How To Tell If You’re Under Stress Or Under Pressure

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Like you, I often hear people say, “Oh, I’m under so much pressure!”

When I hear this, I generally ask them what’s going on. And often the answer is something like, “Oh, nothing specific. Politics, paying the bills, this cold I can’t seem to shake. You know, just general stuff.”

What they’re actually feeling is stress, not pressure. Let’s look at the difference.

Is what you’re feeling stress or is it pressure? Here’s how to tell the difference. #ProducingUnderPressure Share on X

Stress is like the gray, overcast sky; it’s a state of being. Pressure is like the sudden, violent thunderstorm; it’s an event.

Stress is working for an overbearing boss. Pressure is delivering the quarterly update report to that overbearing boss.

Stress is having in-laws who don’t like you. Pressure is cooking Thanksgiving dinner for those in-laws.

So how can you tell if what you’re experiencing is stress or pressure? Just run your situation through the Three Criteria of a Pressure Point.

1. Importance of the Outcome

If you don’t care about the outcome, there’s really no pressure, is there? If professional tennis means nothing to you, then you feel no pressure at all about the outcome of the Australian Open (if you’re even aware of it). But if you’re Roger Federer, and you’re playing in the finals of the Australian Open, you’re probably feeling a significant amount of pressure. So Question #1: Is the outcome important to you (and to what degree)?

2. Uncertainty of the Outcome

Okay, let’s say that, once again, you’re Roger Federer. Only this time, instead of playing in the finals of the Australian Open, you’re playing the number three player on the junior varsity team of Beaumont Middle School in Lexington, Kentucky. Even if, for some reason that’s difficult to fathom, this match is an important one, the outcome is never seriously in doubt. Result: You/Federer feel little to no pressure. Question #2: Is the outcome uncertain (and to what degree)?

3. Your Responsibility for the Outcome

I don’t feel a lot of pressure when I’m watching Roger Federer play in the finals of the Australian Open. I may feel some anxiety, and I may have a vested interest in the outcome (especially if I’ve made a bet on the match). But there’s no pressure on me, because I’m not responsible for the results. I may hope for one result over another, but there’s no personal accountability. Question #3: Are you personally responsible for the outcome (and to what degree)?

The 3 Components of Pressure: importance, uncertainty, and responsibility. #ProducingUnderPressure Share on X

So, with these criteria in mind, let’s revisit that quarterly update report that you have to deliver for your overbearing boss.

Question #1: Is the outcome important to you? Unless you’re about to quit anyway, yes, I’m guessing the outcome is pretty important to you.

Question #2: Is the outcome uncertain? I dunno. It depends on how well prepared you are, what your past experience is in situations like this, the status of your work relationship with your boss, and a host of other variables. Only you know the answer to this one.

Question #3: Are you personally responsible for the outcome? Yep. This is Shark Tank, and you’re in the hot seat. (Unless, of course, it’s a group report, in which case the pressure is spread around. But if you’re the team leader, the bulk of the pressure still lands on you.)

The difference between stress and pressure is important because, although there are some overlaps, the solutions to each are different.

So the next time you say, “I’m under so much pressure,” ask yourself the three questions. Maybe you’re not under that much pressure after all!


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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