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How stress, fear and anxiety rob us of the ability to make good decisions

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We live in a world where fear, stress, and anxiety are normalised. While the news media is only partly to blame, making a killing of FUDGE (fear, uncertainty, doubt, greed, and envy), they are not the sole culprits. Each one of us chooses, on some level, to play this game. Or at least, we pretend that we have no other choices.

But, how do we make good decisions from a state of fear, stress and anxiety? In many ways, we’re hampered by tunnel vision, unable to see options broader than the scope of escaping the immediate threats that we perceive. We choose to move towards what we consider safe rather than seeing the wider opportunities available to us.

And so, we continue on this hamster wheel, continually fueled by our fears and making decisions in less than optimal mental, physical and emotional states.

I want to take a moment to explore the effects of fear, stress and anxiety on us, physically, mentally and emotionally. Then, we can explore the optimal states for decision-making. Finally, I will look at options for bringing in a form (albeit temporarily) in which you are calm and alert, allowing better decision-making.

The effects of stress, fear & anxiety

Fear, stress and anxiety are not the same. But I’m not going to delve deeply into the differences between them or the specifics of their physiological, emotional or mental effects. Instead, I will talk about generalisations. This has its drawbacks, but there are many overlaps in what happens to us in each of these states.

At a fundamental level, fear is the response to a present danger. Unfortunately, our minds are now quite adept at creating mental fears, presently with us, although blown out of proportion. Anxiety is fear for the future: the unknown and uncertain. And stress is our response to fear and anxiety: physically, mentally and emotionally.

Both fear and anxiety can send you into one of the following response patterns:

  • Fight
  • Flight
  • Freeze

Long term, if you fail to return to a state of calm, you end up in a state of chronic stress, which most of us have become accustomed to on some level. This is what I want to address and look within and consider the possibility of change.

There are short-term fixes to stress, fear and anxiety. But if you are living with chronic stress, then perhaps it’s time to make some lifestyle changes. Allow things to slow down and ease off. I’ll come back to this later.

Your inner life: embodied stress

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When you are under stress (responding to fear or anxiety), your body will strive to keep you alert, moving, motivated and ready to avoid impending danger. Because of this, it will change your physiological responses, shutting down some functions considered non-essential for survival while heightening others.

So, for example, your digestion is non-essential, which is why when we eat on the run or when stressed, we often end up with indigestion or reflux.

But the body also responds to stress by maximising and filtering your senses towards danger. So, your peripheral vision opens up, which is why when you’re stressed, you struggle to find the car keys that were “right under your nose”.

You become better able to spot hostility and aggression. Yet, when someone is simply calm and passive, you mistake this expressionlessness for hostility rather than as a friendly face.

Similarly, your ears become attuned to higher and lower frequencies, filtering out the normal range of human voices. So, you will notice and tune into high pitched voices (stressed) while ignoring those that are calm and in a normal range.

The ANS (Autonomic Nervous System) responses

The ANS is part of the nervous system that controls many of the body’s unconscious functions, such as breathing, heart rate, body temperature, and the like. It steps up and controls your fight, flight or freeze response by controlling your heart rate, breathing, vision, hearing, taste, smell, etc. The RSA centre of the brain filters these messages, choosing which information or data to pass on.

When you are fearful and anxious and go into fight or flight mode, your energy and blood are directed to your limbs, making sense for running or fighting. Of course, that\s not very helpful in your office fight, where you need your wits about you, rather than the use of fists. Unfortunately, after a particularly stressful day, you might also find yourself feeling fatigued, as well as aches and pains in your muscles, even though you didn’t use them for fight or flight.

Similarly, in preparation for a fight and injury, your blood thickens, making clotting easier.  This is an excellent response for a fight but a terrible reaction for heart disease and circulation.

Anxiety can also lead to insomnia, as you are kept alert to ward off predators throughout the night. This is not a particularly helpful response with inner-city living when your stress is work-related and what you need is a good night’s sleep and a clear head in the morning.

Other long-term effects caused by the ANS’s response to stress might include>

  • impact on your immune system
  • high blood pressure
  • digestive issues.

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Your emotional response to stress

Everyone responds differently to stress: I quickly lose my playfulness and curiosity while my sense of humour turns darker. If my daughter tries to joke with me, and I am easily irritated, I quickly start to look at the cause of my stress. It’s rarely my daughter, but my lack of playfulness with her is an easy indicator that something is amiss.

Common emotional responses to stress include:

  • intense emotions
  • reacting impulsively
  • irritability, hostility & aggression
  • sadness or depression
  • inner turmoil
  • feelings of dread
  • frustration
  • withdrawal
  • defensive or suspicious of others

All of these emotional responses make it difficult to connect and communicate with others. Stress impacts relationships in the immediate way that we interact and the long-term impact on trust. It is lost over time when we establish patterns of behaviour that are stress responses.

Your mental response to stress

Rumination is a typical stress response: replaying a situation or problem in our minds, but with a single or limited perspective and options. It feels like going around in circles, a loop on replay.

Unfortunately, with ongoing stress, there is an impact on our ability to think clearly. The stress hormones affect not only our nervous system and immune system; they also impact the brain in a couple of different ways.

Memory & problem-solving

Firstly, stress hormones will impact your hippocampus, where you store your long-term memories. This makes it difficult to learn anything new. Ever tried to study and cram at the very last minute? You can remember what you studied the next day for the exam (when you need it), but a week later, it’s all forgotten.

The second part of your brain impacted by stress is the frontal lobe, responsible for paying attention and focusing. It’s the part of your brain that allows you to stay in the present moment, but it does more than just that.

The frontal lobe also helps filter out irrelevant or unimportant information. It is also responsible for your ability to judge rightly and problem-solving.

So, when you are stressed out or living in fear, the part of your brain that you most need is disconnected:

  • it fails to filter out important/unimportant information, so you feel confused and overwhelmed;
  • it fails to concentrate and keep you focused;
  • and it switches off judgement and problem-solving abilities.

Is it any wonder, then, that when you’re stressed, decision-making is so tricky?

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The essential elements of good decision-making

I consider some factors essential, from a coaching perspective, when making decisions. It doesn’t matter when these are personal or business decisions.

Your ability to take these factors into account requires a state of calm and alertness. It’s not about being relaxed and disconnected but rather in a calm state – fully connected and present.

Heart

  • It’s easy to identify the values of what is essential and priorities at this moment in time. It’s not just what matters right now, but the ability to differentiate the urgent from the important and ensure that you have considered all priorities of what is truly important.
  • You can connect with your feelings and desires and notice the emotions and desires of others.
  • You account for your decisions’ impact on relationships and weigh the impact on yourself and other stakeholders. Are you able to calmly assess the effect on all relationships that matter, not just those immediately impacted? For example, if you decide to take on new responsibilities, how will that affect your relationship with your children? What importance do you need to give to that impact?

Head

  • Mentally, can you look at the multitude of options and choices from various perspectives and angles? When you are in a state of calm, you don’t suffer from tunnel vision but instead can engage curiosity to get a balanced or integrated view.
  • Another benefit of being calm is that you can become aware of your own biases or limited views. If someone calls you out or challenges your perspective, you won’t respond defensively but rather can entertain the possibility of another viewpoint. This creates opportunities to think outside the box.
  • Thinking of this sort also allows you to plan for the future, foreseeing potential obstacles and challenges, without falling into the trap of catastrophising or awfulising and becoming frozen as a result.

Gut

  • At a gut level, you’ll become aware of your gut feelings or any gut instinct that might kick in, rather than ignoring it. But, at the same time, you’ll also be more aware of that deep feeling in your gut regarding your identity. What impact will decision-making have on who you are?
  • In a calm state, we can evaluate risk quickly, looking at safety and security concerns objectively and subjectively, without blowing them out of proportion.
  • You can be courageous in choosing to move forward without being foolhardy.

Imagine a lion

Visualise or imagine a lion or cheetah sitting in the savannah, looking at the potential food supply and feast before them.

Notice the sparkle in their eyes: they are present and alert. Those eyes catch all the details of the scene before them.

But at the same time, when you look at the body, it is relaxed rather than tense. They are merely present and surveying the scene without wasting an ounce of energy. There is a sense of calm and tranquillity. It is not fatigue or a state of rest. They haven’t just eaten, nor are they sleepy and planning to rest.

This is the state we want to embody for decision-making: calm and yet alert—one in which we can see clearly, wherever we choose to focus our attention. We want to listen actively. And we don’t want to waste our energy unnecessarily on tension.

In this state, we can think, plan and ideate.

So, how do we change from stress to calm?

Consider for a moment the NLP model of the cybernetic loop.

This model shows that our thinking impacts our body (physiology) and emotions. Yet, at the same time, our thinking is affected by our emotions and our body and environment.

If we want to change the loop from stress to a state of calm, we simply choose a point of interruption.

Will we interrupt the environment/body, the feelings or the way of thinking?

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While we process our thinking and emotions internally, the physical and physiological can be influenced internally and externally.  A physiological change is as simple as breathing differently or moving to a different room or space.

In any case, we can interrupt the loop of fear, anxiety, & stress by refocusing our thoughts, allowing emotion or feeling to pass through us, or making a physiological change. We choose a new path in which we rediscover what it feels like to be calm and alert to focus our attention on making better decisions.

The first step is self-awareness.

Know Thyself.

What emotional state are you in right now? How do you calibrate this state?

Notice your physiological state: how fast or slow is your heart rate? Are you breathing deeply into your belly, or are you shallow breathing? What is your posture?

And where are your thoughts focused as you read this?

You can use this same pause when you find yourself in a state of fear, anxiety or stress.

Just breathe takes on a new meaning!

Breathing works because it directly impacts our physiological state, and our breathing is a gateway into the ANS that allows us to influence our heart rate and bring us from a state of fight-flight into calm-alert.

A hurried and shallow breath tells our body to increase the heart rate. The blood thickens as hormones are released, and our pupils dilate to get better peripheral vision. But when we slow that breath down, we impact the heart rate, the release of hormones, and we can let the body know “it’s safe”.

But perhaps, like me, you rebound from fight-flight right past calm-alert over into freeze: this is a state of avoidance and dissociation. In that case, to move into calm-alert, you need more energy – which you can get through playing with your posture and your breath.

Practical breath exercise:

If you are feeling stressed and anxious, you can bring calm by extending your exhale. So, you might start with the 4-4-8 method:

  • inhale to the count of four;
  • hold for four; and
  • exhale to the count of eight.

On the other hand, if you are feeling tired and lethargic, you could do the opposite:

  • inhale to the count of eight;
  • hold for four; and
  • exhale to the count of four.

You only need to do these for a minute or two before returning to “balanced breathing”. Balanced breathing is the ideal state: your inhale and exhale are the same length and duration. For me, that’s an inhale for five and exhale for five. But you might find that you are more comfortable with a count of 4-4 or a count of 6-6. Find what is most comfortable for you.

In this ideal state of balanced breathing, allow yourself to relax, breathing in calmly, easily and effortlessly. This sends a message to the lungs and the nervous system, heart, and adrenal glands “calm down, it’s safe now”.

Using posture to take you from stress into relaxed

Another simple way to relax is to change your posture. Right now, you can roll your shoulders up and back and let them fall gently. Unclench your jaw and become aware of the muscles in your face and neck. Intentionally relax the muscles in your neck and then work down through your back, softening it while sitting upright. Uncross your legs if you don’t have both feet flat on the floor. And now notice what state you are in.  What changed with a simple change in your posture?

Over the coming week, take time to notice your posture when you are calm and present – relaxed. Notice your posture when you are sad or depressed – usually hunched over more, head bent forward.

One practice that I do daily is to sit in my chair and allow my head to drop forward, hunching my shoulders and pulling myself into a more fetal position while seated. I intentionally relax each muscle as I’m doing this. Then, I gently straighten up until sitting erect, with my feet squarely on the floor and my chin slightly raised. But I then take it further, and I lift my arms, a little above shoulder height and back enough to feel the stretch in my chest opening up fully. I allow my arms to fall gently, and roll my shoulders back and come back to an upright – calm, present and alert – posture.

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Notice the difference in how you feel between these three postures?

A simple experiment

Get curious:
Consider a decision you are trying to make – maybe something as simple as what to have for lunch.

  • Sitting in a semi-fetal position, consider the decision and your options.
  • Now, move your posture to stand and completely open, with your arms outstretched. Make it a power stance. Consider the same decision.
  • Finally, sit calmly and in a relaxed position, but upright and alert, and consider the options again.

Do you notice any differences in your decision-making perspectives? What did you notice?

Another simple way to change your physiological state is with exercise: which is why many people like to walk while they think.  Or, if you need to, do a full-on workout (boxing or a heavy run) – whatever it takes to burn off the steam and return to a state of calm.

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Practising mindfulness

Mindfulness and meditation are other ways that you can “change state”. I find it particularly useful to do a body scan, where I sit down and, starting at my toes, just work my way through all muscles, skin & sensations, and even bones and joints, simply noticing what I notice.

  • Are there any aches and pains?
  • What tension am I holding in a particular muscle or group of muscles?
  • Can I relax them?

This exercise serves a simple purpose: it takes your focus and attention off the unknown future into the present moment.

Where attention goes, energy flows.

In Ditch the Diet & Face the Feelings, I ask my clients to practise mindfulness each time they eat – no matter whether it’s a meal, a snack or grabbing something on the run. Before they put anything in their mouth – that first bite – I ask that they simply breathe for 30 seconds and be present with their mind, body and emotions.  I ask clients to do the same again when they finish eating: practising a pause between eating and activity.

this creates a daily space of self-awareness, the habit of checking in.

How am I doing right now?

 

Interrupt your emotional state:

Perhaps all you need to break your loop and cycle of fear, stress, or anxiety is to give yourself a time-out. Take a break for five minutes, and step back and away.

In any case, no matter what the cause of your stress, remember to practice self-compassion and acceptance. It’s okay not to be okay all the time, and you don’t always have to hold it together perfectly.

But also notice that in all likelihood, right here and now – you are safe. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to read this article, and if the building were burning down around you, you would be running rather than reading. So, in this present moment, you have physical safety. Hopefully, you also have emotional security.

Take a moment and consider your feelings of fear and anxiety: what are the causes and stressors? How far away (in time & distance) is it?  Do you need to move further away from it physically?

Connection

While it’s hard to connect with others when we are in a state of fear & anxiety, it’s usually the remedy we require! The support of others is essential in returning a sense of safety & security, and it often also creates better perspectives in decision-making.

Particularly when we are chronically stressed, we need to take a good hard look at our inner circle: the five to six people we spend the most time with. When you look carefully at this group: are you getting support or merely giving support?

A supportive relationship does not mean that you are always giving-taking in the same ratio, and it is like the ebb and flow of the tides. But if you find yourself constantly giving but never receiving, it’s not a supportive relationship for you. And it should not be your “inner circle”. You might be part of their inner circle, but you need to redefine yours!

If you find yourself chronically stressed, I can bet you don’t feel supported.

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If you’ve never tried it – laughter is the best medicine!

Laughter is a great way to change from fear to joy. It can be obnoxious, silly or just plain comical. Find a video of a toddler or baby laughing for 2 minutes. Have a look at bloopers, one-liners, stand-up comedy or other jokes. Laugh until you cry if you need to.

After you’ve changed emotional states, look at what opens up and is available to you in your decision-making arsenal. What moved and shifted when you did?

Clearing your mind

I love the power of doing a brain dump before going to bed at night. There have been moments in my life when I’ve spent over an hour writing down everything that’s “on my mind” to be able to sleep peacefully. Sometimes, it takes a “to-do list” form, simply writing down all the things I “need to do” or should get done. At other times, it is merely dumping all my worries and fears onto the page.

I keep writing until my brain says, “that’s all, folks”.  When it has nothing more to add, then I’m done.  Taking that hour, even when tired, and writing down my worries certainly beats waking up at 2 am or tossing and turning throughout the night!

I find it particularly useful to ask the Great Creator & Divine Inspiration for answers overnight – writing down in my journal, after the brain dump, specific questions that I would like help answering in my decision-making process.

And then, when I open my eyes in the morning while waiting for the kettle to boil, I jot down the answers before starting my day. What new insights revealed themselves overnight?

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Morning pages

Another form of writing in a journal is morning pages. It is best done first thing in the morning, the first 45 minutes after waking up: when your ego still has a back-seat in your mind, and unconscious thoughts stream through effortlessly.

When you do morning pages, you sometimes find yourself writing down things that make you think, “where did this come from?”.  It could be a belief that you hold that you were unaware of. On the other hand, it might be an out-of-the-box solution to a problem you had on your mind for days!

Even if your morning pages are simply a stream of your fear and anxiety, over time, it breaks the loop, bringing you ever more into the present moment!

Mindful walking & thinking

Some people prefer (first thing in the morning or the evening before bed) to go for a mindful walk. This is where you focus your attention on your surroundings rather than getting lost in thought.

However, for others, there is joy in going for a walk specifically for thinking! In that case, make sure that it is a safe place to walk, where you don’t need to pay particular attention to your surroundings, and you can simply allow yourself to process your thoughts as you walk.

When I get into my day, it allows me to be present with what the day holds instead of what’s on my mind because I’ve already taken it out and put it on the paper. Okay.

5-4-3-2-1

A simple anxiety exercise that can be done “at the moment” to change the focus of your mind is this:

  • Five things I can see;
  • Four things I can touch;
  • Three things I can hear;
  • Two things I can smell; and
  • One thing I can taste in my mouth.

This simply takes the focus of your mind into the present moment and environment.

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Amplifying your decision-making ability

The best decisions are made in a state of calm. Wisdom – inner alignment & connection with others – is available when we are wholly committed to the present moment.

That doesn’t mean that the world and environment you are in are calm: but rather that your inner state is one of calm.  You create the calm within you need to look at the details as well as the big picture.

Wisdom comes to us when we are open to seeing more than just the fear and the cause of our anxiety: when we are not looking for an escape but an opportunity.  Fear will drive us to look merely for an escape route. But is that the direction you want to travel in?

Create opportunities – moments, days and a lifestyle – that allows you to find a balance between stress and relaxation.  In this place of being calm and alert, you will amplify your ability to make good decisions.

 

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