If you ever want to see the effects sustained pressure has on a human being, look no further than our world leaders. A few years in office and most of them look like they have aged a good ten—twenty years. Now, most of us don’t have the weight of the world on our shoulders, it just feels that way. Whether it’s at work or at home we all have to learn how to deal with pressure better.
Why some people handle pressure better
I have a love—hate relationship with pressure. Taking timed tests in school used to send me into hysterics but I simultaneously loved it. Okay, I loved it if I did a good job. Otherwise, it was a worthless experiment in torture. Still, there were those infuriating children who seemed to be calm and composed no matter what. What did they have that I didn’t?
Catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) is a gene necessary for the production of an enzyme that helps to remove dopamine from the prefrontal cortex. The PFC is that thinking, decision making control center of your brain. You want to clear dopamine from it in order to maintain regular functioning of your brain parts. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in charge of our reward, motivation, and pleasure center.
There are two variants of the COMT gene. Most of us end up with one of each from our parents, but some of us get two of the same kind of COMT variant gene. When this happens you either become what researchers call, a “Warrior” or a “Worrier”. According to the New York Times, about a quarter of us are worriers and another quarter are warriors.
Warrior: Removes dopamine quickly, but this is bad for cognition because the prefrontal cortex just can’t keep up.
Worrier: Doesn’t remove dopamine fast enough, but this excess dopamine helps you plan better.
What does the COMT gene have to do with how we deal with pressure?
Researchers looked at 779 students in Taiwan who were about to take one of the largest, most stressful test of their lives. The test would determine where and if they would attend senior high school. To say there is a lot of pressure to perform well on this exam would be a monumental understatement.
I assumed that the students who removed too much dopamine would be disadvantaged because their cognition would be compromised. Conversely, I also assumed that the surge in dopamine would be good for the students, but of course I was wrong.
Instead, the students with more dopamine in their PFC ended up being incredibly vulnerable to the pressures of the exam. The excess dopamine allowed stress to flush the body and the brain, making it much more difficult to work and initiating their fight or flight response. The end result was an 8% point difference between these students and the students whose brains removed dopamine quickly.
When stress floods the brain, our attentional resources suffer, our motor capabilities suffer and our breathing and heart rates increase. What ends up happening is that people who would normally do well, falter because of the high pressure situation they find themselves in.
Threat State v Challenge State
Math tests used to send me into a state of near catatonic shock. I am not speaking hyperbole when I say that my teachers were utterly baffled by just how poorly I could do on a math test. Before the test I always noticed how cold I was. What was that about?
My body was in what is known as a “threat state”. In a threat state, the blood vessels constrict, the blood pressure drops, and fear floods the brain (thanks to the amygdala). You become acutely aware of your mistakes and shortcomings in this state.
Then there were those students who loved math, they not only loved it, they excelled at it. They would walk into the classroom the day of a test incredibly proud, confident. Shoulders open, excellent posture, they were ready to take on the world. They were in a “challenge state.”
The challenge state allows oxygen to flow freely through out their body, their blood is pumping, their lungs are open, hormones in the brain actually suppress the fear networks. All of this leads to better performance both mentally and physically.
Most of the time, we are not even aware that this process is happening. It occurs unconsciously, but the result of this impacts our abilities quite significantly. So how the hell can you stop your threat state from messing everything up?
Tips for Handling Pressure Like a Pro
Whether its deadlines at work or personal goals you want to achieve, many of us live under a constant pressure state. You can’t rewrite your genetic code, but you can rewire it—in a manner of speaking.
Develop a simple routine You know how people in the 90s always used those foam stress balls? Well, they may have been onto something. Squeezing a ball in your non-dominant hand can actually help you not “choke” under pressure. Why is this?
Before we are asked to perform, most of us overthink what we are going to do. Take professional athletes, these individuals are no doubt gifted in their particular skill-set. They practice for hours a day, and yet sometimes, they can’t seem to perform when it matters the most. That’s because they aren’t allowing for the automated part of your brain to do what it does best.
“Many movements of the body can be impaired by attempts at consciously controlling them.”—Juergen Beckmann, PhD
When you bring in too much conscious awareness, you can do more harm then good. By performing a simple routine—like squeezing a ball—with your non-dominant hand, you involve the opposite side of your brain. This can help alleviate some pressure by placing your mental focus elsewhere.
Facilitate your own challenge state
Do you ever do the thing where you read instructions 100 times because it inexplicably makes you feel better? Well, that’s about to be ….explicable.
Remember that threat versus challenge state? Individuals in the threat state perceive a psychological and/or physical danger and therefore perform poorly. Researchers found that you can foster a challenge state by deemphasizing the difficulty of a task. It’s all about how you frame it.
If a teacher were to tell you that the test you were about to take was going to affect you for the rest of your life, you are going to be put in a threat state. If, however, you were given that same test, and the teacher told you the top scorer would get extra credit…you would be placed in a challenge state.
Students who read a statement on a test stating some anxiety was beneficial to test taking increased their scores by an average of 50 points. It’s not about saying to yourself “Don’t be nervous” it’s about using that nervous energy to your advantage. Give yourself an incentive to perform, challenge yourself and you will be surprised at what you are able to accomplish.
Train away your worries
Worriers can actually perform well (they can even outperform warriors), with a little extra training. It’s like going to a study group even if you’ve already studied by yourself. You may know the material well enough, but there’s always something extra covered in the study group that you might not have been able to access on your own. A few extra hours of training (whether it be in a class or a skill) can help you feel that confidence you need in your abilities to overcome the worrier side.
You would think that how you handle pressure is predisposed but that’s not true. You can control how your body responds to pressure by developing a simple stress-mitigating routine, training for what you want to accomplish, and facilitating your own challenge state. Pressure isn’t a bad thing and we don’t have to be afraid of it. When you realize that you can control how pressure affects you, you can use it to propel and motivate yourself.