Do you make different choices when you are stressed?

We make choices all day long. But what is the effect of stress on your choices? The reward system and stress system are connected, making the advantages of a choice suddenly seem more important than the disadvantages. But what are the long-term effects of this?

This post is also available in Dutch.

We make all kinds of choices throughout the day. Some of them are conscious decisions, and others are not. Some choices are made in a split second, while we contemplate others for a longer period. Some choices are more critical than others. In other words, there are many different types of choices. When we make a decision, we gather information and weigh the pros and cons of each option. When we are relaxed and have enough time, we can carefully weigh these pros and cons with our knowledge and experience. However, choosing during a stressful situation under time pressure is more challenging. In those moments, stress takes over your brain and affects how you make those considerations. This can lead to adverse consequences. How does that work exactly? In this article, we discuss the influence of stress on decision-making.

The Influence of Stress

The reward and stress systems in our brains are closely interconnected. Research shows that when stressed, these systems become imbalanced, and we are more likely to focus on the benefits of an option rather than its drawbacks. Unconsciously, we lose sight of the downsides. For example, if you have an important appointment shortly after mealtime, you are more likely to opt for a quick bite from the snack bar. Due to the tension before your appointment, the positive aspects of the bag of fries – easy and tasty – outweigh the negative aspects, such as eating an unhealthy meal.

Stress and Mental Well-being

A simple choice like eating a single unhealthy meal under stress might not do much harm in the short term. However, it is different for a combination of prolonged stress and significant choices, such as housing or job decisions. The likelihood of making a wrong choice in such a situation is higher, which can have significant consequences for mental well-being. This is one of the reasons why prolonged stress increases the risk of mental illnesses and addictions

Are you still worried that you might make a wrong choice, whether simple or important, under stress? Then, carefully consider all the pros and cons, or postpone the decision until you are less tense.

Contributing to Our Understanding of Stress?

Stress is currently a hot topic in society and the research world. We have already gathered much knowledge, but there is still much more to discover about the link between the stress system and decision-making. This knowledge is necessary to learn how to best deal with stress.

Would you like to contribute, and are you curious about how we are researching this? Sign up as a volunteer and participate in an exciting study on stress!


Author: Emma Heling and Frédérique Maas

Buddy: Helena Olraun

Editor: Eline de Boer

Translation: Maartje Koot

Editor translation: Francesca Alba

Featured image by Luis Villasmil via Unsplash

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