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How To Make Decisions – Your Brain As Simulator

One of the symptoms of stress is chronic indecision: a state of paralysis where every option we have  feels not right. It relates to a central theme running through this series of articles, which is the interplay between thoughts and feelings. In a recent article, titled What Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Is Missing, I wrote about how thoughts and feelings mutually condition each other in a sort of chicken-and-egg causal loop.

This thought-feeling relationship is at the heart of decision making. Let's see how it plays out in practice.

Would you like to take a roller-coaster ride?

You probably know the answer straight away – but think about how you know. It's not a matter of logic or rationality. What happens is that the mind takes a proposition such as this, and asks what would it feel like? Then an automatic part of the mind (or brain) simulates the answer – that is, it creates a feeling – an actual feeling, not a hypothetical feeling (albeit weaker than if you were actually in that situation).

How? The brain's emotion-triggering centres such as the amygdala respond just as they would were it really happening right now. (Actually it's very likely going to be a weaker version of the response, but the point is it's a real feeling in the here-and-now – the amygdala doesn't really deal with past and future.) Your heart might thump, your hands might sweat a little, and you might have a few butterflies in your belly, or maybe just the subtlest suggestion of these. Next the body-monitoring brain circuits detect these changes, and that's what creates the feeling. Finally you choose the option that feels better: thrill or safety.

(This is a very brief and simplified version of a theory proposed by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, called the somatic marker hypothesis, and described more fully in his excellent books.)

Something like this happens for every proposition that comes to mind. Would you like to give a presentation at work next week? Would you like to go to a party tonight? Notice what happens in your mind as you consider these.

Sometimes the response is very subtle, such as when the proposition isn't very emotionally significant, e.g. would you like tea or coffee? With this example, the response isn't really emotional but it still creates a feeling, good or bad, clear or subtle, that conditions your answer.

Sometimes it's the follow-up thoughts that trigger the decisive feelings – e.g. “it's late and the caffeine will keep me awake” – then the body creates the feeling of a sleepless night. So your rationality still plays a role in decision-making.

If you think about it, you'll realise this thought-feeling interplay is going on all the time, and most of the time it's so subtle as to hardly ruffle awareness. And you'll realise the importance of self-awareness (which is of course one of the five key mind-body skills listed in my Stress Resilience Blueprint). You need a refined sensitivity to pick up the subtle nuances of feeling.

Stress & Decision-Paralysis

When you're chronically stressed, you're (i) predisposed towards bad feelings because your body is in a state of “stressed” physiology, (ii) predisposed to think about things that might go wrong. It's easy to see how you can freeze up because it often comes down to one bad feeling versus another.

Furthermore it's easy to get stuck in a thought-loop: should I do this? – should I do that? – should I do this? You go round and round in your head without getting anywhere. The feeling of stress just swamps any positive feelings you need to make your choice.

How To Make Decisions (How To Break Out Of Decision Paralysis)

If you find yourself caught in decision-paralysis, or and endless thinking loop, if possible take a break and delay your decision. Don't make things worse by putting yourself under pressure, as you'll only be getting yourself into what I've called the quicksand trap in earlier articles.

Instead take your time to relax. Find a way to move your physiology into a state of lower arousal. In terms of the Human Performance Curve, move to the left. Relax muscles, and shift into optimal breathing. Then from this stable, calm baseline, look to open up to positive emotions. Only when you're good and ready, turn back to your decision. Don't try to force things, but take each option and wait for a feeling to emerge.

If your options all feel much the same, it may mean it doesn't really matter which you choose. In practice a lot of decisions are like this. It's a mistake to think there is always one right decision and you have to find what it is.

What I've said in the last couple of paragraphs amounts to employing the five core mind-body skills that I list in the Stress Resilience Blueprint. My Stress Resilient Mind skills training programme with biofeedback aims to develop these.

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