How fear, stress, and anxiety impact our decision-making 

Do you wake up every morning with a sinking feeling in your gut?

Are your everyday thoughts based on fears, worries, and envisioning worst-case scenarios?

Do you often have trouble sleeping at night because you’re stressed about finances, work, or other problems?

Your anxiety may be leading you to make questionable decisions, research reveals, and may even lead to the outcomes you’re most trying to avoid, sending you into a vicious cycle.

But if you’re like most people in our modern society (and ESPECIALLY these days!), stress, fear, and anxiety are an unfortunate part of regular life. 

  • In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), anxiety disorders affect at least 40 million American adults and more than 18% of the total population (almost 60 million people).
  • 8 in 10 Americans are so anxious about their finances that it affects their physical well-being.
  • Women are twice as likely to have general anxiety as men.

And let’s be honest – a good portion of our stress and worries in life come from finances.

  • In fact, almost 7 out of 10 Americans (68%) worry about saving enough to retire
  • 58% of Americans feel that finances control their life
  • Financial stress leads to feelings of fatigue in 43% of Americans
  • 42% find it difficult to focus at work, and 41% say it interferes with their sleep.

And those numbers are BEFORE the Covid-19 pandemic when 40 million people lost their jobs and 4.8 million people stopped making their house payments!

Needless to say, we’re all concerned, deeply worried, or even in panic mode over our finances these days in some capacity.

Add in an unprecedented level of fear over health concerns, whether the kids will be able to go back to school, and the mental health effects of social isolation or losing loved ones, and our cortisol levels (the fight-or-flight hormone) are continuously in an elevated state.

So, what does that do to the decisions we make?

Will an abundance of fear, stress, and anxiety help or hurt us when we’re faced with critical choices?

And as a business person who is in sales and maybe an entrepreneur, how might we see the effects of our stressors and anxieties on day-to-day decisions?

The data on decision-making and stress or anxiety

A host of studies show the profound effects of stress on our decision-making process, but I’d like to highlight a few.

In one prominent study, a University of Pittsburgh neuroscientist identified a neuronal mechanism within subregions of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) that impacts the choices we make. They found that without proper function of the PFC, our cognitive capacity for long-term planning, critical problem solving, calculating options, and weighing risks and rewards is inhibited.

Based on the study’s findings, researchers concluded that anxiety and stress lead to negative decision-making, particularly when presented with distractions or conflicts. They found that the presence of excessive fear “disengage brain cells in a highly specialized manner,” deactivating PFC neurons in the brain that are linked to high cognitive function used for decision-making.

Research using neuroimaging data also shows that stress, fear, and anxiety play a role in our neural responses to stimuli. In fact, our responses to external feedback register in the ventral striatum, both those responses are diminished when we’re under stress, which takes away our capacity to look at a situation critically and logically.

A study at Rutgers University conducted a study on how acute stress impacts our risk tolerance as we make decisions about money or finances. They found that people are more apt to pause and reflect when facing a loss, and end up making riskier decisions. However, when they’re facing a financial windfall or gain, they tend to act much more conservatively. The study concluded that our pattern of risk and decisions are significantly impacted by stress.

Respected University of Southern California researcher Mara Mather recently spoke at a symposium, “How Stress Alters Decision Making.” She shared her scientific findings about our biological responses to anxiety and stress, and specifically how fear and stress impact our striatal dopaminergic reward systems. Basically, she summarized how our brains actually physically change under the influence of stress, and that causes our ability to process information and make decisions in a negative way.

There are countless further studies that confirm the relationship between stress and the decisions we make, but let’s actually take a look at how our decisions may be altered when under duress.

Here are 5 ways stress affects our decision-making:

1. Reactionary

When we’re in a state of stress, anxiety, or fear, our brains emit high levels of cortisol, which is known as the “fight or flight” hormone. In this heightened state, our perceptions are more acute, and we tend to be far more reactionary. While cortisol and an adrenalized state helped us when we were running from dinosaurs or fighting off invaders, it doesn’t serve the modern human well, as prolonged cortisol levels are harmful to our health – and cause use to be reactionary with our decisions at the exact time when we should be more careful, critical, and measured.

2. Disproportionately focus on the positive

You may think that high levels of stress prompt us to see the world as all doom and gloom, but the opposite may be true. Research shows that acute stress actually leads our brains to ignore negative consequences and focus on the positives, or pleasure, instead. That’s right – we’re more likely to cling to any positive feedback or hope for positive outcomes when under stress instead of facing the reality of negative consequences.

3. We may think our options are binary 

One of the key findings of how our brains make decisions under stress is that we inadvertently restrict our options and solutions until we may think only two choices remain. We think that our only options are to take the job or not take it, to buy the service or not buy it, etc. 

But in the real world, our options are never binary (yes or no), and there are a multitude of solutions we can find if we only have the clarity to problem solve. Unfortunately, when under stress, our menu of perceived options shrinks down to very few, which forces our hand with some bad or limited decisions. We should entertain more options when under fire and facing stress and anxiety, not less!

4. Quick options instead of problem-solving

When we’re feeling the strain of fear or anxiety, we’re also likely to make decisions much more quickly (which isn’t necessarily a good thing). Perhaps it’s our fight-or-flight instinct kicking in, but our thought processes, problem-solving methods, and decision making tend to be rushed when the heat is on.

That may allow timely, definitive decisions in combat or in the face of an emergency, but they don’t help us in day-to-day life when it comes to decisions about finances, business, relationships, or other important life choices.

5. Abandon your normal decision-making process

There are two basic types of decision-making processes, which are based on your personality type. Some people are analytical, crunching numbers, taking in as much information as possible, and weighing all options such as a chess player who scrutinizes all of their moves carefully. 

The second personality type relies on their instincts and makes gut-level decisions, “going with the flow” and counting on their intuition when pressed to make a choice.

The fact is that neither method is right or wrong, and by sticking to the decision-making process that feels best to that individual, they build up a lifetime of practice and hone that skill.

However, when feeling the stress or pressure, we tend to abandon our comfortable and trusted method of decision making. Those who rely on instinct start crunching data and information; analytical people throw that out and go with their gut.

While we just noted that neither of these methods are wrong, you shouldn’t switch course and try a new, unfamiliar, or un-practiced decision-making process when under stress! 

Do men or women make better decisions when under stress?

Interestingly, research has pointed to some inherent differences in the decision-making process of women and men.  A study at the University of South Carolina found that under pressure, men took bigger risks than women, who were significantly more conservative. So, when forced to make decisions or solve problems under stress, women tend to take more time, weigh their options, and become more analytical, while men make snap decisions.

To account for these patterns, researchers point to differing responses in the anterior insula and dorsal striatum, which moderate our choices when rewards (like money) are on the line. 

It turns out that women may make better decisions when under stress!

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The good news is that no matter who you are, there are ways you can be conscious of your decision-making patterns and work to correct them as needed. There are also plenty of ways to naturally reduce your anxiety or be more clear-headed when making decisions, like deep breathing, meditation, exercise or fresh air, and positive visualization. 

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