The Anatomy of Pressure

In the Challenge of Change Resilience Training we dispense with the conventional idea of ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’ stress. The distinction makes no sense – if they’re both called stress, how do you know the difference? We resolve the issue by distinguishing instead between pressure and stress, which is not mere wordplay: pressure can be defined precisely, as a demand to perform.

There is always pressure. A simple practical example that we use in the book describing the Challenge of Change (Work Without Stress – McGraw-Hill, 2017) is being woken up in the morning by your alarm. The demand is to get up and go to work – pressure, but no stress. If you oversleep and have to rush madly to get to work in time, the pressure has increased, but still no stress. You arrive late and your boss makes some critical remark in front of your colleagues. Many people would say that was stressful, but in fact it will only be stressful if you spend the next hours or days ruminating pointlessly about what your colleagues think about you, or catastrophizing about being sacked.

In other words, stress is not caused by external factors: you don’t have a stressful boss or job, they’re only experienced as stressful to the extent that you ruminate about the emotional upset you feel about them. Training participants will sometimes object, saying that we’ve made stress an entirely personal response and have exonerated management, but this isn’t the case. Management have a clear duty of care towards their staff, and we define that care as bosses not giving their people anything to ruminate about – a principle which the manager in our example had clearly ignored. Indeed, our research has shown that managers who receive the highest ratings by their direct reports are characterized by being able to deal with issues objectively while at the same time remaining sensitive to the emotional impact on their staff.

Let’s take this a step further by refining what we call pressure. It remains true that stress is an internal process of ruminating about emotional upset, but pressure can exceed an individual’s capacity to avoid ruminating about it. We described this in an earlier blog (Blog 41, ‘Carried Over the Threshold’) and illustrated it with the example of post-traumatic stress. Even after major events relatively few people actually end up suffering from PTSD, but for those who do, the emotional intensity has pushed them over their threshold. We can apply this principle to everyday stress as well. Take our simple example above. Everyone would agree that being woken by an alarm isn’t stressful, but as you progress through the stages of the story an increasing number of people (again, not all!) would say that the situation had become ‘stressful’. In other words, the fear of being late, or worse still actually arriving late and being told off, would exceed their threshold for starting to ruminate.

We can now usefully make a distinction between positive pressure, which motivates you, increases your interest and gets you going, and negative pressure which is more likely to lead to stress. Stress remains rumination and nothing else, but there is an interaction between external factors like being late and your response to them: your conditioning has determined the threshold at which you’re likely to start ruminating about the situations you’re exposed to.

Conditioning is habitual behaviour, and habits can be changed by practising different ways of responding. The Challenge of Change Training is aimed at increasing your resilience by providing the strategies to avoid ruminating; these are the four steps of waking up, controlling attention, becoming detached and letting go. Perfecting them will change the habitual way you respond. Diligent practise will steadily raise your personal threshold, and what you might once have thought was stressful will be seen instead for what it is: pressure.