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Pressure vs. Stress

Kelly Olive

Guest Q&A Interview with Sara Ross from the Institute for Health and Human Potential

PR typically makes numerous “Top 10 Most Stressful Jobs” lists each year. And although I’ve heard many-a-time in my career, “It’s PR, not ER – this isn’t life and death”, it’s pretty easy to feel like it is in the heat of a major campaign, RFP or activation.

Until our recent company retreat, I hadn’t thought about the difference between stress and pressure. But our guest speaker, Sara Ross, Senior Research Consulting Partner with IHHP (Institute for Health and Human Potential), focuses on this exclusively. Sara’s presentation to the Proof teams from Toronto, Ottawa, Washington and our Proof Experiences colleagues was, for me and many others, enlightening.


So in this follow-up Q&A with Sara, I’m hoping to share with those of you who weren’t in attendance what we learned about how to better manage pressure and stress in a world full of deadlines and deliverables.

Kelly: What happens in our bodies when we experience pressure?

Sara: Cortisol is a stress chemical our body releases when we are worried or feel we’re being judged by others. Cortisol loading in our system makes us less productive and creative, causing a “crash”-type feeling after it’s left our body. We need some cortisol to create “ah-ha” moments, but if we have too much for too long, we become overloaded. This is why we need time to reset, relax, disconnect. Did you know that we process feelings of rejection, embarrassment, and loneliness in the same part of our brain as we process physical pain?  What this means is we’re actually hardwired to care about what people think.

Kelly: You mentioned there’s a difference between stress and pressure – how can we differentiate?

Sara: Stress is the lead-up to the big event, and pressure is what we experience at that moment. We experience stress moments when no one else is paying attention when we’re overwhelmed.  Pressure is the tension we feel during a moment we perceive as important, uncertain, and when we feel we’re being judged by others. Pressure moments are when you really do need to perform because there’s something at stake. If we waste all of our mental, cognitive, emotional energy on stressful moments, we don’t have the energy or resources left to perform when it really counts. That is why being able to differentiate between the two is so important.

Kelly: Many marketers operate under the misunderstanding that better work is done under pressure. What is your view on that?

Sara: Some pressure is good – it helps us focus, consolidate thoughts and avoid procrastination. But there’s a difference between pre-event stress and in-the-moment pressure. If we leave things to the 11th hour, research shows we don’t do our best. Teresa M. Amabile, a Baker Foundation Professor and Director of Research at Harvard Business School, has uncovered that when we’re under pressure, we do get more done, but less great (i.e. creative) work is achieved. This is because we’re: more likely to pick the first idea, not the best idea; less likely to be collaborative; less open to feedback, and more likely to miss errors and information.

Kelly: What are your tips for keeping calm in high-pressure situations?

Sara: We really have to live in the moment.  It’s the only way to maintain perspective. Pressure and perspective aren’t always friends, but we have to force them to work together.  It’s natural for us to magnify everything, worry about what we can’t control, and focus on who is judging us. Seeing the situation as an opportunity to grow versus a crisis to survive and putting things into perspective – at the moment when cortisol is flowing – will help us to learn over time that not everything is worthy of a crisis-type response.

We can manage our cortisol by taking a break and breathing, taking that balance time we need.  We can look at pressure as an opportunity to focus in on things we CAN control. I like pressure. I like to know that I’ll walk into a room and people may be skeptical. We can also aim for excellent – or great – rather than perfect. Practice for perfect, but excellent is attainable and allows us to keep getting better.

Kelly: Lastly, what is your favourite quote?

Sara: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” But if I can have two, “You can’t make everyone happy, you’re not pizza,” is a close second.