Fight or Flight: How to Make Good Decisions Under Stress

Imagine that you’re a member of a nomadic tribe of hunter-gatherers living somewhere in North America during the Ice Age. You’re out pursuing a bison when, suddenly, a sabre-tooth tiger jumps out in front of you.

At the sight of this threatening environmental stimulus, your body immediately launches into what’s called the fight-or-flight response. Stress hormones flood the body and create physiological changes like:1

  • Increased blood flow to activated muscles by diverting blood from other parts of the body.
  • Higher blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugars, and fats to supply the body with a boost of energy.
  • Faster blood clotting function to prevent excessive blood loss in case of injury.
  • Greater muscle tension to provide the body with extra speed and strength.

Ready to Fight or Flight

These changes help you attack quickly or run like crazy. And if you’re standing face-to-face with a sabre-tooth tiger, that’s a very helpful reaction. The fight-or-flight response helped our ancestors stay alive, so we inherited it from them.

And while it’s still useful, it can also be problematic. Our bodies don’t distinguish well between threats to our survival and everyday stressors. So an angry boss, a challenging deadline, or an overwhelming workload can all set off the fight-or-flight response.

And when that happens, your ability to think is also affected. During the fight-or-flight response, your brain has increased activity in areas like the limbic system, which is associated with emotions. Meanwhile, it has decreased activity in areas like the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with decision-making.2

In the terms of psychologist Daniel Kahneman, you switch from the reflective System 2 to the reflexive System 1. That means you become more susceptible to cognitive biases and logical fallacies. And, as a result, you’re more likely to make hasty decisions based on habitual responses rather than deep thinking.

Prepare for Pressure

To be a good decision-maker, you need to be able to face the inevitable stressors of life without getting swept away by the fight-or-flight response. And the best way to do that is to proactively build your stress resilience and deliberately calm down before making important decisions.

Look after your most basic self-care needs. Get sufficient sleep, eat healthy foods, and be physically active every day. That will give your body and brain the rest, fuel, and outlet it needs to cope with the stress that it’s experiencing. Prepare well and you’ll perform well.

And whenever a big decision arises, take the time to breathe deeply, slow down, and concentrate. Make sure to switch from System 1 to System 2. Then use mental models to consider what’s in front of you from different perspectives.

The less stressed you are, the clearer you’ll think, and the better decisions you’ll make.

This article is an excerpt from my book The Decision-Making Blueprint.

Footnotes

  1. Fight-or-flight response
  2. Stress potentiates decision biases: A stress induced deliberation-to-intuition (SIDI) model