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What is the Distinction Between Stress & Pressure?

Updated: Jun 13, 2023

Psychologists Hendrie Weisinger and JP Pawliw-Fry distinguish between pressure and stress in their book “Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most.” They argue that while stress is borne when there is asymmetry between the demands of a situation and the resources one has to fulfill them, pressure is the perception that one needs to perform their best and carry out a task in a certain way. To help with this distinction, they suggest asking yourself: “Am I feeling overwhelmed by the demands upon me, or do I feel I have to produce a specific result?” While the former indicates stress, the latter would point towards pressure (Morin, 2015).

For example, you might feel stressed when you know you have deadlines piling up, chores to do, and emails to respond to. It might feel like you have too much on your plate and not enough time or energy to actually execute your plans. In this sense, stress could either be positive or negative. In some situations, it might help increase one’s motivation and resilience, making it easier to get certain tasks done. However, if the stress is overwhelming or prolonged, it could start negatively impacting one’s physical and mental health (Gillespie, 2019).

So, where does pressure fall in this spectrum? If you have an important presentation coming up or an upcoming dance performance in front of a large audience, you might feel pressure to perform to the best of your abilities. Hence, while the goal of experiencing negative stress is to reduce or stop it, both positive stress and pressure allows one to focus on performing their best. This brings us to our next question: why is it important for us to create this distinction in the first place?

woman thinking about diferent hypotetical scenarios that she could be. Illustration.

Weisinger and JP Pawliw-Fry (2015) argue that viewing these two phenomena as separate categories helps us tune into these different responses. If we’re able to recognize that we’re overwhelmingly stressed, it might be helpful to engage in coping strategies that will help reduce this. Exercise, seeking social support, taking time off, or eating good food could all help with this. If we notice that we’re feeling pressure, it would be most useful to focus our energies on the task at hand in order to meet the demands of it (Morin, 2015).

Some situations require us to manage our feelings of overwhelm better, while others require us to behave in certain ways to live up to the demands we are subjected to. If we fail to make this distinction, it can start to feel like we’re always under the pressure of having to perform at our best. This can deplete our resources and energy, making it harder for us to live optimally. So — the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, try and take a minute to explore this feeling further. Try to understand what is being asked of you, what you need in that moment, and how you might be able to respond in that situation. This might make it easier to adaptively manage your feelings of overwhelm.

By: Nethra Palepu

Mental Health Counseling Intern

Gillespie, C. (2019, December 17). Pressure vs. stress: What's the difference? Greatist. Retrieved October 20, 2022, from

Morin, A. (2015, April 21). Your failure to differentiate stress from pressure could be your downfall. Forbes. Retrieved October 20, 2022, from

Weisinger, H., & Pawliw-Fry, J. P. (2015). Performing under pressure: The science of doing your best when it matters most. Crown Business.

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