How to Make Good Choices When You’re Stressed

Are you stressed?

Then you better step away from the fridge.

According to a 2009 study done by Lighthall et al. from the University of Southern California, stress has a significant impact on your decision making.

More so, your sex (whether you are a male or a female, not the other thing) might cause you to react very differently to stress.

Here was the scenario that they set up.

45 participants got together to play a little balloon game that was designed to be more of a risk-reward evaluation (without anyone knowing of course). Participants would win more money the more they pumped their balloons, but would lose all of it if the balloon popped. So clearly, as the balloon was being pumped, it’s value grew, but so too did the risk of popping it.

So what were the results?

Well, both men and women had similar performances in unstressed scenarios. However, when they played the game 15 minutes after completing a stressful challenge, the results changed.

Men popped 12.5% more balloons and women took 21% fewer pumps.


Males responded to stress by taking more risks, while females took fewer risks.


Although it’s no surprise to anyone that men take more risks (we don’t pay higher car insurance for nothing), the fact that our decision making abilities are impacted by stress is very interesting.

So what does this have to do with building a better body?

Well, a lot actually.

For example, what you choose to put inside your body has a huge impact on your health and body composition. And, if you’re constantly stressed (like three quarters of Americans are at the moment), you’re in a state where your decision making abilities are constantly impaired, making it more difficult to make the right food choices.

So how do you make good decisions even in stressful situations?

Well, according to the results of the study, this depends a lot on whether you are a male or female.

Since men respond to stress by taking more risks, they’re more inclined to make poor decisions (whether it be with their portfolios or their food choices). After all, the more risk one takes the greater the chances of making poor decisions.

Women respond to stress by taking fewer risks. From a decision making perspective, they’re a little more inclined to make better decisions.

But since risk taking is an innate characteristic, both genders can take advantage of the following tips to help them make better decisions.

  • Slow down. When you’re stressed, you usually haste through things. You make quick decisions. Although I’m a big believer in making quick decisions, it’s not the best thing to do when you’re stressed since you’re more inclined to bet big. Instead, slow things down a little bit. Understand that you don’t have to rush your decision between picking up a Big Mac or going home and cooking up some chicken with vegetables.
  • Think through the consequences. Understand that there is a reward or consequence for every decision you make. As you slow down, think about the consequences of each option. Think about the rewards. Once you realize the consequences of consuming that Big Mac, you’ll be more inclined to choose the better option.
  • Reward yourself. When you do make a good decision, reward yourself. This will psychologically prep you for the next time you’re faced with a similar decision. You’ll associate the right decision with a reward and be that much more tempted to make the better decision. Note: don’t reward yourself with something that will negate the positive effects of making the right decision in the first place (i.e. just because you chose the chicken, don’t reward yourself by going out and getting a Big Mac – that’s kind of foolish).

Stress in itself takes a toll on the body. Don’t let it play a factor in your decision making abilities as well.

What are your thoughts on this study? Do you have any strategies that you use for making better decisions? I’d love to hear them. Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

4 thoughts on “How to Make Good Choices When You’re Stressed”

  1. Im glad you are talking about this topic, I feel that as human beings no one teach us how to eat unless your interested so its hard specially for people like me with a sweet tooth (chocolate addiction haha) and it also depend on who you are living with bc you dont have full control of the fridge.
    My only advice other than what you already said is set up a goal so you can be motivated and feel like you are giving something to gain something wich also include giving up our drinking a bit (hehe, I love my wiskey & wine) and record your progess so you can see the change…
    other than that is pure willing power…

    thnx =)

    1. You bring up two good points Bee – setting goals and tracking your progress can definitely help with your ability of making right decisions. By knowing what you want to achieve and understanding the history of your previous decisions, you put yourself in a better place.

  2. Great post Srdjan. I find that I eat a lot more and make bad choices when I’m stressed. Some great ways to relieve stress for me are working out, taking a walk, getting off the computer or finding some thing to distract me.

    1. Those are great tips Darren. I find that taking a walk calms me down nicely. Lets me clear my thoughts. I think everyone is a little different when it comes to finding what de-stresses them…

Comments are closed.