be contacted at psychologist@parramattapsychologyclinic.com.au.


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