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Stress and pressure from a different angle

An industry has arisen out of our search for well-being; to experience less stress…we need to eat better, sleep better, exercise more, meditate, be a better person. There are over 100,000 self-help books on Amazon; or shelf-help books as a friend of mine calls them.

Unfortunately, the concept of ‘better’ lulls us into a false belief that doing something different can permanently restore those feelings of natural resourcefulness and resilience. If it hasn’t worked, we just need to find another technique! The truth is that those natural feelings never leave us, it’s who we are but we cover them up with contaminated thinking.

I was reading one of these ‘self-help’ books recently for a business book club that I’m a member of. The book’s purpose – to help the reader better handle stress in order to perform more effectively under pressure. There were a number of tools and techniques for the reader to practice. These involved a lot of hard work – think Jonny Wilkinson practicing his goal kicking for the 2003 Rugby World cup to get the idea.

However, towards the end of the book I hit upon a quote of pure gold that really touched me…
“As children, we had no fear about failure, no anxieties about performing under pressure. We didn’t really understand what pressure was – we’d have a go at something and if it didn’t work, we’d simply try again. We’d throw ourselves into learning without thought of the outcome. We were close to perfect in this way: constantly in the moment, always growing and developing. But as we became adults, we learned about pressure. We learned about failure and its consequences. Many of us grew to fear it, to do what we can to avoid it.” Dave Alred, The Pressure Principle.

What a great starting point to help us gain a better understanding of our mental health and well-being. The question we should be asking surely then is “how do we reawaken those childlike qualities within us so that once again we experience that same wonderment at life?” This is where true resilience lies.

The question, however, that most authors seem to focus on is “what tools and techniques can we add to an already overloaded mind to help us manage the situation?” It doesn’t make sense once you see that the real issue isn’t what we think it is, it’s what we think. These authors are basing their recommendations on the wrong cause; “The pressure caused the bowler to experience an increase in tension, which made the swing arc tighter and smaller.” Pressure here is seen as a normal consequence of playing an important match and as something which needs to be managed.

It’s far more helpful to see that the bowler’s own over-imaginative thinking about the meaning he is giving the match is creating the feelings of pressure and tension, not the match itself. Once we understand how our minds work and in particular the power of our personal thinking to create our experience, we see that we are just over-thinking. It’s our thinking that obscures those child-like qualities that are naturally present within us all, that ability to throw ourselves into learning without fear of the potential outcome. We don’t need any tools or techniques; they only add to an already cluttered mind. We are naturally resilient. Butterflies, that feeling in the tummy, are a natural consequence of thinking about a future event, they can help us to perform but anxiety from over-thinking is always detrimental to performance, unless you need a short-term burst of speed to get away from a tiger in the jungle!

Can you spot when you may have innocently been caught in the trap of feeling anxious and attributing it to something or someone other than your own thinking? The more we hang on to this mistaken belief the more pressure and stress our thinking creates.


  1. Doing more is not the same as achieving more, especially when it comes to health and happiness as you quite rightly point out. I too love a good ‘how to’ book, but I’ve learnt over the years not to take them too seriously, instead I look for the common themes that seem to work like a golden thread through them all. One of these threads is a recognition that what we think is ‘real’ usually isn’t. That doesn’t mean the experiences or situations aren’t happening, just that how we respond to them is dependent on our state of ‘mind’ at the time. Being in a state of acceptance about the power of thought helps to avoid dropping into that state of ‘busy mind’ that just seems to make things even harder than they need to be. Thanks for the timely reminder.


    1. Hi Linda, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I love coming across those ‘golden threads’ that you refer to; they are everywhere in books and songs – the simple truths about our humanity that are undeniable. One that comes to mind at the moment is that we can’t know in advance how we are going to respond to any situation until we are in it; our innate resilience exists only in the present, not in the past or the future. When our thinking gets revved up its because we’re being seduced by a scary future and are missing this simple truth.


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