“Stress is like spice – in the right proportion it enhances the flavor of a dish. Too little produces a bland, dull meal; too much may choke you.” – Donald Tubesing

Do you ever find that the way that you tend to make decisions is different when you are feeling particularly stressed? Many people have an intuitive sense that their decision making abilities are somehow impacted under the influence of particularly stressful times, although it may be surprising to learn what some research suggests about exactly how this decision making ability is affected.

A new article published in “Current Directions in Psychological Science” suggests that under stress, people are more likely to pay attention to the potentially positive outcomes. It may seem as if, during times of intense stress, people may have a tendency to go into a sort of “funk” and pay extra attention to things that have the potential to go wrong. In fact, stressful situations typically lead to people paying extra attention to the positive and discounting negative information.

Researchers created stressful situations for participants by asking them to immerse their hands in ice water for a few minutes or to give a speech. During these stressful situations, the participants demonstrated an extra willingness to pay attention to the potential upside of the stressful situation and actively downplay or discount the negative cues from the environment. “Stress seems to help people learn from positive feedback and impairs their learning from negative feedback,” Mara Mather says.

The idea is that when people are under stress, they find ways to actively adapt to the stressful experience by focusing on the positives and downplaying the negatives. For example, someone who may be feeling a sense of pressure over whether or not to take a new challenging job may end up deciding that the increase in salary is more important than the long commute or giving up other priorities.

Stress also has a significant impact on the way that men and women think about risk. During stressful times, men are more likely to take risks, whereas women become less likely to take risks. Connections have been made between this finding and past research that supports the idea that, during times of stress, men gravitate toward a flight-or-fight response, whereas women tend to move toward bonding or improving relationships.

Think about the way that stress impacts your personal decision making habits. Notice any patterns or themes from your past about how you tend to handle big (or small) decisions during stressful times. Do you look back and feel good about the choices that you have made during those periods of intense stress?

Actively use these research findings in your own life to make the choice to slow down and make more mindful decisions when you are experiencing intense stress. Recognize that you may be going through a stressful period in your life and accept that this stress may naturally impact your ability to make mindful decisions.

Slow down, close your eyes, and take a few deep breaths. Visualize a variety of outcomes in your mind and actively weigh the realistic potential risks and rewards from various courses of action. Become a mindful observer of your experience during stressful times and allow wise mind – the intuitive combination of reason and emotion – to guide your path.

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Association for Psychological Science (2012, February 28). Stress changes how people make decisions. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 2, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/02/120228114308.htm?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+sciencedaily+%28ScienceDaily%3A+Latest+Science+News%29

Featured image: AAAARRRGGGHHH by Evil Erin / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

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