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Decision making under stress

Image by Thirdman

Now that 2020 is behind us we can take a look back with the benefit of distance and hindsight. Think about some of the decisions you made last year in response to the disruption of the pandemic. Many of them have affected you in ways you may not have considered.

Did you gain weight or take up any unhealthy habits?

Did any of your relationships with family or friends suffer?

Did you feel more anger and/or outrage about events than you used to?

For me, the answer to all of those is a resounding YES. I was telling people in mid-September that I felt like my brain had been re-configured. I said that figuratively, but what I have learned since is that there is some truth to that.

Major disruption in our lives creates stress. Stress is part of our survival toolkit and is important in getting us to respond quickly and decisively to threats (primitive reptilian brain impulses). When stress is elevated and prolonged due to an enormous change or disruption that rocks your world, your brain chemistry changes, affecting your physical and emotional health. Common symptoms include depression, panic attacks, and insomnia.

One lesser known impact of stress is that it hampers your ability to make sound decisions as well.

Your decisions on stress

Studies in recent years on the effects of stress on decision making have found that during acute stress:

- your inclination to be trusting decreases

- your normal level of risk-taking changes - men become more willing to take risks, women become less risky.

- decision making becomes more binary and habitual because those processes are quicker and demand less cognitive energy, which your brain is trying to reserve for more important threat-handling tasks

- you experience an increased motivation to acquire and collect food and goods. (For proof, just look in my basement for the newly acquired surplus of food, water, and of course, toilet paper.)

- your ability to make reliable cost-benefit evaluations decreases

Your physical health

We have long known that prolonged stress can have negative physical impacts, and more of them continue to be discovered.

Over the years I have had a few skin cancers develop as an adult due to frequent sunburns as a child. Then in 2020 I had five new cancers develop on my head. I had to go through two painful sessions of procedures to have them removed and the sites repaired.. At first, I chalked it up to the year 2020 landing another blow on me. I had an inordinate number of stressful events last year and wondered if my cancers could be related to the stress and not just bad luck and lack of judgment when I was young.

I discovered that high stress can increase the risk of developing carcinomas. While that may or may not have contributed to my extreme situation, I can’t help but think it is not a coincidence.

Stress reduces the effectiveness of your immune system, so the likelihood of getting sick is elevated.

Take stress seriously

If you do not have a regimen for managing stress, now is a great time to get one. Here are some of the most beneficial and proven techniques for dealing with stress:


Prioritize sufficient sleep

Invest in your positive relationships


If stress is causing a major disturbance in your day-to-day life, seek professional help to get it under control.

To improve your decision making during stress:

- Avoid making big impactful decisions at peak stress moments.

- Collaborate on big decisions to ensure you are considering all options

- Give yourself distance between the impulse to make a decision and the decision itself. This helps circumvent the reactive and emotional interference that stress triggers

- Make bigger decisions earlier before decision fatigue compromises your effectiveness

Don't ignore stress. Take control and see what methods for handling it work best for you. Your mind, body and ability to make great decisions depend on it.

Think well and be well!

- Steve Haffner, decision performance expert

Want to learn more about improving your decision performance?

Click here for my free book, 7 Strategies for Making Better Decisions


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