Making Decisions Under Stress

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When the demands you face exceed your ability to meeet them, you are under stress. Stress can affect both physical and mental health, possibly resulting in increased heart rate, a rise in blood pressure, muscular tension, irritability, and depression. Therefore, it can affect the ability to think critically, solve problems, and make sound decisions. There is no way to control every potentially stressful situation that we may encounter; time pressures at work, lack of information, information overload, and aggressive individuals are things that we have to deal with from time to time whether we want to or not. What we can control is how we deal with stress and how we let it affect us.

When you are under too much stress, or you don't deal with the stressors that are affecting you, it will affect the way you make decisions. Some of the most common effects are:

■ Inability to recognize or understand a problem. When stressed, it is difficult to access stored information quickly, if at all. Short-term memory is affected. You may incorrectly identify something as a problem when in fact it is not.

■ Difficulty brainstorming and setting reasonable goals. When you do not accurately recognize the problem, and you have trouble concentrating, you may come up with a quick or irrational solution. You tend to think only about the immediate future, so planning is difficult and decisions are often made quickly.

■ Inability to assess the solution. If you are having trouble taking in information, you will not be able to see if your solution works. A short-term view of everything may keep you from being concerned with the implications of your solution.

As an example of decision making under stress, imagine an auction. Two people are interested in the same 100-year-old china plate. They both know they can find this plate at other auctions and antique stores for about $50 so they probably set a limit, even if only in their minds, to the price they are willing to pay for it. Then, the bidding begins. Because two (or more) people are interested in the same item excitement builds and the bidders get carried away by "auction fever." In such a case, the winning bid could well exceed $100, or double what the bidders know the plate is worth. Reason and logic, when faced with stress, take a back seat to emotion.

How could both people have eliminated the stress and bid reasonably? By doing one simple thing: recognize what they had control over, and then exercise control over it. In this case, they could have set a price before the auction begins, which they would not exceed. But what about a more complicated example? For instance, you are refinancing your mortgage. You filed the papers three weeks ago and set a date for the closing. When you get to the closing, the loan officer tells you that the interest rate has gone up a point, and you will have to pay the higher rate.

In this very stressful situation, you must make a decision. If you allow stress to take over, you will probably do one of two things: tell the loan officer to forget it, or say, "What the heck?" and continue with the closing even though the rate is higher. If you recognize what you have control over, you will ask questions before making a move. "How does this rate compare with the one I am already paying? What will my new payment be as opposed to the old? Can you waive the closing costs to help me save money?" In this situation, getting information means taking control. Do not act until you understand the situation. Even when stressed, you can check your emotions and make good decisions.

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