Have you ever driven across a bridge? If so, you probably take it for granted as an extension of the road. A static structure you hardly give a thought to as you drive across.

But did you know that San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge flexed by 7 feet when 300,000 people walked across it during its 100-year celebration? 

In reality, bridges are engineered to be dynamic, flexible and responsive so they can continue to do their job even in the face of major stressors such as accidents, earthquakes and hurricanes. And the same is true for leaders.

You need to be able to flex and adapt in order to make good decisions when you’re under stress, and we’re going to cover three ways to do just that. 

  • Beware of Amygdala Hijack
  • Manage in the moment
  • Prevention is the best cure

When you’re under stress, the thinking part of your brain shuts down

And instead of calmly stepping back to assess the situation and make a good decision, your thinking brain gets “hijacked” by the oldest most instinctive part of your brain – the Amygdala.

As your Amygdala jumps into action, it triggers the stress hormone cortisol to save you from danger by triggering the “fight or flight” instinct. While all of this happens in a split second, it can take up to 26 hours for the cortisol to leave your body. 

In prehistoric times, this instinctive reaction was literally a life saver. But in the physical safety of your home or office, this same reflex causes you to make bad decisions in the heat of the moment. If you’ve ever looked back on a situation you didn’t handle well and wondered “what was I thinking?” or “why didn’t I say XYZ instead?” that was probably Amygdala Hijack at work.

The good news is you are not powerless against Amygdala Hijack

The key is to notice that your Amygdala has been triggered. Once you recognize that your Amygdala has charged into action, you have a chance to do something to send it back into its cave. 

Start by thanking your Amygdala for making an appearance. After all, it’s just trying to do its job and protect you from perceived danger. Then reassure it that you’ve got things under control. We all like to be acknowledged and your Amygdala is no exception.

Then you can turn to managing your physical and emotional state so your thinking brain – the Prefrontal Cortex – can get back in the driver’s seat. 

Which brings us to the second point. 

Breathing helps you manage your nervous system

The simplest, most effective way to self-manage in the moment is through breathing. And done properly, you’ll be able to get yourself back to a state of calm where you can make good decisions again.

In particular, it’s about rhythmic breathing. One way to do this is “triangle breathing” where you breathe in for 3 counts, hold for 3 counts, and breathe out for 3 counts. Do this slowly and ideally with your eyes closed to get the best effects. 

The beauty of triangle breathing is you can do it anywhere and at any time without people around you noticing. And you don’t have to do it for very long. According to Tony Schwartz in his Harvard Business Review article, “in as little as one minute of focused breathing, it’s possible to completely clear your bloodstream of the stress hormone cortisol.”

But what if there was a way to stop your Amygdala from being triggered in the first place? 

This is where the third point regarding prevention comes in.

Don’t wait until you’re “in the grip” of Amygdala Hijack

In an ideal world, you would want to prevent Amygdala Hijack from happening to begin with. While it’s not always possible, you can get better at it with practice. And it makes life so much better if you can avoid the detour of having all that cortisol coursing through your body and self-managing your way back to calm. 

This requires that you anticipate when you’re likely to be triggered

For me, it’s any time money or finances are involved, and when I find myself in a conflict. For you, it might be a certain person who always annoys you or being reminded of a certain project that’s not going well.

Once you anticipate the triggers, you can decide what you’ll do if and when those triggers appear. For example, engaging in the triangle breathing technique. It helps if you’ve pre-decided your strategy so you can jump to it immediately. 

It helps to engage in at least one activity that calms you

So on an ongoing basis, see if you can create at least one new habit that clears your mind. One that keeps you grounded before you need to make important decisions. Choose something you enjoy so you can make it part of your daily or weekly routine. Activities like exercise, meditation, gardening, and yoga are all helpful ways to clear your mind. 

In general, anything that involves rhythmic breathing or being in nature tends to work well. Engaging regularly in your calming habit will help you nudge yourself into a new “normal” state where it becomes easier and easier to stay away from being triggered. 

How will you flex, adapt and make better decisions as a leader?

Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be much better equipped to make better decisions no matter what’s going on around you. And just like the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll be able to flex and adapt to the pressures of having 300,000 people breathing down your neck and still function at your best. 

Which of these strategies will most help you make better decisions under stress?

Leave a comment and let me know.