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Making Decisions Under Stress

Making Decisions Under Stress

We live in a society of change and speed—high speed internet, fast food, express lanes, instant messaging, the list goes on. Life’s stressors can also come upon us both fast and unexpected. We may be, one minute, basking in comfort and security but one hiccup can shake up our lives, throwing us into a state of fear and uncertainty. As we dwell in a world of the unexpected, we must prepare to make critical yet objective decisions in the midst of a change, a crisis, and even a crucible.

One can easily categorize a crisis within the heart-wrenching struggle that always accompanies making decisions regarding an unplanned pregnancy, the revelation of infertility, giving birth to a child born with significant health problems, etc. Many fear that if poor decisions are made, the consequences can be immense whether physically, emotionally, and even financially. Therefore, a question begs to be answered for those caught up in these circumstances: how can I make such decisions when I face this flood of fear and stress? There are three principles that may be helpful before significant decisions are made that can ease stress and increase your sense of control.

Principle 1: You can only critically think of one thing at a time.

Some people pride themselves in multitasking under high-pressured environments. Yes, they may do well with juggling several tasks…but juggling is different than critical thinking. In short, human beings are more often terrible multitaskers, ESPECIALLY under stress. Detail is lost, consequences are considered but not weighed, financial details may be ignored, repercussions ill thought out, and other factors can be missed. So, what’s the solution? I call it, “Weeding the Garden”. Church and statesman LeGrand Richards once prosed:

For every worry under the sun

There is a remedy or there is none.

If there is a remedy, hurry and find it.

If there is none, never mind it.

When gardening, there are plants that produce yield, offering the grower a bounty in fruits and vegetables. In the same garden, however, there are other plants that offer nothing of value such as weeds and thorns that can choke and destroy a crop. We must begin by clearing from our minds that which we have no control. These can come in the forms of petty distractions, too much advice, appeasing the social milieu, and other issues that can be put on hold. I find it helpful to draw a line down a piece of paper, labeling one side “control” and the other “no control” or “not important”, and write down your worries, concerns, and issues you face. You’ll be amazed what falls under the “no control” or “not important” category. Focus on what is most important and then act on what can be done, not what can’t.

Principle 2: You can’t do it alone.

Have you ever cooked with coals? Nothing is better than the smell of coals cooking up vegetables, shish kabobs, hamburgers, steak, or chicken. Once the coals are all fired up, they turn from black to an ashen white. When they get to this point, the fire that originally set them ablaze has long since died out. Nevertheless, they are still very effective in cooking. So, what’s keeping them burning? Try grabbing a pair of tongs, remove a single coal from the grill, and let it sit out in the air for a while. What happens to it? It burns out. Why? A single piece of coal cannot sustain its own heat…at least not for long. The agent that keeps coals hot is not fire—it’s one another.

So to the moral of this example….humans cannot sustain their own “heat”. We may inherit certain attributes and gifts, but if these are not fostered through encouragement and discipline, we “burn out”. We must understand this principle. Trying to make stressful and even life-changing decisions void of support is like trying to keep a match lit in a hurricane. It just doesn’t work. Invite others to rally around you (e.g. doctors, family, friends, groups, co-workers, clergy, etc.) in the crucible so you can be empowered by their heat and their support.

All too often, people complain that they have no support system. Let me explain a little secret that people find hard to believe, but actually works. Open your mouth! Try it. Get to know your neighbor, express your concerns with a doctor or get counseling. When somebody asks you how you’re doing, tell them the truth. You’re struggling. You don’t have to go into an enormous amount of detail but just say how you’re feeling. It may surprise you how small the world is and who may be going through something very similar. You may have just found your new best friend!

Principle 3: You can’t ride a dead horse.

As life begins to change, so we must adapt and conform to the new circumstances before us. With every new major milestone and every crisis, life takes on a different dynamic, necessitating a change in course and how we handle things. A biblical text expounds on this principle, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11). As we may long to change our present circumstances back to what was at least familiar and even comfortable, our present reality demands a different approach.

Say, for example, you inherited a beautiful stallion. From a foal, the horse seemed perfect in every way. It responded to its training, learned commands, and respected your authority. In time, it seemed you recognized its behaviors and cues well enough to anticipate any problems and respond to its needs. Over many years, the horse gradually declines and dies. Fortunately, the horse left behind offspring and you begin to train one particular horse that seems promising. You feel like you’re now an old pro, so you implement the training formula that worked so well from your previous experience. To your shock, the horse is not as responsive and is even a little stubborn. Demanding respect, you keep implementing your “proven” principles of horse training but to no avail. Mounting the horse and attempting to train from the saddle is as easy as canoeing the Colorado River upstream. Day after day you grow uneasy, frustrated, and finally give up. You sell the horse, advertising it as a lemon and receiving only a few hundred dollars from the sale.

To an extent, all of us attempt to “ride a dead horse” or, in other words, assume that one method of practice that once worked governs and applies to all situations. Johnny was so easy but that Billy! He’s as stubborn as a mule! What did I do wrong? Mental health professionals are a great resource to help us objectively break old patterns that don’t work and to define new ways of thinking and handling situations. It is a liberating feeling when old habits are broken and new, effective actions are taken to help increase the effectiveness of working towards better solutions.

As a closing thought, I think it’s good for us to remember that anxiety and stress are specters that all of us will face. A lack of stress in life is more the exception and hardly the rule. To an extent, stress can be very beneficial as it serves as a barometer on how much work we need to put forth to accomplish a goal. However, too much stress skews our ability to “see things as they really are” and to objectively work towards an effective solution. If you are under stress to make a critical decision(s) for a child or whatever the strain, please know that you’re in good company. In fact, if you’re not experiencing some stress, I’d be worried about you. If you can keep these three principles in mind as you’re making decisions, I feel confident that you will be given the mental and physical energy to be successful.

by Matthew Dean Barkdull, LMFT, MedFT