Pressure to perform: background and effects

How does feeling under pressure to perform affect adults and children, and how can they cope with that? Learn how children and adults can avoid feeling pressure to perform and how pressure to perform is linked to perfectionism.

30.04.2024 Imke Schmitz 7 minutes

What is pressure to perform?

People of all ages can feel under pressure to perform. Those affected feel under a lot of pressure to perform to a certain level. Pressure to perform greatly affects people’s stress levels: the greater the pressure, the more stressed those affected feel. Psychologists don’t necessarily see pressure to perform as a bad thing. Some people work particularly well under stress, and some find pressure motivational.

There are two kinds of pressure to perform:

  • Internal (intrinsic) pressure to perform: intrinsic pressure to perform originates from internal factors such as personal goals, values and the inner drive to achieve something. People with high intrinsic motivation start to put themselves under pressure. This self-pressure stems from their passion for an activity or topic, because they like to achieve goals or because they have high expectations of themselves. Intrinsic pressure is positive if it leads to personal growth and happiness, but excessive intrinsic pressure causes stress and anxiety.
  • External (extrinsic) pressure to perform: extrinsic pressure to perform is created by external factors: the expectations of others, competition, rewards or punishments. This type of pressure to perform can motivate someone to work hard and achieve goals, but it can also lead to anxiety and unhappiness. This is commonly the case if someone’s actions are not in line with their personal values and interests.

Pressure to perform is closely linked to the pressure to succeed: pressure to perform, by any definition, relates to the performance of the person in question. With the pressure to succeed, the person concerned feels the urge to achieve specific successes.

How does feeling pressure to perform manifest itself?

Pressure to perform affects your health if the pressure is intense and continues over a long period of time without you having effective coping strategies or periods of relaxation. It is important to recognise the pressure to perform as early as possible. Look out for the following symptoms of feeling pressure to perform:

  • Mental symptoms: people who are constantly under pressure can suffer from depressive episodes, mood swings or loss of motivation. They also often get easily irritated and have low self-esteem.
  • Cognitive symptoms: people who feel under pressure to perform for long periods often have negative thoughts and difficulty concentrating and making decisions.
  • Physical symptoms: if pressure to perform leads to acute stress, sufferers can experience heart palpitations and sweating. Pressure to perform can also affect sleep and cause high blood pressure. Other physical symptoms include exhaustion, chronic fatigue and psychosomatic complaints like headaches, back pain, tension and gastrointestinal problems.
  • Changes in behaviour: excessive pressure to perform can bring about changes in behaviour such as heightened perfectionism, avoidance tendencies, lack of drive, social withdrawal and, in extreme cases, drug abuse.

Pressure to perform felt by children and adolescents

Children and adolescents also feel pressure to perform. Pressure to perform at school, for example, is not uncommon. Feeling pressure is not limited to school, with some youngsters experiencing it in their private lives too. Children and adolescents can feel some pressure to perform if they are learning to play an instrument or a sport. Younger people feeling under pressure to perform, in particular, tend to exhibit psychosomatic symptoms, such as headaches, stomach pains and dizziness. 

School pupils experiencing pressure to perform

A study by Pro Juventute has shown that around 33% of children experience stress and pressure to perform. Girls tend to suffer more from stress. School is a major contributory factor here. Pupils can feel pressure to perform due to their teachers or conflicts with classmates, for example. Parents and their expectations are also a key factor. They tend to cause their children to feel a pressure to perform in order to get into the right grammar school and keep up with the demands of education. And so the pressure to perform starts even while children are at primary school: around 25% of children under 11 feel stressed. But pressure to perform during sixth form is also a problem. This stage of school involves everything from important exams to looking at career paths and coping with puberty. The pressure to perform escalates when it comes to school-leaving exams or other final exams. Stressed pupils can develop a real fear of school through feeling pressure to perform over a long period of time.

Preventing children from feeling pressure to perform

How can you help your child cope with the pressure to perform? It is important to minimise the pressure to perform for children’s healthy development and well-being. One strategy for coping with pressure to perform is to talk to your child openly about the issue, listen to their concerns and support them. You can also take the following steps:

  • Set realistic goals that take account of your child’s age, abilities and interests.
  • Acknowledge effort and progress, not just results and achievements.
  • Create a supportive and stress-free learning environment.
  • Encourage your child’s individual strengths and interests. Do not compare them to other children.
  • Teach your child healthy ways of dealing with stress, for example by taking breaks, exercising or doing breathing exercises. Show them how you handle challenges and pressure yourself. 
  • Ensure your child is striking a good balance between school, free time, play and relaxation.
  • Get support from teachers, advice centres or other parents if you notice that your child is experiencing pressure to perform.

Where does the pressure to perform come from?

How does pressure to perform arise? Pressure to perform has many different causes:

  • Pressure to perform from parents/family: childhood experiences often trigger pressure to perform. Children try to fulfil their parents’ idealistic expectations. If parents don’t acknowledge their children’s achievements, their children try harder and feel under pressure. As adults, these children then often fear disappointing people close to them.
  • Personal characteristics: low self-esteem can lead to perfectionism and comparing ourselves to others. These are among the most common reasons for feeling pressure to perform. 
  • Work environment: many people feel under pressure to perform at work. High expectations from superiors or colleagues lead to stress and a feeling of being expected to meet every demand. 
  • Cultural norms and values: in cultures where performance and success are prioritised, people often feel under great pressure to perform, for example at school or at work.
  • Social trends: globalisation, tougher competition and digitalisation are creating an increasingly networked and fast-moving society. And, as research on pressure to perform clearly shows, all this is making people feel under pressure more and more. They no longer detach themselves from work and are unable to relax. Social media exacerbates this. People now compare themselves and their lifestyles with others to a greater extent, which makes them dissatisfied. In turn, they strive to fulfil predetermined ideals. 

What causes pressure to perform varies from person to person. Often, internal as well as external factors are responsible. 

What effects does pressure to perform have?

The effects resulting from ongoing pressure to perform are varied. The quality of life for those affected is impaired in several ways:

  • Constant pressure to perform leads to sleep problems, gastrointestinal complaints and cardiovascular diseases. 
  • Sufferers also experience anxiety and depressive episodes caused by pressure to perform. Additionally, they can have a negative image of themselves and low self-esteem. If it isn’t treated, chronic pressure to perform increases the likelihood of depression, anxiety-related issues, obsessive-compulsive disorders and eating disorders. The effects of feeling pressure to perform can even extend to burnout and chronic fatigue syndrome.
  • People who experience excessive pressure to perform are also frequently stressed and easily irritable. This can put a strain on personal and professional relationships. Those affected additionally tend to feel that they are stuck career-wise, are more likely to be unhappy at work and change jobs more often. 

Sufferers often see their performance drop as a result of this pressure to perform. This then leads to increased pressure to perform. You should take the symptoms and effects seriously. Ignoring them can lead to more serious problems, such as suicidal thoughts.

How can we avoid feeling pressure to perform?

Coping with pressure to perform requires us to self-reflect, be aware of ourselves and have effective ways of relaxing. Employ coping strategies at an early stage. This will help you find a healthy balance between work, personal goals and recreational activities. Here are some effective tips for dealing with pressure to perform: 

  • Cultivate self-reflection and self-awareness. Think about your past experiences and identify situations that created pressure or anxiety. If you are aware of these situations, you can prepare better for them in the future. Also identify and analyse negative mindsets that contribute to the pressure to perform. Over time, you will develop a more positive attitude. And last but not least, it’s worth examining your own values. What are they and how can you act with them in mind? This will help you to focus on meaningful goals and reduce stress.
  • Plan your work as well as breaks. Adults mostly feel pressure to perform in their day-to-day work. Think carefully about which work tasks are a priority and tackle those first. It’s important to set yourself realistic goals and healthy limits. Pressure to perform often stems from a combination of perfectionism and procrastination (putting things off). 
  • If your job is the cause of you feeling pressure to perform, talk to the person you are working for. They may be able to reallocate your tasks or extend deadlines. Open communication is an important tool in combating pressure to perform in this context. 
  • Don’t compare yourself to other people. This is a key factor in avoiding feeling under pressure to perform. Concentrate on yourself and your personal goals and desires – regardless of what other people are doing. 
  • Develop self-compassion. Accept mistakes. Setbacks are natural. Don’t judge yourself for them, but learn from them and use them as an opportunity for growth. 
  • Find a balance. Develop your own coping strategies. Try doing exercisemeditation, tai-chi or yoga. These will help you create enjoyable rituals in your everyday life.  
  • Consciously acknowledge your successes and celebrate them. For example, treat yourself to your favourite meal or spend a nice evening with friends. 

Managing pressure to perform with professional help

Constantly feeling pressure to perform can lead to chronic stress. This then has a detrimental impact on the health of the people affected. How can you deal with pressure to perform if this happens? It is important to understand what lies behind persistent pressure to perform. In certain circumstances, it may be useful to seek psychotherapeutic help. A psychotherapist will be able to show you valuable coping strategies if you are under pressure to perform. They will also treat possible effects such as depression or anxiety disorders. School psychologists, specialised coaches such as career advisers, TCM or kinesiology can all help. 

Need more information?

Perhaps you’re interested in finding out more about the various coping strategies? Our health advisors are happy to help you.

Whether you’re dealing with self-created pressure to perform or external pressure – there are many ways to handle pressure to perform. Restructure your everyday life if you feel overwhelmed by tasks and demands. Also keep an eye on your child’s symptoms and contact a specialist if necessary. If you act early, you can avoid subsequent illnesses and improve the quality of life for yourself or your child.

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