Mental Challenges

A Neuroscientist and Therapist Explain How Anxiety and Stress Negatively Impact Decision Making

Erin Bunch

Photo: Stocksy/ Victor Torres
Anyone who's ever tried to make a seemingly simple choice while stressed or anxious likely knows that both emotional states can seriously hinder sound decision-making. In fact, you might agonize over a choice more than you normally would and still make a not-so-great call in the end. When you consider that stress and anxiety are biologically programmed to help us outrun predators and other threats, you'd think they'd work in favor of making good choices so we could, you know, survive on the savannah. What, then, explains the link between anxiety, stress, and decision-making that's not so great?

Below, Caroline Leaf, PhD—neuroscientist and Cleaning Up The Mental Mess author and NeuroCycle app founder—and Sage Grazer, LCSW, Co-founder and Chief Clinical Officer of mental health startup Frame, describe the ways in which stress and anxiety disrupt the decision-making process and advise on how you can ensure you're making calls both large and small from a healthy, calm, and well-reasoned place.

Anxiety, stress, and decision-making: Why you make not-so-great choices under duress

First and foremost, Dr. Leaf describes anxiety as "a warning signal" and stress as "a state of being," so there is some distinction between the two experiences; however, anxiety can cause stress, and stress can cause anxiety, so they can be interconnected in multiple ways.

Initially, anxiety alerts your brain and body that something potentially harmful to you is happening, and that puts your body into what Dr. Leaf calls a positive stress state. In this condition, your physiology changes. These changes include increased blood flow and oxygen levels, both of which support optimal brain function. "[In this scenario], you're going to have insightful decision making—you're going to pull on existing memories, you're going to pull on incoming information, and you're going to take the time to evaluate options," she says. 

If you don't manage this anxiety, essentially by investigating it, Dr. Leaf says your body will shift into a state of negative or toxic stress. When that happens, you absolutely will make bad decisions—they will become more reactive and potentially "foolish," she explains.

In this scenario, your blood vessels contract instead of expanding, decreasing oxygen and blood flow to the brain (among other cognition-debilitating neurophysiological changes). This gets a little technical, but Dr. Leaf explains that your brain waves—delta, beta, theta, and gamma—flow in a measured rhythm during a positive stress state, but in what she calls "neurochemical chaos" during a negative stress state. Essentially, explains Dr. Grazer, functioning in your prefrontal cortex—the area of the brain responsible for influencing attention, impulsivity, memory, and more—goes haywire.

All this chaos sends you into survival mode, wherein you can no longer access past experiences or other critical intel in order to make sound decisions. "You have too much of what you don't need, and too little of what you do," says Dr. Leaf.

According to Dr. Grazer, anxiety and poor decision-making are so tied together that difficulty choosing between options is actually a symptom of anxiety. Anxiety is also often driven by fear, says Dr. Grazer. When fear-based anxiety strikes, you could be worrying about the potential negative outcomes of your decisions, which is not the best environment for sound judgment. "I try to encourage people to avoid making fear-based decisions because [during that time] you're not necessarily choosing things that you want for your life, because you think they're aligned with your values," Dr. Grazer says. Instead, you're just trying to choose whichever option's potential consequences scare you the least, and it doesn't always sync up with the option that's actually best.

How to tell if you're in "the bad place" while trying to make a decision

If you want to avoid these decision-making pitfalls, you'll first want to check in with yourself to gauge your current mindset. Dr. Leaf says you need to ask yourself if you're in a positive stress state or a negative one (each is described above). When you're in the former, she says, you'll still feel symptoms like heart palpitations and a rush of adrenaline, but the difference is that these will simply serve to make you hyper-alert. You may feel this before standing up to give a speech in front of a crowd, for example, and it's not a bad thing. Dr. Leaf says it's like having "butterflies" in your stomach that fly in formation.

With bad stress, you will not feel as though your butterflies are flying in formation. Instead, you'll feel overwhelmed, like your emotions are out of control and there's just chaos reigning inside your brain. Your heart palpitations may also intensify so that you feel like you can't breathe.

And if you don't catch this right away and correct it before having to make a decision, you will make a bad choice, says Dr. Leaf. What's more, if these anxious and stressed states persist, your mind will create predictive patterns around the decisions you make from a bad place, causing you to make more bad decisions about similar situations in the future. (The brain loves a good shortcut, after all!)

How to calm anxiety and stress to ensure better decision-making

Now that you're aware of the red flags that suggest you might be primed to make a bad decision, you'll want to adopt strategies for resetting your brain so that you can make good choices instead. Below, find a 3-step process for doing just that.

1. Take a pause to analyze what's going on behind the scenes in your brain

As soon as you've identified that you're in a negative stress state, Dr. Leaf and Dr. Grazer both recommend taking a quick timeout. "Slow down and check-in with yourself, because it's hard to even know what we're experiencing if we're just rushing around," Dr. Grazer says. "We go into fight or a flight mode and become more agitated and irritable and feel an urgency to do things when there isn't necessarily as much urgency as we are assigning." If you're unsure whether or not you need a break, look for other tell-tale signs of stress and anxiety that are part of a familiar pattern for you, like a decrease or increase in appetite.

You'll also want to ask yourself what's really causing your brain to short circuit when it comes time to make a decision. Dr. Grazer notes that it's common to have underlying anxiety that has nothing to do with the decision you're trying to make, but which affects it nonetheless. Maybe you've got a big project due at work, and it's that anxiety that is causing you to struggle so much as with deciding where to have dinner. Realizing that your anxiety is not actually about dinner can help you make that low-stakes decision more easily, at which point you might want to employ calming techniques to ease the anxiety.

2. Engage in mindful activities 

To that end, both practitioners next recommend engaging in a simple breathing exercise to help recenter yourself. Dr. Leaf likes breathing in for three counts, to the point at which "it feels like your stomach may burst," then immediately pushing that breath out for seven counts, and then repeating the sequence nine times. This sends blood and oxygen back to the front of the brain, soothing that tsunami of waves that's befuddling your cognition. "You'll start calming down the chemical chaos," she says. Any one of these other 15 breathing exercises could work for this purpose, too.

If you have a little more time, engage in another calming practice, such as rhythmically squeezing a stress ball, or even just tap your fingers or feet in an ordered, rhythmic pattern, advises Dr. Leaf. And if you have still more time before a decision needs to be made, she recommends engaging in a creative activity such as drawing, dancing, etc., or even just studying a piece of art. This, too, will soothe and reset your addled brain.

Really, any activity that enables mindfulness will do the trick here—the goal is simply to restore your cognitive function to normalcy.

3. Now that you're calm, make a decision

Once you've restored a sense of equilibrium, you should be ready to make decisions again. The first step here is gaining awareness of the decision that needs to be made, and what it entails. Then, Dr. Leaf advises looking at why you need to make that decision and analyzing its implications. If you have time, she says it can be helpful to write these thoughts down. Then, visualize your decision—picture yourself living in the reality in which you've made that decision. And finally, take action. Consider which parts of the decision you can make now, Dr. Leaf says, noting that sometimes your decision will simply be that you haven't yet had enough time to make the decision, so you can't commit to making it quite yet. And if you start to feel anxious or stressed again at any point in this process, take a pause and start over again with step one above.

It's obviously impossible to eradicate stress and anxiety from our lives altogether—especially in the modern age—and yet we have to make hundreds of micro and macro decisions each day regardless. This can be dangerous, but Dr. Leaf offers a reminder that it's not the stress itself that results in negative consequences, but rather your response to it. "Learning healthy coping mechanisms is crucial to being able to have a productive, successful life," she says. "And, some peace of mind, too."

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