Mechanical stimuli can modify the energy landscape of chemical reactions and enable reaction pathways, offering a synthetic strategy that complements conventional chemistry1,2,3. These mechanochemical mechanisms have been studied extensively in one-dimensional polymers under tensile stress4,5,6,7,8,9 using ring-opening10 and reorganization11, polymer unzipping6,12 and disulfide reduction13,14 as model reactions. In these systems, the pulling force stretches chemical bonds, initiating the reaction. Additionally, it has been shown that forces orthogonal to the chemical bonds can alter the rate of bond dissociation15. However, these bond activation mechanisms have not been possible under isotropic, compressive stress (that is, hydrostatic pressure). Here we show that mechanochemistry through isotropic compression is possible by molecularly engineering structures that can translate macroscopic isotropic stress into molecular-level anisotropic strain. We engineer molecules with mechanically heterogeneous components—a compressible (‘soft’) mechanophore and incompressible (‘hard’) ligands. In these ‘molecular anvils’, isotropic stress leads to relative motions of the rigid ligands, anisotropically deforming the compressible mechanophore and activating bonds. Conversely, rigid ligands in steric contact impede relative motion, blocking reactivity. We combine experiments and computations to demonstrate hydrostatic-pressure-driven redox reactions in metal–organic chalcogenides that incorporate molecular elements that have heterogeneous compressibility16,17,18,19, in which bending of bond angles or shearing of adjacent chains activates the metal–chalcogen bonds, leading to the formation of the elemental metal. These results reveal an unexplored reaction mechanism and suggest possible strategies for high-specificity mechanosynthesis.