For many of us making a really good decision about a hard situation is sometimes a hard thing to do. And if we’re dealing with anxiety on top, it can almost feel impossible.
Research published in The Journal of Neuroscience shows that being in a state of anxiety significantly disrupts how our prefrontal cortex operates. The prefrontal cortex
The researchers in this study found that:
under anxiety, decision making may be skewed by salient and conflicting environmental stimuli at the expense of flexible top-down guided choices. We also find that anxiety suppresses spontaneous activity of PFC neurons, and weakens encoding of task rules by dorsomedial PFC neurons. These data provide a neuronal encoding scheme for how anxiety disengages PFC during decision making.
As I’ve been told by many clients, sometimes people who are experiencing strong anxiety will stand in one aisle of the grocery store for 10 minutes or longer to decide on exactly the right cereal to buy.
And for some people it can really be life complicating. Reducing our anxiety levels is especially important during stressful times in our life, when we feel overwhelmed, or that life is spinning out of control. Worse yet anxiety can cause us to make poor decisions which can then create more anxiety, which then can lead to even more bad decisions in a vicious cycle.
So how do we make an effort to reduce our anxiety and make better decisions?
General Anxiety Reduction
First of all, some of the best ways to work on this anxiety-decision problem is to learn how to reduce our overall anxiety and stress levels through regularly using tools like mindfulness, meditation, yoga, physical exercise, practicing deep breathing/muscle relaxation techniques and watch our sugar and caffeine intake.
Another option is to explore self help strategies like these: https://adaa.org/tips-manage-anxiety-and-stress or trying a book like this one: https://www.guilford.com/books/The-Anxiety-and-Worry-Workbook/Clark-Beck/9781606239186.
If you’ve been battling with anxiety for a long time and you’re really struggling to find hope you also may want to try therapy with a qualified professional with a Psychologist like myself. Psychologists can help people:
Psychologists are trained in diagnosing anxiety disorders and teaching patients healthier, more effective ways to cope. A form of psychotherapy known as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is highly effective at treating anxiety disorders. Through CBT, psychologists help patients learn to identify and manage the factors that contribute to their anxiety.
Through the cognitive component of therapy, patients learn to understand how their thoughts contribute to their anxiety symptoms. By learning to change those thought patterns, they can reduce the likelihood and intensity of anxiety symptoms.
With the behavioral component, patients learn techniques to reduce undesired behaviors associated with anxiety disorders. Specifically, patients are encouraged to approach activities and situations that provoke anxiety (such as public speaking or being in an enclosed space) to learn that their feared outcomes (such as losing their train of thought or having a panic attack) are unlikely.
Here are a few links to more information about how a Psychologist can help you work on anxiety:
Expectations and Choices
Remember that no one in the world is perfect and no one ever makes all of the right decisions all of the time. So maybe one really good way to take some pressure off is to take the expectation off that you have to make the right decision every time.
Ask yourself, how big of a decision is this? Is it life and death or is it just a decision between Lucky Charms and Honeycomb? Does it really matter if you make an imperfect choice? You could also really push the boat out to, and just buy both cereals! (But maybe also budget for the dentist bill?).
Fake it to make it. Try to step into the calm cool of logic and away from the hot rushed feelings of anxiety.
Take a deep breath and ask yourself how important this decision truly is in the grand scheme of things? Rate the situation on a scale of 1 to 10. Even though it feels like an 11, we may logically and rationally know it’s only really a three. By challenging our emotional thinking with a rating strategy we can learn to really step out of fear and into calmer and more balanced thinking.
- Is this worry realistic given the actual circumstances?
- Is this negative consequence really likely to happen? 5% 20% or is it 50%
- Just what if the worst possible outcome happens?
- Could I handle that worst possible outcome anyways? We often feel that the worst possible outcome is a huge toothy tiger, when in fact it might only be a cute wee, baby tiger. (More about tigers later)
Why Am I Anxious?
Past anxiety experiences stay with us as memories, held in our mind and in our bodies. A current anxiety situation may be small but if it’s similar enough to a “big” past anxiety situation, then our memory of the “big” past anxiety may be stoked by our current situation, making our current situation effectively feel like it’s twice as big!
Fearing Mistakes: The Good Enough Decision
Maybe it’s OK to make a good enough decision? What if we choose the wrong thing? Does it really matter in the scheme of things? Sometimes a bad decision can even turn into a good thing! History is chock full of examples where someone took the wrong door and things worked out even better for them. For instance, Columbus was trying to find an easier way to China when he tripped on North America!
Or how about Penicillin?
As the story goes, Dr. Alexander Fleming, the bacteriologist at St. Mary’s Hospital, went on summer vacation and made a decision to just leave a messy lab bench. When he returned he examined some colonies of Staphylococcus aureus that he left to grow and to his shock, Dr. Fleming noted that a mold called Penicillium had contaminated his Petri dishes. After carefully placing the dishes under his microscope, he was amazed to find that the Penicillium mold prevented the normal growth of the staphylococci, creating the groundwork for his life saving invention.
Fear of making a mistake can be linked to many causes. For some people having emotionally abusive, critical or unsupportive parents can create the groundwork for anxiety as adults. Because these people were ignored, undermined or even humiliated in childhood, they often carry those negative feelings into adulthood, hampering the confidence needed to make a a good decision.
Experiencing a past traumatic event can also be a cause. For example, say that in junior high you made a really bad decision that resulted in being teased and mocked and maybe even bullied. The experience might have been so terrible that you became afraid of failing in other things. And you carry that fear even now, years later.
When people are anxious, their brains start coming up with all sorts of flawed, outlandish and extreme ideas as a way to protect the individual from all possible threats. An anxious brain, in trying to be thorough, wastes time on exploring possible outcomes and consequences that are really pretty unlikely to occur. And really, these flawed worry thoughts only heighten an already anxious state. The anxious brain exaggerates possible consequences and this can make trying to make a decision an absolute nightmare.
When trying to relate to your sense of vulnerability or anxiety in a different way, it can be helpful to think of your desire to avoid it as someone living with a hungry baby tiger. Although the tiger is just a baby, he is scary enough, and you think he might bite you. So you go to the fridge to get some meat for him so he won’t eat you. And, sure enough, throwing him some meat shuts him up while he’s eating the meat, and he leaves you alone for a while. But he also grows just a little bigger.
So, the next time he’s hungry, he’s just a little bigger and a little more scary, and you go to the fridge to throw him some more meat. Again, you feed him to keep him at bay. The problem is that the more you feed him, the bigger he gets, and the more frightened you feel. Now eventually that little tiger is a big tiger, and he scares you more than ever. So you keep going back to the fridge to get more meat, feeding and feeding him, and hoping that one day he will leave you alone. Yet the tiger doesn’t leave — he just gets louder and more scary and hungry. And then one day you walk to the fridge, you open the door, and the fridge is empty. At this point, there is nothing left to feed the tiger . . . Nothing? . . . Except you!
from Eifert, G.H. & Forsyth J.P. (2005). Acceptance & Commitment Therapy for Anxiety Disorders (pp. 138–139). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger
Even though anxiety can feel huge and sometimes even feel overwhelming, we can remind ourselves that the anxiety we are feeling isn’t a”real” thing to fear… it’s not a tiger coming to eat us. It’s just a thought, just a feeling, there is no tiger unless we start to feed it!
Learn How to Trust Yourself
One great way to really bolster your decision making confidence is to look back at your life and all of the things you’ve accomplished and all of the decisions you’ve already made. I would even bet that because you’re so careful with decision making you may actually have a long history of making good decisions! Look to your past and all the decisions you’ve already made. Did it work out? Probably for the most part it did. And even if you made the wrong decisions in the past? You’re still here, you got through it and you survived! So any decision you make now probably just isn’t as life altering as you feel it is.
So that wraps our anxiety and decision making blog. I hope some of this stuff can help you get over your analysis paralysis and make easier and better decisions in your life!
Park J, Wood J, Bondi C, Del Arco A , Moghaddam B .Anxiety Evokes Hypofrontality and Disrupts Rule-Relevant Encoding by Dorsomedial Prefrontal Cortex Neurons. J Neurosci. 2016 Mar 16;36(11):3322-35. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.
Eifert, G.H. & Forsyth J.P. (2005). Acceptance & Commitment Therapy for Anxiety Disorders (pp. 138–139). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger
This blog is not intended as medical advice, treatment or diagnosis and should in no way replace consultation with a mental health or medical professional.