How well do you know your Pressure Gauge?

Some people can’t get enough of it whilst it makes others want to hide under a rock. Whatever your feelings about pressure, though, the chances are you’re familiar with it. Here are some ideas on how to recognise and utilise pressure before it ends up breaking you.


Windy Dryden (WD) is one of the UK’s leading Cognitive Behavioural Therapists and has published over 200 books on related subjects. He says: “Pressure covers both the situation that we’re in – usually a situation that’s taking us towards the limits of what we think we’re able to do and the time we’ve got to do it in – as well as what we think and feel about the situation.”

Hilda Burke (HB) is a London based integrative psychotherapist, She says: “Pressure relates to forces outside ourselves that are impacting on us – jobs, health worries, relationship, family. It isn’t the same as stress, which is what we absorb from pressure (depending on how we react to it), what’s left lurking in our bodies, minds and emotions after we’ve been under pressure.”  

HB: When our body senses danger our brain sends signals down our spine to tell our adrenals to produce adrenalin (so we become more able to move). Our heart rate goes up, blood pressure goes up, we might get trembling hands, start sweating a bit… Those are the biological signals that the body is stressed. So whilst our boss might just be giving us a good ticking off, our body may be processing that in terms of threat to our survival – to everything we hold dear… (e.g. our ego and perception of self and our value in the world).

WD: Some people believe they can’t act unless they are under pressure, which is a myth; these people are actually often teetering on the edge between creativity and anxiety, which can be unhelpful. Pressure is about opportunity but anxiety is about threat (thinking: “oh god, this is awful, what am I going to, what happens if this goes wrong?”). These ‘pressurised’ people are often operating from a rigid mindset. Other people are more flexible in mindset (still believing they have choices) and in the way they deal with demands on their time.

WD: When you’re feeling pressure – internal, external or both – try to stand back for a moment. Recognise that you don’t have to run around like a headless chicken although you might feel like one. Being assertive also helps: if you’re under pressure from above it’s worth telling your boss that spending all your time on this will compromise your ability to do that.

HB: Some people use gardening, yoga, dance… Anything that you enjoy that brings you a sense of relief is good. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, meditation can help insulate you from a pressurised situation – particularly as an underlying practice and not just in response to a really stressful or busy time – as it can better equip us to return to that centred mental state quicker during / after times of stress.

WD: If we take steps to create an environment that limits the unhelpful aspects of pressure we can then maximise the motivational aspects. Pressure can galvanise us to take action.

HB: Pressure gives us a rush. People who work in high pressure jobs for example wouldn’t be able to survive or thrive if they didn’t enjoy certain amount of pressure. So it serves a purpose, helping us to make that deadline or deliver that presentation. We shouldn’t get hooked into always functioning at that level over a prolonged period of time because it can really drain us.


Moving House
It’s not just packing and unpacking – moving house involves enough admin and hassle to send even a Zen buddhist into meltdown. Then there’s the expenditure. Paying to change the address on your driving licence? Moving is both pricey and time-consuming.

Planning a wedding
It’s nerve-wracking, emotionally-charged and usually more expensive than you expected – no wonder a wedding is one of the most common high pressure situations the average person suffers. And then there’s the in-laws… but that’s a whole different article.

So you thought getting hitched was stressful? How about getting un-hitched? Beyond the sheer heartache, divorce can involve horrible conflict, endless admin, loss of financial security and, very often, a change of abode – that’s five big stressors at the very least.

Public Speaking
It’s often cited as the number one phobia, more common even than spiders: giving a speech or presentation in front of an audience can be nothing less than terrifying. At least you know there’s a word for it: glossophobia – the fear of public speaking – can cause a dry mouth, weak voice and excessive shaking for starters…

Facing up to debt
Ever closed your eyes withdrawing cash in order to avoid seeing your balance? Realising you’re in the red can cause shock and bewilderment, but getting out of it is even harder. At least you’re not alone: Mintel research shows that money worries affect 40% of us in the UK.

Becoming a parent
There’s a reason why sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture, and why new parents who aren’t getting enough zzzzzz tend to look completely frazzled. Making the transition from non-parent to parent is a difficult time and not just because you’re tired. Nappies, noise, and not a lot of downtime? Now that’s a pressurised environment.

A major argument with a best friend
You’ve always been the other’s go-to, but now something seemingly irrevocable has happened. Fighting with your best mate can prey on your mind, not to mention play havoc with your usual weekend plans.

Losing a job
One minute you’re complaining about your job, the next you don’t even have one. Being made redundant is an obvious stressor leading to internal (identity shifts and a potential loss of self-esteem) and external (money worries, job anxiety) pressure.

Nothing is more important than your health, they say and never has the adage been more true that when talking about stress. Personal injury or illness is widely regarded as a serious stressor, not just because it sucks but also because of the potential ramifications on work, home and social lives.

Death of a loved one
The symptoms of bereavement can be as broad as they can lengthy. Losing someone you love isn’t just painful, it’s also deeply stressful. Grief can affect body, mind and soul and is also often a huge shock to a human being’s entire system.

1. Zero pressure. You’re practically asleep with a slow-beating heart, benevolent thoughts and little movement.
2. Minimal pressure. Just call you Mr Zen. Long periods of silence with minutes-on-end of contemplation peppered only by a fleeting anxious thought.
3. Working pressure. You’re aware of an agenda and a sense of responsibility but all’s ok – you’re still breathing from the belly, still focussing on one thing at a time.
4. Pressure flash-flood. What was that? Your heart rate rocketed and clarity plummeted but it was only for an hour and you’re already calming down.
5. Pressure rising. Increasingly scattergun thoughts. Second time you snapped at a colleague in as many hours. It’s harder to fall asleep and you wake up worrying in the morning.
6. Pressure sustained. What day is it again and when is it time for that post-work drink? Frequent anxiety, you haven’t taken a full lungful of oxygen for weeks and you’re waking several times a night.
7. Pressure problem. Your skin’s flared up, you’ve got backache and you’re permanently agitated. You’re too tired (or drunk) to sleep, haven’t eaten properly in weeks and loved ones are getting worried.
8. Pressure panic. It’s everywhere: your heart (a snare drum); lungs (a dog panting); brain (a knotted mess); limbs (tingle-tingle-tingle). It’s hard to talk and every thought trails off into panic.
9. Pressure Alarm. You just got so angry you threw your fifth double espresso against the wall. Visible choices include only collapsing or raging. Time to take a long holiday.
10. Pressure emergency. You’re in a heap in the corner, hardly breathing, racing thoughts and no sense of clarity whatsoever. Exhaustion. Burnout. Call a doctor immediately.

When you’re backed into a corner for hours or days on end, it’s natural to look for relief at the bottom of a pint glass. But as anybody who’s ever woken up to more pressure and a hangover knows, self medicating – whether through alcohol or any other drug – is usually not the answer.

Claire Heather Fry is a London-based Executive and Life Coach ( She recommends the following five punchy ways to knock out pressure.

1. Check your values
Under pressure it can feel that there are competing home/work demands on your already limited time. Understanding your top personal values can help you prioritise your work and personal life in a way that respects your own integrity and ways of doing things.

2. Visualisation
You’re in good company here – this one is used by athletes to improve performance but visualisation also helps combat everyday pressure. Close your eyes, picture yourself in a calming environment and build in as much detail as possible while breathing deeply to give yourself a compelling picture. Even five minutes helps – think of it as daydreaming with a purpose!

3. Spend time in nature: go for a walk in the park
When pressure builds up, it’s easy to lose perspective. A walk in your local park – or even just heading out to run some errands in your neighbourhood – reminds us that there is a wider world out there beyond our own worries and stresses.

4. Indulge in healthy escapism
It’s tempting to pour beer on our problems when the pressure is on, here are some forms of booze-free escapism instead: watch a film on your own in the cinema (what you want, when you want), take a long, hot shower, lift weights with your headphones on… it’s important to find your favourite healthy way of letting off steam.

5. Get clear on what’s bothering you
Pressure can cause us to feel: overwhelmed, disjointed and struggling to focus. Using the simple but effective ‘5 Why’s Exercise’ you can really get under the skin of what’s eating you: write down the issue that’s causing pressure to build up and ask yourself why. Take that answer and ask why again. Five times over until you’re closer to the root cause.

– By Lucy Fry

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