When I’m faced with a difficult decision, I always feel stressed. In our society today, there are so many challenging decisions to make. “Stress” as we experience it is the physiological response to these kinds of challenges.¹ ² I’ve always thought of stress as a negative experience, one that clouds my judgment. But I can’t avoid it altogether. Over the long term, I can reduce stress, but no matter what, difficult decisions will cause stress. Instead of avoiding it, can’t I harness it to improve my decision-making skills?
Acute Versus Chronic Stress
As with many psychological questions, the answer is complicated. In fact, there are two separate types of stress: chronic stress and acute stress.³ Chronic stress is experienced in the long term and causes health complications. It is a major risk factor for mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.⁴ In fact, chronic stress is considered a “worldwide epidemic” by the World Health Organization.⁵ When subjected to chronic stress, rodents make more habit-based and risky decisions. They don’t pay as much attention to the outcomes of their decisions.⁶ ⁷ Human adults tend to make riskier decisions under chronic stress, and this is especially true for men.⁸ ⁹ Chronic stress seems to impair decision-making skills. But the effect of acute stress is less clear.
Acute Stress and Decision-Making
Acute stress is a short-term physiological response to challenges.¹⁰ In some studies, acute stress also increases risky decision-making regardless of outcome.¹¹ ¹² But in other studies, acute stress can lead to better decision-making.¹³ ¹⁴ In a study done by Byrne et al., researchers induced acute stress in some participants and not others.¹⁵ The participants then performed a task in which they could learn to maximize long term rewards over time.¹⁵ According to Byrne, “what we found is that these moderate levels of acute stress can lead to optimal decisions when there’s some sort of long term benefit. It heightens the focus on the long term reward.” The stressed participants were able to focus on the bigger picture and better learn how to maximize their rewards in the task.¹⁵
When Is Acute Stress Useful?
The utility of acute stress directly applies to our daily lives. Byrne says that in job interviews, stress is useful because “those situations may heighten a person’s focus on the long term goal of getting the job.” Instead of worrying about what’s happening in the moment, acute stress can cause a person to make decisions that will help them in the long run. Also, acute stress can help them learn from past experiences, such as past job interviews. “Past experiences are good indicators of success,” Byrne says. When people can focus both on their long-term goals and on what they’ve learned from past experiences, they can make better decisions.
Some stress can be harmful, but it is unavoidable. Everyone experiences it. Therefore, it is important to recognize the situations in which it can be useful. Though chronic stress appears to be uniformly harmful, acute stress can improve decision-making skills. It helps people focus on their long-term goals and remember their past decisions. So the next time you’re stressed by a decision, remember that the feeling may actually be beneficial. Breathe, focus, and let your body’s response help you.
1 Wemm, S. E., & Wulfert, E. (2017). Effects of acute stress on decision making. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 42(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10484-016-9347-8
2 Raio, C. M., Konova, A. B., & Otto, A. R. (2020). Trait impulsivity and acute stress interact to influence choice and decision speed during multi-stage decision-making. Scientific Reports, 10(1), 7754. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-64540-0
4 Antontseva, E., Bondar, N., Reshetnikov, V., & Merkulova, T. (2020). The effects of chronic stress on brain myelination in humans and in various rodent models. Neuroscience, 441, 226–238. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroscience.2020.06.013
5 Lunde, C. E., & Sieberg, C. B. (2020). Walking the tightrope: A proposed model of chronic pain and stress. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 14, 270. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2020.00270
6 Dias-Ferreira, E., Sousa, J. C., Melo, I., Morgado, P., Mesquita, A. R., Cerqueira, J. J., Costa, R. M., & Sousa, N. (2009). Chronic stress causes frontostriatal reorganization and affects decision-making. Science, 325(5940), 621–625. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1171203
7 Porcelli, A. J., & Delgado, M. R. (2017). Stress and Decision Making: Effects on Valuation, Learning, and Risk-taking. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 14, 33–39. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2016.11.015
9 Ceccato, S., Kudielka, B. M., & Schwieren, C. (2015). Increased Risk Taking in Relation to Chronic Stress in Adults. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 2036. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.02036
10 Majer, A. D., Fasanello, V. J., Tindle, K., Frenz, B. J., Ziur, A. D., Fischer, C. P., Fletcher, K. L., Seecof, O. M., Gronsky, S., Vassallo, B. G., Reed, W. L., Paitz, R. T., Stier, A., & Haussmann, M. F. (2019). Is there an oxidative cost of acute stress? Characterization, implication of glucocorticoids and modulation by prior stress experience. Proceedings. Biological Sciences / the Royal Society, 286(1915), 20191698. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2019.1698
11 Morgado, P., Sousa, N., & Cerqueira, J. J. (2015). The impact of stress in decision making in the context of uncertainty. Journal of Neuroscience Research, 93(6), 839–847. https://doi.org/10.1002/jnr.23521
12 Raio, C. M., Konova, A. B., & Otto, A. R. (2020). Trait impulsivity and acute stress interact to influence choice and decision speed during multi-stage decision-making. Scientific Reports, 10(1), 7754. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-64540-0
13 Shields, G. S., Lam, J. C. W., Trainor, B. C., & Yonelinas, A. P. (2016). Exposure to acute stress enhances decision-making competence: Evidence for the role of DHEA. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 67, 51–60. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2016.01.031
14 Singer, N., Sommer, M., Döhnel, K., Zänkert, S., Wüst, S., & Kudielka, B. M. (2017). Acute psychosocial stress and everyday moral decision-making in young healthy men: The impact of cortisol. Hormones and Behavior, 93, 72–81. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.yhbeh.2017.05.002
15 Byrne, K. A., Cornwall, A. C., & Worthy, D. A. (2019). Acute stress improves long-term reward maximization in decision-making under uncertainty. Brain and Cognition, 133, 84–93. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bandc.2019.02.005