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Some people respond well in stressful situations and some people lose focus and can make costly mistakes. But why does stress cause many people to have impaired decision making? The survival mechanisms that make up the stress response are very primitive in origin. Have you ever made a bad decision? Some people respond well in stressful situations and some people lose focus and can make costly mistakes. But why does stress cause many people to have impaired decision making?

The survival mechanisms that make up the stress response are very primitive in origin. These date back well before the development of a cognitive process, such as decision making. In fact, humans, alone, have the ability to analyze and decide about our actions in this deliberate and logical way. Human brains still have the primitive responses for survival "hard-wired" into the mechanism of response to stress/threats. When stressed, the more basic and primitive parts of the human brain take over. The middle and lower brain (the more primitive parts of the human brain) which can react more quickly to threats by preparing you to fight or flee can become dominant. The logical, "thinking" part of the upper brain (Neo-cortex) shut down and good decisions are placed lower as a survival priority. In our complex society the non-thinking reactions to stress can get you in trouble.

"Impulse-control" has become legislated, for good reasons.

Impaired Decision Making
When we are stressed it is common to have several reactions that reduce effective decision making including:

  1. Pre-occupation with an idea, even if it is old or ineffective. We do this because we fear new ideas or activities as a response to being overwhelmed and stressed. We tend to do things the way we always have done, rather than using new ways or new technologies.
  2. Our concentration is impaired. Too much internal "noise" and distraction from our fear/stress. This is like studying in a large, noisy room and expecting to process important information for later use. We become much more sensitive to environmental distractions.
  3. There is a deterioration in judgment and logical thinking. Neo-cortex shuts down and we become more reactive.
  4. We can fall more easily into negative self-evaluations as stress affects our self-esteem and self-confidence. Negative thinking and self-criticism are not useful to move forward in a positive direction.
  5. We have less objectivity for a reality-check that can show the overall position in the "bigger" picture.
  6. Creativity is reduced. We see fewer alternatives and this reduces the brainstorming necessary for appropriate problem solving.
  7. Our search for input of useful information is impaired.
  8. We fail to see and understand the long-term consequences of decisions. This can lead to serious mistakes.
  9. We do not communicate as effectively to get input, to make good decisions, and then to communicate and motivate people to get the required actions to successfully carry out a decision.

L. John Mason, Ph.D. is the author of the best selling "Guide to Stress Reduction." Since 1977, he has offered Success & Executive Coaching and Training. Please visit the Stress Education Center's website  for articles, free ezine signup, and learn about the new telecourses that are available. If you would like information or a targeted proposal for training or coaching, please contact us at (360) 593-3833. If you are looking to promote your training or coaching career, please investigate the Professional Stress Management Training and Certification Program for a secondary source of income or as career path.

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