How to Make Decisions When You’re Feeling Anxious

Your brain wants to protect you from your own decisions, but you can decide to override it

Photo: alvarez/Getty Images

Deciding to become a full-time freelance writer was itself a full-time job for me. I spent hours every day — for months — making lists of the pros and cons of being self-employed. But the more I deliberated over it, the more anxious I got, and then I would start the process all over again.

It feels a lot like what happens at the supermarket: I’ll pick up a box of cereal only to put it back down again and come back to it later.

The human instinct to weigh up the risks associated with each option is a survival mechanism that’s helped us navigate potential threats for millennia. It can be useful if you’re, say, stalking a woolly mammoth, but when you’re spending an hour on a Sunday night trying to choose between Ozark and Unorthodox? It can be paralyzing.

Of course, if decision anxiety is having a serious impact on your life, it’s important to seek help. Your doctor will be able to advise on the right course of action for you. But for decisions you know you can eventually make but just can’t move forward on, understanding why decision anxiety happens is the key to working through it.

First, cut through the cognitive haze

What’s been happening to my brain — and what may be happening to yours — is a chain reaction that is shutting down my capacity for rational thought.

Anxiety begins in the amygdala, a part of the brain involved in emotional processing. An emotionally relevant event sends a distress signal to the hippocampus, which then blocks messages to the prefrontal cortex in order to maximize brain and body efficiency. Essentially, the amygdala takes over the brain in order to prepare for “emergency action” by cutting off thinking in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain “responsible for higher cognitive brain functions,” says Charlotte Armitage, a UK-based psychotherapist and business psychologist at Outsourced Psych.

One of those functions is decision-making. When making a choice, people with anxiety want to feel certain that they’re selecting the right path. The problem is, we tend to catastrophize the outcome of making a bad decision and assume the worst will happen — that we might lose a job and become broke, or that we’ll waste hours and hours of our life on a show we don’t really like — and so we struggle to make a definitive choice.

And catastrophizing comes easy these days. Not only are we dealing with the very real threat of disease and death, but we’re also facing the economic fallout of the pandemic. We’re worried about vulnerable friends and family, our health, and our futures, and we’re being forced to quickly adapt to new, more isolated ways of living.

In the pandemic, the historically mundane decisions — like whether to return to working in an office or traveling during rush hour — now come with high stakes.

“These can feel like potentially deadly decisions,” says Lee Chambers, an environmental psychologist in the U.K. who works with companies to increase employee well-being and productivity. “Who should I let into my bubble? Should I leave the house? We are constantly making judgments about our health and safety, and these build up anxiety levels, creating a cycle that makes decision-making even more difficult.”

So consciously consider the cognitive haze inside your head. Force your brain to reckon with its own paralysis. And, well, make a move.

Then, act fast (or slow)

There’s no quick fix when it comes to changing the way you think, but there are some steps you can take if you’re struggling over a decision.

For bigger choices, it’s important to explore the root cause of your anxiety. “By writing down your feelings and asking yourself questions, you can dig deeper into your self-awareness and put things in perspective, focus on the positives, and make decisions when our minds are clear and we have a deeper understanding of ourselves,” Chambers says.

When you write things down, it can help clear your mind and reorganize all those spiraling thoughts that leave you feeling overwhelmed. It can also provide a sense of relief and calm, which is key to focused action. It’s important to try and recognize when you are “catastrophizing” or assuming the worst will happen, even if it’s very unlikely.

But for small decisions, just… commit! The stakes are low after all, though the effect of these minor commitments can have an impact on your ability to make larger decisions. “This actually trains our brains to understand that it can be less anxious about decisions as we expose ourselves to faster decision-making, rather than avoiding it,” Campbell says.

Your brain is slowing you down, so override it. Commit before it’s ready and before stress hormones fully take it over. Start the show, pick the cereal, then take advantage of all the time you have to decide on the big stuff.

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