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Stress changes the way we think, especially when we’re evaluating options and making decisions. Here’s how to make better choices during times of stress.

That stress negatively affects decision making is a no-brainer – you only need to look at drinking and snacking habits during intense periods at work to see the correlation.

But there’s more to it than poor simple choices: chronic stress can have a lasting impact on your ability to stay calm when you’re on deadline, maintain diplomacy and, above all, make rational choices. This in turn can negatively affect performance and productivity at work.

Thankfully, the brain has an amazing ability to change and adapt, and it is possible to rewire the way your decision-making responds to stress.

Making decisions on the fly

When we’re stressed and perceive a threat, a part of the brain called the limbic system takes over. It controls behavioural and emotional responses related to our survival, including the fight-or-flight response. As a result, the prefrontal cortex, which looks after complex cognitive tasks like reasoning and decision making, is pushed aside.

“The limbic system is the first part of the brain that develops in utero, and it’s wired for survival,” says Emi Golding, director of psychology at the Workplace Mental Health Institute. “It’s there to keep us alive, it doesn’t care about wellbeing and it’s not wired for complex decision making.

“If I’m in the jungle, and I’m under stress, which basically means I’m under threat as something’s about to attack me or eat me, our brain doesn’t sit there and calculate all the pros and cons of a certain situation. It just goes there’s a tiger, so you need to run or freeze or grab something to fight it.”

The trouble is that the evolutionary advantages of stress translate poorly to the modern workplace and the different type of jungle that lawyers navigate daily. The emotive, primitive response remains, but there isn’t a large scary animal in sight.

“Lawyers may like to think that they’re more rational, sensible and logical, but lawyers are human, and all brains work in the same way,” Golding says. “When we’re impacted by stress, that emotional system overrides the logic system in the brain.”

Poor choices under stress

Stress has a profound impact on decision making when we’re at work, explains Professor Prue Vines from the School of Private & Commercial Law at UNSW. “The front-of-brain processes that we use for evaluation, judgment and analysis are likely to be the ones most affected.” For complex decisions, the effect is even more pronounced.

Stress has the greatest impact on decisions that must be made urgently, Golding says. Time pressures are highly emotive, and we look for choices that will take away the stress – or fight the tiger, so to speak. “We look for the easy decision, a result that’s going to soothe us,” Golding says. “This is because we’re very simple creatures – we like to go away from pain and towards pleasure.”

The result is often riskier choices in pursuit of immediate stress relief. “There is evidence that prolonged stress may lead to high-risk, high-reward decision making, which in itself may perpetuate chronic stress,” Professor Vines says. “By comparison, high anxiety may create risk-aversion or a failure to make any decision at all.”

Golding says this preference for risky choices can play out in a variety of unsuspecting ways.  Stress makes us more irritable and less patient, so you might lash out at a colleague or manager to feel better in that moment. Or you may swap your usual diplomacy for an abrupt assessment of a client proposal. “It’s looking for that immediate relief, rather than considering long-term consequences,” Golding says.

The process of poor or risky decision making can become so ingrained that it becomes habit, overriding the brain’s ability for rational decision making. Some research has also shown chronic stress biases choices towards habits rather than goals because it requires fewer cognitive resources.

“When people have experienced chronic stress over a period of time, it can become a more habitual way of responding and it can have a bigger impact,” Golding says. “Say you’re under stress and you make a mistake – a decision that doesn’t work out. It’s okay if you do it once, but if you do it again and again because it’s become habit, it’s going to start having an impact on your career.”

Rethinking better decisions

Thanks to the wonders of neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to modify, change and adapt in response to our experiences – it’s possible to train your brain to make less habitual, more rational choices while under stress. Making one less risky, poorly thought through decision makes the next one easier and the one after that.

“The brain can be permanently rewired to get better after stress, but it takes time and a lot of practice to get the benefit of neuroplasticity,” Professor Vines says. “However, the ability of the brain to repair itself is much greater than we thought 30 years ago. We now know that the more we repeat an action, thought or behaviour, the more a ‘track’ is laid down in the brain, and so it is possible to change it over time.”

There’s also benefit in trying to calm the limbic system to give the prefrontal cortex space to do its thing: make reasoned, rational choices. “If it’s a big decision, and you’re able to, sleep on it,” Golding says. “It sounds really simple, but there’s a good reason for it: it gives your brain space to digest and get familiar with the options that are on the table.”

If you don’t have time to sleep on it, she recommends pausing, taking some deep breaths and perhaps collecting information from people you respect before making a decision. “Sometimes it’s as simple as taking a moment to stop and gather yourself.”