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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - CEO Opinions - Stress and Decision-Making: 4 Things Leaders Need To Know

CEO Opinions

Stress and Decision-Making: 4 Things Leaders Need To Know

Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker

As a leader, you often operate in a stressful environment – tight budgets, new competitors, team conflicts and the like can all raise your stress level.  How does this impact your ability to make the multitude of decisions necessary for success, each day, week, each quarter?

The psychological literature is rife with examples of what happens when people are under excessive stress. Their purview tends to narrow as they zoom in, hyper-focusing on the granular details of the problem, often amping up their anxiety in the process. Seeing only a sliver of the story, usually the bad part, too often results in mental inflexibility and rigidity that can completely undermine your ability to make sound decisions. When stress levels are excessive, and you fail to buffer that stress with sufficient recovery, you will probably fall back on old and well-trodden behavioral paths such as mindless snacking or alcohol consumption. 

On the other hand, however, stress can be the stimulus for all growth in your life.  The hormones released during a stressful event are the hormones of life.  Adrenaline, cortisol, DHEA, and the like prepare the body to respond to the stressor by increasing energy production, suppressing some biological functions, and stimulating brain growth.

The true offender in the story of stress is insufficient recovery.  Without recovery, all stress eventually becomes excessive.  In other words, the real enemy to wise decision making is chronic stress – stress unabated by periodic recovery.

With this basic knowledge, here are four key things you need to understand about stress and decision-making:

1)  The things that have pushed you the most in life can often become a source of enduring confidence, as long as they are well-managed and you’ve given yourself the time and space to properly recover. An example is COVID-19. You are better prepared to handle another pandemic because of all you’ve suffered through and survived. Your capacity to handle the social, emotional, physical and even financial effects of another pandemic have been greatly expanded because of the gut-wrenching stress exposure. 

2)  The human body is always seeking balance. The sympathetic arm of our nervous system mobilizes the body for immediate action (fight, flight or freeze) when faced with a stressful event, and the parasympathetic arm (rest and digest) initiates restoration, renewal and healing. 

Both of these dynamic physiological systems can powerfully impact the choices you make. Are you in stress-recovery balance as you make this decision? Are you ramping up or shutting down, turning on or turning off, pushing forward or stepping back, investing or recovering? If you’re facing an important business decision, you should consider where you are in this cycle and, if at all possible, delay the decision until the optimal time.  

3)  Today’s fast-paced, demanding world requires that people look for every opportunity to expand their capacity for making good decisions under stress. The mindset that every storm of stress can be leveraged to grow your decision-making proficiency represents a game changer for nearly everyone. In a paradoxical way, every dose of stress can be considered a gift, one more opportunity to learn how to make extraordinary choices in difficult times. 

4)  A helpful way of thinking about stress and recovery is to conceptualize stress as simply energy expenditure and recovery as energy restoration and renewal. Stress (energy expenditure) can be physical, emotional, mental or spiritual and so must recovery. Energy out must be balanced with energy in. 

Balancing physical stress with recovery involves healthy nutritional input, hydration, exercise, strategic movement, sleep and intermittent periods of rest. 

Balancing emotional stress with recovery involves intentionally summoning positive emotions such as joy, optimism, hope, love, gratitude, inspiration and inner peace. 

Balancing mental stress with recovery involves allowing the neurons that have been firing repeatedly to rest by focusing on something entirely different. Changing the focus and allowing the brain to take a deep breath allows for mental oscillation to occur. 

Balancing spiritual stress with recovery involves reconnecting with your most cherished values, purpose in life and core beliefs.

By viewing stress, not as the enemy, but as an opportunity to grow your ability to make wise decisions – and ensuring that you allow opportunities for stress recovery – you will be better positioned to make the best decisions for yourself and your organization.


Written by Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker.
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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - CEO Opinions - Stress and Decision-Making: 4 Things Leaders Need To Know
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker, co-author of WISE DECISIONS with Dr. Jim Loehr, is a behavioral geneticist. She is a Senior Scientist at the Institute for Applied Research in Youth at Tufts University, a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

A former professional tennis player, she earned a B.S. in Finance from the University of Colorado, Boulder, obtained a Chartered Financial Analyst designation, and held an investment career as a Portfolio Manager. She then earned a doctorate in Behavioral Genetics from the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre at King’s College London.


Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Connect with her through LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website CLICK HERE.