If you’ve ever faced making a major decision in life, you’ll know how frustrating the process can be. You want to follow your gut, but your mind is whirring all over the place, playing an endless (and exhausting) game of “what if?”
This could be because the act of making a decision naturally stirs up anxiety. Or it could be that you suffer from anxiety anyway, thus making it extremely hard to order your thoughts.
A new study published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science has found that anxiety does indeed impair decision making, by blurring our natural sense of intuition.
Researchers from the University of Basel and the University of Berlin assessed 111 participants for their emotional state – in terms of tension, worry, and fear of future events – and current mood. Depending on their results, they divided participants into three “mood” groups: optimistic, neutral and anxious.
These moods were then “induced” via emotionally coded sentences and images, to make the experience of them more intense.
After the induction, each group filled out a questionnaire designed to assess their ability to make intuitive decisions. The decision making-ability of the optimist and neutral group were unaffected by their mood. But the anxious volunteers displayed a significantly impaired ability to make coherent decisions.
The anxious group “showed a significantly reduced intuition index, compared to the positive group … and the neutral group”, researchers said.
Why is this? The study’s authors speculate that anxiety makes us more risk-averse. We’re less confident about following our gut, and more likely to ruminate over what might go wrong. This means we’re apt to go for “safe” option in making a decision, regardless of whether it’s the right choice. To the contrary, it may often be the wrong one – since it’s likely to be familiar and un-challenging.
In other words, if we’re anxious, we’re more likely to adhere to the “status quo” bias that means we’d prefer things the way they are; as opposed to the frightening unknown. Fear of the unknown affects our judgement in the decisions any of us make, and this effect is accentuated among those of us who are, by our nature, anxious.
Researchers also hypothesised that anxiety may paralyse us, meaning we make no decision at all. Having no obvious intuition to fall back on, we lack the confidence to make a clear-headed choice.
And then, there’s another level still – as The Cut writer Katie Heaney, who also suffers from anxiety, points out. “Many of us [who suffer from anxiety] deal with what could be considered ‘cues’ and ‘hunches’ all the time: a racing heart, elevated heartbeat, sweating, weird twinges and tingles,” she writes.
In these instances, she explains, anxiety sufferers have learnt to dismiss their hunches as nothing more than psychosomatic symptoms of anxiety: unpleasant, but not “real”, so to speak. So, anxiety sufferers may have developed the habit of zoning out their intuition, even when it does kick into play.
Clearly, these findings are worrying for people who already suffer from anxiety – especially if they face a big decision.
So, how to navigate this tricky path? It’s a good idea to pursue therapy options such as CBT to deal with anxiety, and this can be obtained via the NHS. However, long backlogs and assessment processes mean it may be better to look at private options if you can afford it. Find out more about finding the right therapist for you here.
In the meantime, here are some quick tips that may alleviate the difficulty of making a complex and important decision in life:
Be a 'satisficer' not a 'maximizer'
"Satisficers make a decision once their criteria are met,” explains The Happiness Project writer Gretchen Rubin. “When they find the hotel or the pasta sauce that has the qualities they want, they’re satisfied. Maximizers want to make the best possible decision; even if they see a bicycle that meets their requirements, they can’t make a decision until they’ve examined every option.
"Studies suggest that satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers. Maximizers expend more time and energy reaching decisions, and they’re often anxious about their choices.”
It’s better to just make a decision, even if you’re not 100% sure it’s right. The risk of making the wrong choice is outweighed by the headache of endless procrastination.
Avoid ‘narrow framing’
This means you are defining the choices you have too narrowly, and limiting the alternatives open to you. For example you think, “should I stay with him or not?”rather than “what can I do to improve my relationship with xx?”, or “should I move to London or not?” rather than “how will a change of location affect my career chances and lifestyle?”
To widen your choices in this context, try “the vanishing test”. Imagine your two main options have disappeared, in order to help you to recognise the other choices you are just not seeing.
Don’t second guess yourself
Making decisions that you frame to yourself as irreversible actually helps to make you feel good about them.
“Once we make a final, no-turning-back decision, the psychological immune system kicks in,” says Heidi Halvorson, associate director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University. “This is how psychologists like [Harvard scholar Dan] Gilbert refer to the mind’s uncanny ability to make us feel good about our decisions. Once we’ve committed to a course of action, we stop thinking about alternatives. Or, if we do bother to think about them, we think about how lousy they are compared to our clearly superior and awesome choice.
“So keeping your options open leads to less happiness and success, not more. Ironically, people don’t actually change their minds and revise decisions very often. We just prefer having the option to do so, and that preference is costing us. Assuming that your choice is carefully considered and you’ve weighed your options, you will be both happier and more successful if you make a decision—and don’t look back.”
Do you suffer from anxiety? Seek confidential help and support with Mind