5 Mental Habits of People Who Thrive Under Pressure

Dr. Beau A. Nelson, DBH, LCSW

Some people seem to deal with difficult situations better than others. Maybe they’re the only one in the room who keeps a cool head when everyone else gets upset, or the person who seems able to focus on solutions rather than getting mired in the problems. Sometimes they’re the people we go to in a crisis: We trust them to give us wise and level-headed advice when we most need it.

What’s different about these people? Are they super-human? What about them allows them to succeed in times of stress and even thrive under pressure?

One answer might be personality—and to be sure, personality can affect a person’s stress response—but mindset matters a lot. Some ways of thinking in dealing with an unexpected situation or crisis are more helpful than others. We know this to be true from studies in the field of cognitive-behavioral therapy. Certain “cognitive distortions” can reduce the ability to cope in pressured situations. In direct contrast, these five mental habits tend to describe people who thrive under pressure.

Staying present in the moment – Rather than getting caught up in the fear of the moment or projecting a negative outcome, people who thrive under pressure can be present with the task at hand. They stay focused on what they’re doing in that moment and stay on track working towards an outcome.

Being flexible with options and solutions – Rather than thinking in either-or or black-and-white terms, a person who thrives under pressure understands there are many different options in a situation and determines a course of action after considering multiple inputs and available choices. Being flexible means thinking creatively and being able to perceive multiple approaches to a problem or challenge.

De-catastrophizing – People who thrive under pressure take situations at face value, address them, and stay clear of getting caught up in their emotions. To de-catastrophize is to take a step back and assess a situation as realistically as possible, without over-exaggerating the negatives. When we catastrophize, we relate to a stressful scenario as if it’s the end of the world or a life-or-death situation. This soon leads to self-defeating thoughts like “I can’t possibly get through this.” Being thoughtful and clearheaded allows you to function at your best and solve problems without a high degree of stress, anger, frustration, or other emotions.

Accepting a situation for what it is – Instead of focusing on past failures, getting caught up with other people’s emotions, or blaming others and not taking responsibility, people who thrive under pressure are able to see the present situation for what it is and acknowledge their role in it. They’re also able to approach it with a realistic sense of context and see that it is one task among many, as opposed to an earth-shattering, make-or-break event that they’ll never recover from.

Trusting one’s judgment – You may not always be right, but inaction is paralyzing. People who thrive under pressure are good at addressing the situation at hand or delegating or getting the resources that they need. A measure of confidence is very helpful when you’re dealing with a stressful situation that demands quick thought and immediate action. Self-doubt or people pleasing is generally not going to be effective in a critical situation.

While skills for thriving under pressure are as varied as the people who practice them, these straightforward and centered approaches may help you navigate high-stress situations more effectively. They’re also mental habits that, when practiced, can build confidence and self-assurance, increase competence, and improve decision-making abilities. Anyone can develop skills to be better at dealing with pressured situations. It takes effort, focus, and learning the best ways to deal with our emotions and other people.

Dr. Beau A. Nelson is Chief Clinical Officer at the national behavioral health provider FHE Health.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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