Can Stress Cause Bad Decisions? 

By Terry Streather | Mental Health

Sep 22

He caught himself in the moment... and he couldn’t believe what he was doing.

It had been a tough few months for Dave. His high-flying wife made redundant from a job she loved; his friend had taken his own life and his father had been diagnosed with a very serious, life threatening illness. To say he was stressed was an understatement.

A committed team player, he wasn’t going to let the side down by calling in sick. So, in he came, papering over the cracks in his personal life by plunging headlong into the job he loved. After all, that’s life… he could handle it.

Or so he thought. He realised he wasn’t handling it too well when he found himself pinning a 17 year old children’s home resident to the wall by his collar. The boy had assaulted a staff member with a chair, before swinging it at him. .   

On the surface you might argue his actions were justifiable.  But Dave knew that stress had got to him. This incident was just the final straw… and he snapped. He had never lost control… until now.

Why do normally reasonable, rational and logical people sometimes make bad decisions? 

We have all said and done things we wished we had not. By his own admission Dave wasn’t thinking. He certainly wasn’t using the decision making models he had been trained in and used for so many years. No, this time it was different.

Why didn’t he “engage brain” and weigh up the pro’s and cons of his actions? It’s so easy- just follow the step by step process! Look…

Designed to help in making the right choice. Post incident, slow time sterile reviews focus on decision making at the time, when emotions are highest.

This model, and others like it, are designed to demonstrate the thought process of the decision maker, enabling an objective view as to the justifiability and proportionality of their decisions or actions.

Personally, I used such models for years and found it extremely helpful, both in planning for events; such as policing protests; football matches and enforcement action; and in responding to spontaneous incidents such as fights or car crashes.

As I reflect on this now however, I have to ask…  in the heat of the moment is it really possible to follow the model?

Scenario…A punch is winging its way towards your head… impact t-minus 0.0085 secs…

No problem:

Step 1: Consider information and intelligence (this guy’s trying to take my head off!!!!!)

Step 2: Consider Threat/Risk assessment and formulate a working plan (pretty high risk here, working plan- don’t get hit!)

Step 3: Consider Policy and Legislation (seriously?)

Step 4: What are my tactical options (Hands up, cover head and duck!)

Step 5: Take action (good idea...)

All this whilst considering the values and mission statement of the organisation…

Hmmm…

We all know it’s ridiculous to expect that any human being will be considering a logical, rational and well thought out “plan” in these circumstances. Accompanying guidance to any of the models will accept that you can’t always go through each stage, in a neat little row.

The very worrying thing however, is that sometimes, the people who sit in judgement of our actions expect just that. 

Have a break...

For a long time we have assumed that the sudden introduction of a “Stressor” (like someone throwing a punch at your head) floods the system with a “chemical cocktail” and overwhelms the “logical” processes in the brain.

But new research suggests that the brains response to stress is not to throw it’s hands up and run around like a 4 year old having a tantrum because they have just been told they can’t have ANOTHER pack of haribo.

It’s far more targeted and deliberate. So… to science…

The Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC) is part of our Cerebrum, just behind your forehead. It’s the newest part of our brain. How we make decisions depends on specific neurons in the PFC functioning properly.

Stress actually disengages these brain cells

What? No really… here’s a scientist…

"The data indicates that anxiety has an exquisitely selective effect on neuronal activity that supports decision making… this study shows that anxiety disengages brain cells in a highly specialized manner."” Bita Moghaddam, Ph.D,

And apparently the more stressed you are the worse it gets! “Multiple stressors” may add up to be even more potent; like high physical threat + time constraints, or high workload + low levels of control.

It is always easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to sit and criticise decisions made in the heat of the moment. If fault is to be found, it usually rests on the individuals decision making process (or lack thereof). Little is said about the stress that person was under, and even less about the circumstances that contributed to that stress in the first place.

Dave: Yes you’re right, hands up…my fault. My reaction had nothing to do with the fact that you expect me to do more for less. I’m overworked, lack any control over my current role or future, hardly see my family because of the shift pattern, haven’t had a pay rise in years and have a tough time at home because of all of the above. Oh, and the nature of the job means I’m verbally abused and physically assaulted fairly regularly. My fault really.   

And of course, each bad decision is likely to increase our feelings of anxiety, turning the whole thing into a vicious downward spiral. So now Dave probably feels even more stressed increasing his chances of making more bad decisions.

Is it a "Decision Making" model or "Justification Tool?"

Decision models are fantastic ways to structure and present the rationale behind the decisions we make. They are excellent in pre-planning and can be used to review incidents and promote learning.

Experience tells me that in some circumstances it is not always possible to consciously go through each heading in a systematic way. Especially if staff are already stressed and their “stress  buckets” nearly overflowing.

I’m not saying that clear and rational thought “under fire” is not possible. I have met many people who remain extremely calm and considered in any given circumstance. Nor am I making excuses for people who go over the top or abuse their authority or position of trust. They deserve to feel the full force of the law/disciplinary proceedings.

But our individual responses to stressors will vary greatly, depending on the nature and persistence of the stressor as well as our biological vulnerability and learned patterns of coping. And this is where training design comes in.

By exposing people to the kinds of situations they would face in reality within a controlled training environment, we can simulate the kind of stress likely to be experienced, and train the appropriate responses.

Summing up then...

It appears that the wiring of our brains can prevent us from always making rational and logical decisions when we are stressed.

 So, bottom line… If you want to make better decisions, or you want  the people you manage to make better decisions, reduce stress. Simples…

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About the Author

Terry is Director and Head of Training at Oakwood. He helps clients promote a proactive, rather than reactive approach to both personal safety and the positive mental health of their staff. He has over 12 years teaching experience in these areas, and advises organisations in the development of appropriate risk assessment and policy.