Is This a Good Idea Right Now?

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Life must go on in the pandemic, but the emotional stress can impact your decision-making abilities.

Whether a hero on the front lines or hunkered down in your home, all of us face stress during the era of COVID-19 that we have never encountered before. At the same time, life continues, and many of us have to make everyday choices about homes, jobs, schools, families, and relationships – just like before the pandemic.

Whether they're comfortable or challenging, big decisions always bring about some level of stress. And when you add in challenging times like the present, your ability to make that choice properly is impacted, says Firdaus S. Dhabhar, Ph.D., a psychiatry and behavioral sciences expert at the University of Miami Health System.

Does being under stress always lead to bad decisions?

decisions stressNot always, says Dr. Dhabhar.

"The effects of stress on decision-making are complex and likely to depend on a myriad of factors, such as whether the stressor is short term (minutes to hours) or chronic (weeks, months or years), whether the individual making the decision is a novice or expert, the degree of risk involved, amount of uncertainty, degree of loss or reward associated with the decision, age of the person, and other factors," he says.

Dr. Dhabhar sees the impact of stress on different situations as an "inverted U." While a bit of pressure can sharpen the mind and lead to better outcomes, too much stress can cause a breakdown and turn the tide toward poor choices.

"While one would assume that stress, in general, has a negative effect on decision-making, research shows that this is not always the case," he says. "Under some conditions, stress may help one make better decisions."

What the research shows

Research seems to support Dr. Dhabhar's notion of a complicated relationship between stress and deciding between options. For example, a 2010 review article from the Association for Psychological Science noted that some research has shown people make more thoughtful decisions while feeling acute stress, while other studies have shown them to take more significant risks.

A 2012 study by the association found that people making a choice under stress may pay more attention to the upsides than the downsides of the decision. For example, if you are considering a new job during the pandemic, you might put more emphasis on the salary increase than the long, arduous commute you'd have each day.

How to make good decisions in uncertain times

Making big decisions is never easy, even when the world is calm. But there are steps to help yourself make the right decisions when faced with a difficult situation, says Dr. Dhabhar.

  • Wait for it. According to Dr. Dhabhar, no choice is more stressful than a rushed one. "If you have a choice regarding the timing of the decision, wait before you make it," he says. "Take some time to reduce your chronic stress and also prepare better. Make the decision after you've spent more time than you normally would if you were under less or non-stressful conditions."
  • Do your homework. Gather as much knowledge as you can before deciding. "Be thoughtful about the information that you gather and use to help make your decision," says Dhabhar. "Cross-check it using sources coming from all sides of the political spectrum. During present times, information on even relatively neutral topics could inadvertently get politicized and be potentially incomplete or biased."
  • Talk to others. Even if the decision directly affects you the most, getting the perspective of others that you trust is always a good idea, says Dr. Dhabhar. "In this regard, your spouse or significant other, parents, kids who are old enough, close family members, good friends, colleagues, or anyone who is trustworthy and cares for you can be tremendously helpful."
  • Don't get overwhelmed. Practicing regular self-care makes challenging times less stressful in general. It also helps you avoid decision-fatigue. "Reducing chronic stress and its negative effects is easier said than done, but not impossible," says Dr. Dhabhar. "Yoga or meditation can help, but such contemplative approaches don't work for everyone." Engage in an activity you can safely enjoy. Spending quality time with your family, doing volunteer work (that you can do while physical distancing), engaging in religious and spiritual activities, or practicing hobbies like dancing, jogging, or gardening can help you manage your stress and clear your mind to make those important decisions.

Wyatt Myers is a contributing writer for UMiami Health News.


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