Don’t make decisions when feelings are running high

As human beings, we are, of course, emotional creatures just as much as we are rational, if not more so. This means that any attempt to understand human actions without taking account of the emotional dimension is likely to be, at best, incomplete and potentially totally misleading. Part of the reason emotions are so significant is that our emotional response to a situation can actually change the way our body reacts. For example, if we are anxious, angry or frightened, there can be increased levels of adrenaline in our blood stream (the classic ‘fight or flight’ mechanism) and this can have a powerful effect on our behaviour. In effect, our emotional reaction has triggered a biological reaction that is preparing us for action of some sort. It is an important protective measure to keep us safe from harm. We would struggle without it.

However, this can also backfire on us at times, in the sense that being in an emotionally charged state can have the effect of distorting our perception of the situation we are in. For example, at certain times we may not be in danger at all – it just seems that way in the circumstances – and that could possibly lead to an overreaction, or even a panic reaction. It can work the other way too, in the sense that we may be very happy about something that has happened, feeling very good about a positive development, but we may not spot one or more dangers involved in the situation. Our positive feelings are leading us to focus on one side of the situation, but not the other.

The idea that we should not respond in anger, that we should count to ten, is well established and is wise counsel. However, it isn’t just about how we respond to people at the time. The balance of our blood chemistry can remain out of sync for an hour and a half or more, and that can mean that, if we make any decisions during that time, we may not be doing so with a balanced picture of the situation. I know full well that I have made mistakes in my life by making decisions at a time when emotions are running high and then regretted it later – and I am well aware from conversations in both my personal and professional lives, that this is a very common phenomenon.

For example, someone who has been hurt in or by a particular situation may decide: ‘Right, I’m not doing that again, I will not allow myself to be in that type of situation ever again’. So, it is, in effect, the emotional pain that is making the decision. But, by withdrawing from the type of situation that was hurtful on that occasion, we may be missing out on all the other occasions when it wasn’t hurtful and would actually have been very positive and enriching.

I am not suggesting that decisions should be entirely rational, with no emotional elements at all, as that would be unrealistic and would not reflect the reality of what it means to be human. But if we go to the other extreme and make lasting decisions when we are emotionally worked up (‘aroused’ to use the technical term), we may well regret doing so later – whether the emotions we are feeling are positive or negative or a mixture of the two. I suppose that what it boils down to is a lesson I was fortunate enough to learn many years ago: go where your heart takes you, but take your head with you.