How Stress Improves Decision-Making … wait what?
Please choose the correct answer to the question below. And keep in mind, choosing the correct answer will help you reach your goal 2x as fast:
When presented with a fork in the road, should you go left or should you go right?
… time’s ticking!
Come on quick – left or right!?
Are you stressed yet? Are you thinking about what the correct answer is, and what might happen if you choose the wrong answer?
Have you not picked an answer yet because you were spending so much time confused and worried about what to do?
Stress will do that to you… actually. Or should I say, “physiologically”.
The Science Behind Decision Making
If you watched this week’s YouTube Video, then you already know that stress negatively effects decision-making. And if you haven’t watched the video yet, make sure you do so by clicking here or simply pressing “play” down below, then return to this post.
So being informed about negative consequences is great, but what there’s no way you thought I was going to not inform you about the benefits of stress!
And YUP – I said “benefits”!
According to a study published by Byrne et. al. in July 2019 (2) as well as a study published by Graybiel and Friedman (4), stress tends to skew decision-making toward high-risk high-reward. And I know your immediate reaction to that sentence is likely, “‘high risk’ equals bad decisions, therefore stress is bad”. But that’s why I’m here! Today I am going to retrain your brain to get you to focus on the “high-reward” consequences of stress.
Now there are 3 areas I want to tackle here, so let’s break them down like so …
#1 Chronic Stress Versus Acute Stress – and what actually happens in your body
Simply put, chronic stress is stress felt over a prolonged period of time (such as the stress experienced throughout university or at work). Whereas acute stress is short-lived and temporary (such as stress felt during a traffic jam or right before an important meeting).
“So Ella, what actually happens in your body when we feel stressed?”
Well, when you are threatened (or even feel threatened) the emergency siren in your brain (the hypothalamus) goes off. This siren signals your adrenal glands to release hormones including adrenaline/epinephrine and noradrenaline/norepinephrine (commonly known as the flight or fright hormones) and cortisol (commonly known as the stress hormone). To put it simply, these hormones prepare you to take action against the threat.
That said, some physiological outcomes of adrenaline are increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and increased energy supplies in the body (1). And the physiological outcomes of cortisol include increased glucose (sugars) in the bloodstream, enhanced use of glucose by your brain, and increased availability of substances which repair tissues. Cortisol also inhibits bodily functions that would be “nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation”; this includes immune system responses, and suppression of the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth. On top of these physiological reactions, the hypothalamus communicates with the parts of the brain which control mood, motivation, and fear (1).
What’s important to note here is that once there is no longer a threat, the three hormones mentioned above stop being released and the body returns to its regular state. But, when stress is prolonged (chronic) the physiological outcomes mentioned above are prolonged as well; this can lead to negative health consequences including but not limited to weight gain, digestive issues, stroke, depression, and even autoimmune disease (8).
Now of course this is not good. And if you want to learn 10 unconventional ways to reduce stress in your life, check out this post here.
And furthermore, all this stress can impact your decision-making particularly in a way that focuses on …
#2 High Risk … BUT High Reward
In case you missed that little set-up, I said, stress impacts your decision-making so that you focus more on making high-risk high-reward decisions.
Now to be clear here, this high-risk focus depends on the type of stress (chronic versus acute), the type of reward (immediate versus delayed), and apparently the particular research article (as evidenced by some of the contradictory sources (2) (4) cited at the bottom of this post).
But for the purposes of this particular blog post, we are going to buy-into the idea that stress — and particularly chronic stress — leads to high-risk decision-making.
So let’s go through a quick example: You’ve been incredibly stressed from work over the past 3 months. Friday night rolls around and you finally get home. You hop on your laptop because you want to want Ella Sofia’s newest YouTube video, but before you can get there, you are bombarded with an online advertisement. The advertisement claims there’s a new pill made for relieving stress. The ad suggests to talk to your family doctor… but if you can’t wait that long because then you won’t be able to cash-in on the sweet deal they are offering over the next 24 hours! So you take the risk and make the purchase.
Now some people might say you made a bad decision because you didn’t seek advice from your family doctor before buying the de-stress pill. But, recent studies have suggested that the reason people make high-risk decisions when stressed is because those exact decisions are high-reward.
So how can you use stress to your advantage?
By keeping your eye on the prize, your focus on the mission, and your intention on the goal.
According to an article published by the University of California – Berkeley (6) and a study published by Byrne et. al. (2), acute stress can improve your performance and maximize reward-focused decision-making. So although the decision you make may be riskier, the reward is ultimately higher.
You see, I find this incredibly helpful. I love knowing that a little bit of short-term stress can actually push me in the direction of achieving my goals. And when I think about times when acute stress effected me, I can say it resulted in jolts of urgency and pressure, and an overwhelming need to achieve the reward. You know what they say, “no pressure, no diamonds”.
#3 Stress is a Tool
Rather than thinking about stress like the enemy, think about it like a tool. And just like any other tool, its outcome depends on how it is used.
For example: I can bet you own a hammer. You could use the hammer to vandalize your neighbour’s car… (please don’t). Or you can use the tool (the hammer) in the best way possible and hammer some nails into the new deck you’re building.
So when you feel stress come-on, first, let it guide you forward and second, manage it as needed.
And Don’t Forget about Habit!
Yes you better believe stress is connected to habit. Evidence (7) shows that when we feel stressed, there is a risk for us to mindlessly fall into habitual ways of doing things. A great example from source (7) discusses an employee coming to work for an important business meeting. The downside is, the employee is so nervous that when he walks through front door and gets in the gets in the elevator, he habitually presses the floor button where his personal office is located, rather than pressing the floor button where the meeting is being held.
Can you recall a time where you slipped back into habit as a result of stress or anxiousness?
So how can you stop from defaulting to habit and optimizing your decision-making? … Learn to identify your stress and manage it effectively! Be self-aware so that you can learn when your stress is helping or hindering your personal development. If you want to learn how to do that, you can check out 10 unconventional ways to manage your stress in under 10 minutes.
Dedicate yourself to retraining your brain – forget about how you used to operate and instead, adopt new and advantageous practices!
And as always, Happy Monday.
*Disclaimer: I am not a medical or mental health professional. Any information and content on my website is not a substitute for professional health advice.