Stress, Pressure or Failure

Nasser Salehinia, PhD| May 8th, 2021

Knowing the differences between stress and pressure is key to optimum performance. However,we often use stress and pressure interchangeably, and since both of them are viewed as undesirable feelings, we naturally resist them.

Let’s look at how the brain relates to stress and pressure.

Resistance pushes the brain into a fight or flight mode; the mind goes into crisis mode and thus shift away from productive thinking. Therefore, we frequently equate the feelings of stress as having failed in what we are trying to accomplish.

There is however a clear distinction between stress and pressure. Recognizing the difference between the two is key to sidestepping the cascade of adverse psychological and physiological effects that our brains create, which act as a barrier to our well-being and progress.


How do we experience stress? We experience stress when we assume that the demands of our lives exceed our ability to effectively respond to them. The demands can come from external sources such as workload, responsibilities, people, etc. Or they can be demands we put on ourselves such as I need to…, I must…, I have to…, etc.

When we feel this emotional overload, the brain produces stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline to alarm us of a situation that may endanger our physical or emotional well-being. In doing so, the brain’s intent is to motivate us to take some kind of action in order to avert the potential danger in such a way that our physical and emotional survival can be preserved.

This is when our internal fight or flight, flight or freeze response system becomes activated, and our ability to think and decide clearly becomes cloudy.


Pressure, on the other hand, means that we perceive something at stake is dependent on the outcome of our performance and may produce undesired results if we don’t deliver properly.

We have two choices when feeling pressured. First, to equate pressure with stress and the negative byproducts of stress. Second, view pressure as a challenge or a learning opportunity to stretch ourselves beyond our current capabilities. Selecting the second option enables us to sidestep the negative side effects of stress and in fact, become energized in order to perform to the best of our abilities.

The Consequences of Confusing Stress and Pressure

Whenever we try anything new, from taking a walk in a new neighborhood to trying unfamiliar food, we produce some degree of tension throughout our systems. This is natural for the brain since it hasn’t yet created neural pathways to handle unfamiliar experiences.

There is however an important fact to consider: a sense of tension or pressure is natural in just about any undertaking.

When we don’t recognize the critical difference between stress and pressure, we interpret every small inconvenience in our daily lives as a stressful situation. This leads to the imbalance throughout our system and takes a toll on our clear thinking and performance because it depresses valuable psychological and physical resources.

Natural Driving Forces

Tension or pressure is a natural driving force needed for nearly any change we attempt to achieve. Let’s use an experiment to demonstrate.

Pick up a rubber band, then put it the palm of one hand, and observe how in this relaxed state the band is free of tension.

Now hold one end of the rubber band with two fingers, and stretch it by pulling the band outward with two fingers of your other hand. In doing so, you are creating tension in the band’s structure.

Holding the band away from your face, let go of one of the ends. This will make the band leap through the air in either a forward or backward direction.

Thus stretching and stressing the formerly resting rubber provides the propelling force without which it would have remained in the same position.

The same principle applies to us. When we attempt anything new, practically wanting to develop ourselves beyond where we are now, we unconsciously stretch ourselves. This challenges our existing thoughts and disturbs our comfort zones

In doing so we are creating internal tension needed as a propelling force.

This is key: when we stretch ourselves based on the desired direction, we propel ourselves forward. But when stress pushes us to stretch, we experience tension, anxiety and propel ourselves backward.

What leads us to view tension or pressure as either limiting or advancing is the source of our thoughts. When our thoughts lead us to view tension as limiting, we try to lower it by telling ourselves feel-good stories: “it’s ok, look at the positive side, go shopping, have a drink, watch TV, tomorrow will be a brighter day,” and other dismissive slogans.

But by trying to fix the natural tension arising from our desire to grow, we essentially create an opposing force that undermines our efforts.

Natural tension is needed as propelling energy. We create opposing forces and undermine our efforts when we try to artificially reduce it. All we need to do is to change how we view and interpret stress.

According to research from the Hardiness Research Lab at the University of California Irvine, “Those who view stress as inevitable in life events thrive. People who thrive, instead of trying to avoid stress, look for effective ways to engage with it, adapt to it, and learn from it.”

“When we attempt anything new, we unconsciously challenge our existing thoughts and disturb our comfort zones.”

Multiple studies show that by consciously bringing our stress-response under control lowers the level of stress hormones we release in our minds and bodies.

By consciously choosing how we perceive our thoughts, we can experience stress or pressure, rather than as paralyzing, as a force for thriving.