Optimizing Mental Health: The secret to performing under pressure

Whether you’re an athlete, CEO or parent, performing under pressure can be difficult.

Dr. Jaleh Shahin, Registered Psychologist at Copeman Healthcare, recently sat down with Bruce Bowie of 630 CHED to discuss how optimizing your mental health can help you get past those high-pressure situations.

Why is performing in high-pressure situations so difficult?

Well, we define pressure as a feeling of unease that’s related to an intense desire that most people have to do something accompanied by the uncertainty and fear that they might not succeed or will fail. Pressures can come from lots of different external sources whether it be job deadlines, competing demands, or competition. But it’s typically how a person appraises the situation that dictates the amount of stress that they might feel. So high pressure situations can produce stress, which often evokes feelings of frustration, nervousness, doubt or even anger. How we respond to the stress and the emotions that are associated with it dictates how well we perform under pressure.

The challenge in high-pressure situations is it triggers the physiological fight-or-flight response. And in a fight-or-flight response the body goes into stress mode and needs to conserve energy. When we’re conserving energy our higher-level cognitive abilities or higher-level thinking abilities are not at their best. And that’s partly why it’s so challenging to respond coherently in high-pressure situations.

It seems to me like if you don’t deal with this, it could lead to depression, probably too?

Yes and no.

We know that unresolved stress can sit there for a long period of time and can be really challenging and has lots of detrimental physical and mental health challenges that can come with it. But it depends, it very much depends on how you respond to it and how long those feelings are unresolved.

And I suppose some people’s high stress situations differ – like for me I don’t mind getting up and talking in front of people and for other people that would be terrifying, so it depends on the person as well as.

It depends on the person and exactly like you said, it depends on how the person perceives the situation.

Can you offer any tips for performing in high-pressure situations?

We always say active awareness is key, so becoming familiar with how your body responds under pressure and becoming more familiar allows you to recognize early warning signs and then intervene early as needed. Calming strategies can be very helpful because they teach you how to regulate your physiological reaction. For example, mindfulness, deep breathing and some things we call grounding strategies can help you center in the moments.

So how do you at Copeman Healthcare work with clients to optimize mental health?

I’ve learned over the years that people love tips and tricks and acronyms so I’m going to give you a little acronym. We call it the 5 “P’s” approach.

The first “P” is perspective. Learning to see the big picture and remembering what’s most important in life. The second “P” is present. Stay in and now focus on what you need to do in the present moment using mindfulness skills. The third “P” is prepare. Technical, tactically, mentally and physically, you cannot cram, which is most people do. Ensure that you have done everything that you can to be ready.

The fourth “P” is planning. Identify your key objectives and establish a focus plan for each situation. This involves two components. We call it do and feel. For do: what do I need to do to execute? For feel: how do I want to feel in this moment? And the last “P” is empower. Reinforce your confidence, revisit your strengths and remind yourself that you have all you need inside you to handle the moments.

Any final thoughts for our listeners?

Most people are going to experience high-pressure situations, so if anyone is interested in learning some of the strategies we’ve discussed on how to handle high-pressure situations, accessing some support services that are specialized in that area would be great. We have the Alberta physiologist referral system that people can access or they can also access us at Copeman Healthcare.