How Stress Impairs Our Ability to Make Good Decisions

Making an important life decision can be stressful, especially when you are torn between two or more options and simply weighing the pros and cons does not lead to a clear outcome. We also often find ourselves getting caught up in the heat of the moment and making rash decisions in that we look back on with regret.

If only we had been more clear-headed, if only we had taken a step back and a few deep breaths to give ourselves some space to calm down and truly think through all of our options, maybe then we could have made a better choice.

I have many personal experiences in just these types of situations, but I want to share one in particular that sticks out in my mind as its implications had a lasting impact on my life, both personally as well as professionally.

I was offered an incredible opportunity to join a scaling startup (this company was taking off like a rocketship) in Tokyo, Japan. However, at the same time, I had the opportunity to be a founder of a technology company that I was highly interested in and fascinated with in the city I was currently living, Miami, FL.

My girlfriend (and future wife) at the time and I were living together in Miami and we both loved each other deeply. This situation strongly pulled me in the direction of forgoing the chance to move abroad, but, I thought, if we were truly meant to be together, our relationship could withstand long distance, especially if it was not a permanent move. I had never been to Japan before. All I knew about the country was from action movies and my love of their cuisine from my favorite sushi restaurants in town. There were so many unknowns with moving overseas, however, this was a “once in lifetime” chance to prove to myself that I had the ability to adapt to a new culture and thrive in a fast-growing company, both of which were goals I had always wanted to accomplish throughout my life to that point.

Would I be foolish to leave the girl I loved behind? Would I regret passing up such an incredible offer to live in Tokyo? How the hell am I supposed to make this decision!?

In moments like these, it is helpful to remind ourselves how stress, fear, and anxiety can color the options that appear to be in front of us. Fight or flight responses can cloud our ability to truly see all of the possibilities that exist in our lives and reduce them to black/white options. As we discussed in a previous post, stress can be caused by a number of factors but the end result always leads to a reduced capacity to think.

The physiological response to stress is to shut off our higher cognitive brain function and revert back to the more primitive part of our brain that excels at getting us out of harm’s way. This response is all well and good if the threat is something physical like a lion attack, but when the stressor is a difficult decision we are faced with in our personal lives, this response is more harmful than helpful.

Studies have shown that “stressful conditions lead to decisions that can be described as more disadvantageous, more reward seeking, and more risk taking than non stress conditions.”[1] Basically, if we are under stress we tend to make riskier decisions in an attempt to get a greater reward to justify the stress. Another study has shown that making decisions under stress impairs decision making to a similar extent that multi-tasking or does, showing that parts of the brain are distracted by the stress as if it were another task that needed to be addressed.[2]

Dr. Eva Selhub, who recently joined Sensie as an advisor, has written extensively on this subject and conducted her own research showing that “as stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol rise, higher (more logical) brain centers and the ability to make good judgment are blocked, and emotional response centers take over.”

Dr. Selhub recommends addressing this problem of trying to make decisions while under stress through cultivating a “resilient mindset.” What that means is practicing the ability to stay calm and objective in the face of adversity in order to avoid emotional risk-taking and hold true to your core values and beliefs, allowing them to help you make difficult decisions.

So how did I eventually make the decision of whether or not to leave the love of my life behind and move to Japan?

I literally laid flat on my back on the floor of my living room and did intensive breathing exercises for as long as it took to relax deeply and contemplate what was occurring using my entire body awareness, not just my overly analytical mind.

I let go of every fear, every thought, every doubt, every question that I had on the matter and just surrendered completely in to the presence of the moment. This gave me the calmness and clarity I needed to have a meaningful, honest, and productive conversation with my girlfriend about the decision, which at the end of a few hours resulted in a crystal clear answer that felt true and hopeful to the both of us. I should go to Tokyo, we agreed. Our relationship would be resilient enough to handle the drastic change of geography and would likely benefit in the long term from all the new experiences I would gather and the career advancement that it would create for our future together.

Looking back now, this was easily one of the best decisions I ever made. It transformed me on a personal level, put my career on a new and accelerated trajectory, and strengthened the bond between me and my girlfriend, who I later happily married and started a family with. All I needed to do was RELAX.

So, how can you cultivate your own mind to be more resilient and handle tough life decisions more effectively? Dr. Selhub outlines a method of using P.O.W.E.R., reminding ourselves when faced with difficulty to Pause, Optimize your knowledge, Witness your physiology, Examine your emotions, and Release, re-evaluate, and restore yourself to a calm state.

Dr. Selhub goes into much more detail and provides invaluable advice on building a resilient mindset here. Using these techniques has been incredibly helpful to me as I have worked hard to build Sensie and face difficult decisions on a daily basis.

I look forward to hearing from you and other Sensie users on how these practices and approaches can improve our ability to witness how our emotions affect our decision making and how a resilient mindset can lead to better outcomes for ourselves and those closest to us.

Mike


[1] Psychol Bull. 2016 Sep;142(9):909-933.

[2] Behav Neurosci. 2013 Jun;127(3):369-79. doi: 10.1037/a0032334. Epub 2013 Apr 1.

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