Have you ever felt so stressed out by work that making the smallest decisions, such as what to eat for dinner, seems like too big of a chore to deal with? Many people find decision-making difficult but under stress it becomes even more so.
Stress is known to affect our decision-making abilities. Research has shown that when people are under stress they are more likely to make a premature decision before considering all of the options . The reason for this may lie in cognitive and physiological responses to stress. For example, the pre-frontal cortex is a part of the brain that is important for regulating and controlling our behaviour. Activity in this part is reduced under stress meaning it probably is not working as well as it should . What can we do to stop stress affecting our cognitive abilities? The answer may lie in resilience.
Resilience is the ability to adapt and to cope with adverse events. For example, college students who are naturally more resilient are less likely to face decision-making difficulties about their future careers . Similarly, workers in a call centre – who normally face high levels of burnout – are less likely to suffer from the effects of stress if they are resilient. Specifically, these workers see stress as a challenge rather than a threat and thus feel more in control when handling difficult situations .
Seeing stress as a challenge rather than a threat is a key way of building resilience. When stress is seen as a threat heart rate increases and blood vessels constrict so that blood pressure rises thus affecting decision-making and performance .When stress is seen as a challenge, however, heart rate increases but the body also releases adrenaline. This relaxes blood vessels allowing more blood to flow to the brain and muscles in anticipation of the challenge ahead. One study found that just manipulating the wording on instructions for golf players so that half felt challenged and half felt threated changed their performance .
Those who felt threatened landed fewer putts and had less effective muscle activity when swinging the club compared to those who felt challenged. There are many ways to build resilience but one way is to try to see stress as a challenge not a threat. Take a step back and break the problem down into steps with the first step being a goal that you know you can complete. After doing this tell yourself that this is a challenge and try to make yourself excited about getting to the bottom of it. If you can reduce your stress in this way it will likely have the added benefit of helping the decision-making abilities that you need to conquer the challenge ahead.
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