Anxiety has many ways of injecting itself into life and causing trouble. One of ways anxiety interferes is by leading decision-making astray.
When it’s there, anxiety tends to direct behaviour towards the safest option. Sometimes moving cautiously is definitely the best way to go. Sometimes it’s not. Given too much say-so, anxiety can stand in the way of a lot of life.
Scientists at the University of Pittsburgh have discovered what happens when anxiety rules a heavy hand over decision-making and persuades decisions that aren’t the best ones.
Research published in The Journal of Neuroscience explains how anxiety works to disengage the part of the brain that is essential for making good decisions. The area is the pre-frontal cortex (PFC), at the front of the brain, and it is the area that brings flexibility into decision-making.
The PFC is the part of the brain that gets involved in weighing up consequences, planning, and processing thoughts in a logical, rational way. It helps to take the emotional steam out of a decision by calming the amygdala, the part of the brain that runs on instinct, impulse and raw emotion (such as fear).
The research. What they did.
Researchers looked at the activity of brain cells in the PFC of anxious rats while those rats were encouraged to make a decision about which behaviour would get them a sweet reward. Rats share many physiological and biological similarities to humans which is why they are often used in these sort of studies. The researchers compared the behaviour and brain activity of two groups of rats – one that received a placebo and one that received a low dose of a drug that induced anxiety. Both groups of rats were able to make sound decisions, but the anxious rats made a lot more mistakes when there were more distractions in their way.
How Anxiety Interferes. What the research means.
Anxiety rolls good decision-making by reducing the brain’s capacity to screen out distractions. Distractions can be physical, as in things in the environment, or they can take the form of thoughts and worries. Anxiety interrupts the brain’s capacity to ignore these distractions by numbing a group of neurons in the pre-frontal cortex that are specifically involved in making choices.
‘We have had a simplistic approach to studying and treating anxiety. We have equated it with fear and have mostly assumed that it over-engages entire brain circuits. But this study shows that anxiety disengages brain cells in a highly specialized manner.’ Bita Moghaddam, lead author and professor in the Department of Neuroscience, University of Pittsburgh.
This new finding challenges the conventional theories that anxiety intrudes on life by overstimulating circuits within the brain. It seems that when it comes to making decisions at least, anxiety selectively shuts down certain connections, making it more difficult for the brain to screen out irrelevant information and make better decisions.
How to Stop Anxiety Intruding on Decisions
Strengthen your brain against anxiety.
Be mindful. Mindfulness strengthens the pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that can be sent offline by anxiety. Without the full capacity of the pre-frontal cortex to weigh in on decision-making, decisions are more likely to become fixed and rigid and driven by intrusive emotions that don’t deserve the influence. Mindfulness strengthens the brain’s capacity to filter out distractions to make more grounded, relevant decisions. It limits the influence of the things that don’t matter, so you can focus on the things that do. (Here you go – this articles explains it in more detail.)
Understand where the anxiety is really coming from.
Work stress or day-to-day life stress (such as having an argument or being stuck in bad traffic) can trigger enough emotion and intrusive thoughts to influence important, unrelated decisions. Anxiety can also stem from past incidents. The emotion may have been justified then, but now it might be just getting in the way. Unwarranted anxiety can lead to overly safe decision making. By looking for where the anxiety has come from, its influence on behavior can be reduced.
Slow it down.
Slowing down sounds like it should be easy, but nope – life is rarely that simple. Slowing down involves a deliberate shift away from automatic thoughts and feelings and towards what is actually happening, what you are actually feeling, and what might be behind it. So much of the way we feel and our response to a situation happens automatically, but it doesn’t have to be this way. The greater awareness we have around what we are doing or feeling, the more power we have to change it.
Don’t buy into the idea that thoughts, feelings and behaviour are a package deal. They’re not.
Just because you feel a certain way or think a certain thought, doesn’t mean you have to act a certain way. This involves being more deliberate about behaviour and pushing against the automatic, habitual response. Thoughts, feelings and behaviour are interrelated. They influence each other, often without us even realising it. Change one and the other two will eventually catch up. You don’t have to believe this – just try it and watch it happen.
Act as if. (Yes, really. Just try it.)
When there is an important decision to be made, it’s really normal to feel panicked or anxious, but you don’t have to rush your decision. Anxiety is there to protect you from danger but just because it’s raising the alarm, it doesn’t mean there is any danger about. Try challenging the presence and influence of anxiety by ‘acting as if’ there is nothing to be worried about. This might feel difficult, but the more you do it, the easier it will come. Stay with the moment. Right now, you’re okay, and you’ll keep being okay. Even if it doesn’t feel true for you, act as if it is. The point is reducing anxiety enough so that it doesn’t force itself into decisions where it isn’t needed.
Just because there are choices, doesn’t mean there is a wrong one.
What decision would you make if you knew there wasn’t a wrong one? Often, the way anxiety makes decision-making all the harder is by tricking us into believing that there will be a right choice and a wrong one, a good one and a bad one. If you are feeling really stuck between two decisions, it’s very likely that neither decision will be the wrong one. Once you have made the decision – whichever one that might be – you’ll start organising the environment around you, including your own behaviour and responses, to make sure things work out. Your resilience, creativity and resourcefulness will rise up to support you and propel you forward.
Be guided by what you want, rather than by what you want to avoid.
Try shifting your focus. Anxiety tends to rule decisions by presenting us with all of the possible outcomes, particularly the bad ones. Decisions are then made around avoiding what we don’t want, rather than chasing what we do want. What would your decisions look like if they were driven by what you want to happen, rather than by what you don’t want to happen.
And finally …
It is the way of anxiety to prod you from behind then hide in the shadows. By strengthening the brain to filter out distractions and by being aware of the feelings that are driving behaviour or decisions the way is open for wisdom, relevance and clarity – and decisions that will be more enriching ones for you.