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Decision Making Gone…well just gone!

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In summary, research proves that when people are under stress their decision-making abilities are significantly reduced (1,2,3). Corticosteroids, those hormones released while under stress, reduce spatial reference, working memory, and behavioral flexibility (4). This results in focusing on problem-related information and ignoring a full scope of details that, if considered, could provide insight and change the direction of decisions. Stress also causes people to make decisions more quickly than usual because it is natural to do anything to get out of the stressful situation and making a snap decision moves us along, albeit potentially in the wrong direction.

So, if you find yourself struggling to make decisions or you’re finding the consequences of your decision making isn’t getting you the results you were hoping for, it just might be because you’re stressed.

There are several things you can do to make sure stress isn’t a barrier to your decision making.

  1. Set reasonable goals

Think about a goal that’s getting closer and closer to the deadline. Does it feel like something looming over you? A dark shadow of foreboding?

That’s the brain on stress.  If not carefully constructed, our brains view unmet goals as threats to that area of our life in which the goal is set. For example, if you have a work project goal that won’t be met, your brain will interpret as your job is in jeopardy, you’ll be reprimanded, people won’t trust you to get your work done, or other potentially, negative outcomes. This is the work of our stress response.

To set reasonable goals you want to include the following:

  • Ensure a strong presence of a support network
  • Provide direct access to resources
  • Communicate on progress frequently
  • Break down large, overreaching goals into smaller, benchmark goals for more effectiveness
  • Stretch goals out only as far as people can visualize
  • Measure progress in “what’s working” and “what’s not working” versus “success” and “failure


If your goal process isn’t working don’t fret, blame, rage, or stress out. Simply look at the situation as an opportunity and begin again.

  1. Talk to others

When you talk to others about your situation it broadens what you see as possible solutions. Multiple viewpoints and various experiences are essential to expanding what you see and consider as end results. And if you surround yourself with people that compliment you (also called your ‘opposites’) you’ll widen your perspective even more, compounding the possibilities!

As you talk with others remember this is your decision and what you think and believe tops everyone else. The goal of talking with others is to make sure that nothing is missing in your considerations and to validate what you believe to be true. If others can easily persuade, change, contradict, or question your stance then you are not yet ready to decide.


To find your compliments you must first know and understand yourself. Self-awareness, Mindfulness, and Resilience are the places to start.

A word of caution. When you are stuck in deciding it’s tempting to turn to groups (ie: message boards, friends, social media) to make the decision for you. The problem with groupthink is it discourages creativity and limits your solutions. Groupthink often results in poor results and high, negative consequences since individual situations aren’t considered.

  1. Get the facts and hyperfocus

Our emotions are so powerful that we often interpret the event that sparks them as truth. Love, sadness, anger, guilt, and other deep emotions create biological responses. These responses (butterflies, sweaty palms, throbbing head, heart racing) create pathways directly to our unconscious mind and imprint onto us the belief that what we are witnessing and experiencing is entirely factual, when in reality it’s not.

Portions of our situations are fact, some are assumptions, and others are fill-in stories we tell ourselves to make sense of it all. Getting the facts takes:

  • Curiosity
  • Questioning
  • Observation
  • Knowing the who, what, when, where, and how
  • Verification

These elements provide you with the pauses necessary to hyperfocus and parse the information coming at you to decipher fact from emotion. It’s only when you break it down into pieces that you can achieve this accurately.

  1. Ride the domino effect

One good decision has a domino effect that affects all other decisions. Here’s how it looks:


You can see from the above illustration that our decision-making confidence starts with the small decisions and the results we get. When we see positive results, we take larger and bigger risks that warrant more critical thinking to make the decision. With more risk-taking comes more reward, which continues to build our confidence in making more decisions. This is the formula by which we move: decision➞action➞reinforcement = movement. How we move depends on the reinforcement.

Consider the following scenario:


You start off the same way, with small decisions and expected results. When those results are less than what is expected doubt sets in and you start approaching decision-making with caution and hesitation. Because of past experiences, the filter by which you analyze all other results is jaded so the negative aspects jump out so much easier. You may not even see the positive elements of results because you’re already predisposed to see your decision results as not effective. This cycle continues until decision paralysis sets in and decision-making stops altogether, and with it any movement at all.

  1. Cut your losses

Stress can make even the most passive person like a “dog with a bone” when it comes to decision-making and not letting go of what they believe to be the right decision. Being overly committed to a single decision can expend more time and resources because you are too invested. Your efforts to “make it work” overshadow cutting your losses so you continue to spend time, money, energy, and coveted resources for the sake of pride, ego, and fear.

You know enough is enough when:

  • Others present you with reasonable alternatives
  • Facts overtake feelings
  • Stress of trying to force it to work is damaging other vital areas
  • Focus of win-win situations has been ousted by win-lose
  • Resources have run out and you’re running in the red
  • Health and wellbeing is at risk

Key Takeaways

Decision-making is highly impacted by stress levels. From a reduction in memory to the speed by which you make decisions, stress influences the decision-making process which impacts the effectiveness of decisions made.

There are five action steps you can take to ensure healthy decision-making:

  1. Set reasonable goals.
  2. Talk to others.
  3. Get the facts and hyperfocus.
  4. Ride the domino effect.
  5. Cut your losses.

Preparing and planning to make effective decisions impacts the approach and expectations of the results we see occurring from our decisions. In turn, this reinforces or negates our confidence in making future decisions.

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