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How Anxiety Interferes With Decision-Making – And How to Stop it Intruding

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How Anxiety Interferes With Decision Making - And How to Stop it Intruding

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 

  1. 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.)

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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. 

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69 Comments

Isobel

Really interesting, especially about the switching off of certain neurons when anxious, lessening our ability to engage with our PFC. This makes a lot of sense and explains why when I’m feeling anxious the choices I appear to have seem either very few or even black and white. An expression I have heard repeatedly from clients.
I have also learnt from experience not to rush important decisions and was always given the advice “sleep on it, it may feel different tomorrow”, which uncannily it does in most cases.

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Lucy

I see these techniques work on a daily basis with my clients. Thank you for articulating it so well. I wonder are you specifically talking about the left PFC?

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Tim

Thanks Karen, very enlightening.

Can you suggest anxiety suppressing medication and/or treatment which could help?

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Hey Sigmund

You’re very welcome Tim. In terms of medication, a doctor would be the person to ask but there are also other things you can try that research has found to be really effective for many people. If you do go down the medication route, just make sure you incorporate the lifestyle tweaks as well. It will make it easier to come off the medication when you’re ready. The articles that talk about other options (that can be used in conjunction with medication) are on this link https://www.heysigmund.com/category/being-human/anxiety/. Hopefully something in here will give you some comfort.

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Nina

I’m such a mess from stress
Just bad choices
I took prescription medication it made it so much worse
Now I’m in a total mess because my mind was badly affected by the medication and I just turned in on myself not communicating with anyone except on the phone which made or worse again because no human eye contact
Warning to anyone don’t take medication
I’m in such s way I don’t know where to turn to now
I went to stay at my mothers which was even worse because I don’t get owing with her
I believed God was telling me what to do it was my conscience gut feeling I neede to leave her place I needed to wash my hair but I did neither because of the medication side effects making me so clammed up
I’m sort if ok today because i didn’t take those pills last night
I kept thinkingy life was hell because of the medication and that everything was going to ruin
Now I don’t know what to do
Medication is all wrong it was serequal please don’t anyone ever take it it destroys your mind

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Hey Sigmund

Nina thank you for sharing your story. I’m sorry that you have had this experience with your medication. Keep working on strengthening your brain back to healthy. Brains change – we know that for sure. Even though this is an article about depression (and I’m NOT suggesting you have depression) it describes the things that will strengthen the brain that we should probably all be doing for strong mental health, not just people with depression. It might have something in it that will help https://www.heysigmund.com/the-non-medication-ways-to-deal-with-depression-that-are-as-effective-as-medication/. And here is another one about the things that support brain health https://www.heysigmund.com/simple-ways-to-supercharge-brain-health-and-mental-performance/. Wishing you love and healing.

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Heather Holt

Thanks for this wisdom. There is a typo in the heading of point 7. (which is the sentence which resonated the most with me!)

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Marie

This is ground breaking for me today. I can’t count the amount of bad decisions i have made, things i have regretted in a snap decision and yet i have been severely anxious all my life and have never truly believed it was that causing it.
Thank you
I have been very tough on myself,thinking i was such a bad person at times but i see now anxiety was in the driver seat.
knowledge is power.
I just have to learn mindfullness now!
Thank you

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Davey

I really appreciate this list! I have a long history of decision-making paralysis, even with unimportant, everyday things like how to use my free time. If it involves other people, I worry about whether other people will be happy. If it’s for myself, I have the false pretense that there is one perfect choice.

I’m going to try and start implementing these!

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Kristina

I’m currently married to a man who is a narcissist . I’m in the process of trying to leave him and have made steps so I can have freedom. My main problem though is my anxiety. I keep thinking I’m making a bad decision because of past experiences with leaving him. I’ve left him before bit I always get lured back in. In my mind I’m being tossed between, should I stay or should I go? The more I think about it the more anxiety I have. To be very honest, I’m scared. I know I can’t stay with him because he makes me nervous and I’ve lost 60 pounds due to the stress. Any advice?

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Katrina I know you feel confused, but you sound very clear to me. Get yourself an anchor – a thought, a memory or an incident that can really propel you out of there and remind you of the reasons you need to leave. This time you leave him will be a new time. It’s easy to look at new experiences with old eyes, but the thing to remember is that you are different – more aware, stronger, braver – so this time you leave won’t be like the other times. Write down the things that pulled you back in last time, so that you can be ready for them this time. Everything you need to do this is in you. First though, you need to trust yourself – trust that you know what you want, that you have what it takes, and that you deserve it.

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Alyssa

This is an amazing article, thank you for sharing! I just have one question. I’ve been putting off with this decision for a while now, and it’s not even a big one, or one that will dramatically affect my life. It’s just a simple event I’ve been invited to, but I’m introverted and hate loud, crowded situations. My thing is, my brain likes to tell me that I’m going to regret my decision later on in life, no matter what I do. Like, I won’t have that extra story to tell, or if I don’t go, I’ll regret it when I’m doing what I wanted to do and suck the fun out of everything in that present moment. Or that I didn’t take the chance to give it a try, while I know in my head that I would be miserable going. Is there any way to combat this?

I don’t know if you read these any more because this article is from so long ago, but it’s worth a shot. I was supposed to make my decision yesterday, but haven’t yet because of what I stated above, so I thought I’d try reaching out for advice because that looks like what everyone else is doing. 🙂 Thanks in advance!

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Your anxiety around this is a feeling, not a prediction. Be brave and say yes. Perhaps it will be wonderful, and perhaps it won’t be. Either way, you will have stretched your edges. If it turns out to be an awful experience, you can always leave. The more you avoid things, the more your brain will think that avoidance is the only way to stay safe, which it isn’t. Remind yourself, you don’t need to ge through the entire night, just the next ten minutes. Take a chance on yourself.

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Alyssa

Thank you! I really appreciate how you take the time to respond to each and every comment, it means a lot! I’ll try to step outside of my comfort zone. After all, it is just for a few hours or so, it’s just difficult making that initial decision.
Not to bombard you with a bunch of questions but, what do you think is a good way to cope with anxiety instead of letting it run your life? Are there ways to calm yourself down or combat it? Again, thank you for the advice and sorry for lots of questions, I just don’t really have anyone else to ask.

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Morka

I am having difficulty making decisions. As I am writing this I am in a state of paralysis.
There is a man who loves me and wants to marry me. I love him yet can’t seem to make a commitment. There are opportunities to create things together yet I just get stuck in paralysis. I leave thinking I can make it else where, then come back because I miss him and invision how I can be better, try harder….
Around him I act like a little child…or feel that way…creates a feeling of overwhelming shame and guilt.
So now I have a decision to make to stay or go. There is opportunity where I am going….but fear turns everything into a state of panic and instead of packing and such…I am weighing my choice and projecting into the futures of both options…
I fear that there is something imbalances with in me…I have trained myself to create these dramas and are looping for 3 years now. Finding myself in different places pacing around and feeling crazy, after a bit coming out of it and disredisregard it as okness. Today starting on 5mg of celexa* medication to ease anxiet and depression. I do implementing tools that I know…meditation…yoga…mindfullnes… However
Its really hard because as I start projecting into the decision making…even if I feel I have made the decision…I start doubting and mind starts floating into imagery.

So this is where I am today.

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Lindsey

How do I deal with anxiety about major life decisions? I’m currently changing what I thought was going to be my career path because I’ve decided to pursue a dream of mine–an unrealistic one. I say unrealistic in the sense that many people fail. However, I’ve been making an effort to put in my best and really studying what other people in that field do to be successful. And from other people have told me, I could be really successful. That I’ve got a good foundation, I just have to grow a bit. I’m not sure though, I’m really excited to pursue my passion, but i’m terrified that my family is going to think I’m crazy. I’m worried I’m gonna be broke with nothing to show for it. I feel like I’m happy yet an elephant is sitting on my chest at the same time. I don’t know how to get rid of that anxious feeling, but it’s really bothering me.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

With big, life-changing decisions it’s really understandable that there will be anxiety that comes with that. It means you’re about to do something really brave. Courage and anxiety tend to exist together. If the decision was an easy one that didn’t require courage, there wouldn’t be anxiety. What’s important is what you think. Listen to the people who love you, but ultimately you’re the one who has to live with your decision. No experience is ever wasted. You will learn and grow regardless. And the big question – how will you feel for the rest of your life if you don’t? Big dreams breathe life into life.

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elkay

It seems as if you are saying that when anxiety impedes decision making…say yes to the choice that will make your life larger, even if it’s harder.

I like that.

What about when you fall in love with an idea that gives you great pleasure and opens your world, but your gut is all twisted up the closer you get…with the fear that it won’t be worth it, or it’ll turn sour and painful?

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

It’s important to make sure that whatever you decide, it’s for the right reasons. Sometimes fear is a stop sign, and sometimes it isn’t. Use your head and your heart when making a decision – they both contain important wisdom. What’s important is that fear doesn’t get in the way and hold you back for the wrong reasons.

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david

I don’t understand that logic. My anxiety and depression has been crippling and disruptive in my home. Are you saying fear is a trigger that tells us to stop… like a warning not to move forward in that decision? My fear drives me and holds me back, we desire to make some major improvements to the house like bathroom remodels, garage addition and pool. we have the resource for those things, but fear and worry hold me back. I over analyze ever little situation as a sign in not to proceed.

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Karen Young

Fear can make us fight (think of it like attacking in defence), flee (this can mean ‘fleeing’ (avoiding) a decision) or freeze (staying stuck).

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Alix

Thanx for this. Today I was feeling very anxious. I used to have panic disorder but got great help with the MAPS program. It’s been 20 years since I had it & am trying to figure out what has set it off again. I think I need a tune up. Thanx

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Kay

Such a great article that has really got me thinking about my struggle with anxiety. However my issue is the way it controls my decision making on the most simplest of choices. Things like what should I wear? Should I buy an outfit? Over worrying about spending money? Too many ‘What if’s’ that stop me from making quick decisions.

I feel frustrated with myself as I never used to be this indecisive and my husband is becoming very frustrated with me (even though he is very supportive).

I need to be able to mak a decision, and not wonder if it was the right one straight after. How do I stop my brain from considering future events and ‘what if’s’ before they have even happened?
It is controlling my life and making my stomach feel knotted and my heart beat fast all day every day as I can’t stop over thinking things.

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Pete

“Be guided by what you want, rather than by what you want to avoid.”

This is excellent advice to remember. I have lost count of the number of times I have been offered great opportunities, when people had faith in me, and I turned them down because of what I wanted to avoid.

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Diane

Yes that was my WOW moment!
Thank You

And I have been over thinking my
entire life it’s a difficult thing to change but I’m trying. I think my wow moment will help.
🤞

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Elaine

I have been stuck forever (over 10 years) on deciding whether to move house or make-over the one I have. Life has been stressful during this time. my mum was diagnosed with dementia about 10 years ago and more recently my Dad with cancer. I am now struggling with other decisions where to go on holiday how to celebrate a big birthday this year whether to go or not to go to events…the anxiety is getting a stronger grip. No 6 and 7 resonated with me. Maybe there is no right decision over moving home and maybe focusing on all the things that might go wrong will always lead to staying put or as in my case doing nothing at all (soon my current house will fall down around me from lack of action!) Also if you want something enough you need to take a leap of faith. I do believe the more you play it safe the more afraid you will become so you cant keep giving into fear. Thanks for such a useful article.

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Rick

Very helpful and insightful article.

I would definitely blame anxiety as the main culprit in me making a highly irrational decision 2 weeks ago re a career move that I turned down.

It’s stunning. I knew at the time that anxiety was clouding my judgment and that I should ignore it as it was largely unfounded. I also knew that the decision I was making was wrong and that I would regret it, but I couldn’t help but be guided by irrational anxiety. And now I’m kicking myself for being so stupid.

It’s like anxiety got hold of my body and my mind lost all ability to control. I have to say I never believed such emotion could be so potent.

I am hoping next time I am sufficiently mentally cognizant and resistant to be able to ignore it.

Thanks

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Karen Young

You’re very welcome Rick. Every experience gives new wisdom and new courage that wasn’t there before. You’ll be ready next time around. No regrets, just experiences that make you clearer, braver and more able to move in the direction that is right for you.

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Kira

Hi there – found your article when I googled a bunch of things about intuition vs. anxiety.

My boyfriend recently said he wants to go camping again this year, and wants me to go with him (he wanted that last time too, but I said no. For no particular reason.)

Now I’m in the same situation – my body just says no. I’m sure if I look deeper I’ll be able to identify my thoughts, of all the little things that could go wrong – but as he stated, if anything goes wrong, we can just come home.

Of course, the worst thing that can happen is that someone dies – which could just as easily happen anywhere!

So really, the main thing is this FEELING. This block inside my body or mind that won’t let me even think hypothetically about going or trying to organise it (you know, act first and let the feelings follow).

Since it’s so much effort trying to work out whether to go (because I can’t trust whether I WANT to go or not – my anxiety overrides anything I might want to do) it’s very easy for me to become upset and tired and decide not to do something, because it’s easier and seems to be the right choice.

Anyway, sorry for rambling, I just needed a bit of encouragement to say yes – I don’t want to say no again, especially for no reason. I’m just having a very tough time saying yes.

Especially also since I’ll have to tell my mum I’ll be going off camping (I live with her) and whenever she expresses any doubt (which is always, because she has anxiety too) it totally changes my mind.

So, saying no just because I feel like I don’t want to do it, is not an action I would like to take. I know the consequences it will have for my boyfriend and myself. I know in the past that I have done things despite not feeling like it, and ended up enjoying it and wondering what my problem ever was in the first place!

I’m sure the excited feeling about camping for the first time with my boyfriend will come, probably on the day we leave. The fact that I don’t feel that way now just makes it hard to say yes, especially when I’ve been taught to base my decisions on how I feel.

PS Don’t worry, I am seeing a therapist for my issues! 🙂

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Fariha

I’ve been a brilliant student through out. But back in 10th grade I had my first encounter with anxiety. With therapy I felt better but anxiety never let go of me for good. I have performance anxiety and it’s making me think about quitting med school. I’ve one more year to go. I can’t really decide what to do.

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Karen Young

Fariha – don’t quit! Your anxious mind is also a strong one and you have everything in you to manage your anxiety and finish your course. Try mindfulness https://www.heysigmund.com/overcoming-anxiety-mindfulness/, exercise https://www.heysigmund.com/activity-restores-vital-neurochemical-protects-anxietyepression/ and here is another article that talks about using your strong, healthy mind in ways that can support you through your anxiety https://www.heysigmund.com/dealing-with-anxiety-anxious-mind-calm/. Anxiety can feel confusing and awful, but it can be managed. You will be so grateful in a year that you trusted your capacity to cope and let the brave, strong, part of you get you through.

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Fariha

Karen, it’s really hard to cope with these feelings. My exams start tomorrow. And I’ve not even tried going close to my books during my prep leave. I don’t think I want to sit in these exams.

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Janvi

I am so happy to have found this post. I made a really bad decision two years ago out of stress/exaggerated emotions which I feel has ruined my future and am currently trying to get back my life back on track and make sure something like that never happens again. Do you have any advice on getting over wrong decisions which nothing more can be done about and moving forward?

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Karen Young

Look for the lessons and the growth. No experience is wasted if there is something you can take from it that will make you stronger, braver, wiser and more ready for the experiences ahead of you.

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Joe

I have read a lot of lists like these and always thought of them to be the most useless things, but after reading yours, I found it be so helpful to my current situation. I would like to thank you very much for taking the time to make this.

Reply

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