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How to make good decisions after the stress of getting your ATAR

Being stressed can seriously derail your decision-making ability. Stress has so many causes but often arises after an unpleasant shock or traumatic event – such as, say, experiencing a ‘once in a hundred year’ pandemic or getting your ATAR results. Especially if you find they’re not quite what you expected.

Even if you did receive a great ATAR result, your mind is still likely to be in overdrive. After all the suspense and anticipation of waiting for the news, the final verdict on how well you did can result in feelings of uncertainty, doubt and anxiety.

Why the brain trips up under stress

Research on decision making shows that our brains are wired to be more reactionary when we’re under stress. The brain depends primarily on two hardwired processes for decision making. It assesses what’s going on, using pattern recognition, and it reacts to that information using the emotional tags that are stored in our memories.

The problem is that pattern recognition can trip us up in stressful circumstances. When we’re dealing with apparently familiar situations, our brains can cause us to think we understand them when we don’t. In other words, we can get tunnel vision.

Laura Brooks, a lecturer in Nursing at Deakin’s School of Nursing and Midwifery, says ‘the impacts on the effects of stress on professional judgement is significant’. It’s an unfortunate reality that the same regions of the brain that facilitate decision making are also highly sensitive to stress-induced changes.

‘Many decisions are made under stress, and many decision situations elicit acute stress responses. Stress and decision making are connected, not only on a behavioural level, but also on a neural level,’ she says. ‘The impact of stress on human judgment is significant.’

Rewiring the brain in the wake of ATAR results

If you’re looking at a lower than anticipated ATAR result, it’s not the end of the world. Sure, attaining the ‘right’ ATAR can ensure direct access to a particular university course, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t alternative pathways to a career of your choice.

A lower than expected ATAR result may simply require a re-think of your university preferences. It’s crucial to maintain a broad perspective in order to think clearly and not allow stress to cloud your judgement at this time. According to Professor Michael Leiter from Deakin’s School of Psychology, the key is to understand that there are always other opportunities.

‘If your results have increased your stress and anxiety, or if you’re simply reeling under the burden of the choice, you may find it difficult to think clearly about the options available to you. In this scenario, you’re likely to make a bad decision. But don’t worry – there are support systems available for the mind under pressure.’

Professor Leiter advocates using cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques to help you identify and deal with negative thoughts in a sensible and practical way. These techniques are specifically designed to enable clearer thinking and rational decision making.

‘CBT techniques are a great way to beat negative thinking,’ he says. ‘When you’re faced with a decision and you’re not thinking clearly, it’s common to focus on one option – and it’s not necessarily the right one. Your mind naturally distorts information, and it can paint an unrealistic picture of what opportunities you have available.’

DIY cognitive behavioural therapy

‘If you’re making negative predictions when it comes to selecting a particular university,’ Prof. Leiter says, ‘Simply ask yourself the following questions:

  • What’s the worst possible outcome?
  • What’s the best possible outcome?
  • What’s the most realistic possible outcome?

Acknowledging all the possibilities will help you more clearly evaluate all of the outcomes which can be achieved through that choice.’

Whether you feel like your ATAR result was good or bad, evaluating your choices properly is crucial to making a good decision. Don’t give in to discouragement and anxiety at the prospect of certain doors being closed to you. Put your results into context by understanding that it is a ranking, not a score, that is scaled up or down by VTAC.

Huge importance is placed on aiming for a high ATAR, but one set of results is just one moment in a myriad of life experiences. Rewire your brain using Prof. Leiter’s advice to stop thinking which doors your results will close – and concentrate on which doors they can open for you.

About to face your ATAR results and need some coping strategies? Check out our article all about that moment of shock.

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Professor Michael Leiter
Professor Michael Leiter

School of Psychology, Deakin University

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