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

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. 

101 Comments

Robert Albert

I really found this article interesting and credible. A little over a year ago I had a very close cousin commit suicide. As I was navigating that grief, I had my career on the right track by moving to GA from PA learning new things and making new connections but then something happened. After his death, I did not take things very well. Long story short I made a decision to move back to PA and work a level lower. I literally was now working for who I once was their direct manager. So now I’m trying to grieve, I have regrets about stepping down and taking the financial hit and was driving myself crazy with hating the situation I put myself in. I tried to reason with myself by saying you still make good money, you still have a home, etc. etc. I was grateful for what I did have but. Still wasn’t happy. I dreaded going to work, not that it was hard just that I’ve been there and done that etc. so that brings me to my most recent Situation. I was offered a role linear to the one I gave up with another company, with comparable if not better pay. It felt right, felt like the time was right, even drove my wife to that area. I put in my two weeks with the company I spent 22 years with and accepted the opportunity. The opportunity is in Ohio which I rationalized as it’s only 5 hours from home and doable. Now I’m panicking as it gets closer and questioning myself with did I make the right decision? Maybe I should ask to take back my resignation and stay so I don’t have to move and sell a home. Fearing failure and stress of moving again etc…. I have had so many people indicate it was a good decision and rave about the new company but I’m in my own head with doubt and telling myself that I should stay and keep the home I have and can be happy even though at the time I made the decision it felt exciting and new, like I was moving forward. I like the part where it states focus on what you want and not what I’m trying to avoid. Thoughts?

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Nikki

Hello, I just wandered onto this site and saw your comment. I hope things are better for you. I will be praying for you.

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Andre

Great article , loved “just because there is choice doesn’t mean there is a wrong one” There’s not really many choices I’ve regretted as without all of my choices I wouldn’t be me or have the people in my life that I love.

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A.

Oh anxiety!
I moved to LV about two years ago from MA to start a relationship. Half way through CoronaVirus my mom passed in MA. I thankfully was able to take care of her. After just having some treatment for ptsd (childhood / young adult related popped up), anxiety and depression, I return home to my boyfriend who now wants to break up and be alone. He said he is more productive alone and learned that by what has occurred during the pandemic.
I’m 34, I lost my savings during CoronaVirus, zero income, I have an associates degree, I have no family or friends around for support, and my therapist is straight out from college.
I have no idea what to do. I feel paralyzed and overly emotional.
Do I stay and take over the apartment, with the Hope’s to get a good roommate? Do I reach out to others I know in MA with my tail between my legs and ask for help getting back there? … for what.. I do not know. Do I sell everything I own and hopefully afford an RV to live in? (I have no car, and my credit is crap). I’m looking down the barrel of homelessness.
No decision feels good. I don’t like this apartment, but at the same time I feel like it’s the only thing I might be able to handle. I just can’t see me being able to get out of this HOLE!
I meditate, I try not to overthink, I try not to think too far ahead or ugh live in the past. But some choices are life changing, and the last one I made moving to LV didn’t pan out to be good or great. Life just got worse by the minute.
I’m totally stuck, cornered, and my fear is crippling me.
I don’t know what to do that is healthy and in my best interest!

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Priscilla

Can you make the decision right now not to make any decision until your mind is clearer. You’re going through a lot of emotional turmoil that is clouding your thoughts.

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james

i am the worst at taking decisions, ussually the one that i take bring along a lot of stress

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Blake

You should be called ‘Carein’ instead of ‘Karen’ bc you seem to really care for others mental well-being. Thank you very much for this article 🙂

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Rylee

Im 15 and my sister is 21. she’s a senior at berkely. We just got a puppy a couple days ago and everything was amazing. But then.. today… My sister burst into tears. she was explaining that she couldn’t take it all, and that she’s returning the puppy tonight. I know its the wrong decision, but i dont know how to tell her. she wont listen to her little sister! Help! She has a brother and we have him to. I cant let her go! Any advice! ASAP!!

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Ashifa

This is really helpful!! Just by reading it i can feel my anxiety has already reduced!!

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Teen

I’m almost 15 and I can’t ever make a decision that’ll greatly affect me in some way. I want to quit high school basketball but everyone’s telling me not to. I always worry about choosing the wrong decision that’s going to make everyone else unhappy. I’m also worried about disappointing my coaches and my parents because they all tell me what that’s its my decision but in reality it’s not cause cause they’re all trying to get me to keep playing. I need help.

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Wendy B

Anxiety is real and it’s crippling. My dad is terminally ill and my mom has dementia. I followed my dream of wanting to be in a warm climate after driving to work everyday in one of the snowiest climates in the United States. I moved across country by myself from NY to Arizona almost 5 years ago. Although I was homesick the first 2 years, I got laid off and came back home. Couldn’t find the right kind of job so since I left my belongings in storage, I went back to AZ and got a very corporate job that allowed me to travel. My dad had a heart attack and I have been able to stay here in New York through it all and keep my job.
Now my lease is up and I’m contemplating moving to the northeast so I can keep a closer eye on my mom and be able to drive back in a half a day. My only struggle and it’s a big one, is going back to an undesirable climate and start all over somewhere new. I’ve only been to Ma 2 times but don’t want to live near the office so I selected an apt 40 min away. I still have to go into the office 4 days a week and I’d still be 4 hours drive from home. It just feels so far being in AZ and the last minute flights are expensive although I’d be spending alot to move and cost of living would be higher. This decision has to be made soon as I already gave my 60 day notice and applied for a nice apt. My fear and indecision are killing me all while my dad is dying. I’m driving myself crazy with this. What should I do? I feel like quitting my job but I’m 56 years old and finding a good job is hard. My mom will need me as her dementia worsens and my dad passes but will I be close enough? I’ve even been applying to jobs in my hometown but I’m not sure I would be happy. I feel stuck and overloaded. Please help.

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Helen

Think of yourself.
I know that sounds counter intuitive.
Not knowing you…its the first thought.

The reason: I have the anxiety also.
I constantly worry about my family and theyre well being. I remind myself…nothing stops time…time moves forward with or without us.

Ask yourself…why am i…making myself miserable…trying to choose between what is best for me and what i feel obligated to do.

Sounds like you feel guilty for choosing what is best for you.

To the world you are an adult. Your age represents your generation. To your patents you will always be the kid.

Even though you want to stop time for them…no one is stopping time for you. You want to enjoy your life. But feel bad because they need you. But youll never get that time back…Live in present and cherish the memories.

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Holly

Although I think I’ve made the decision I have my doubts about if it’s the right one. I want to go to a University in Boone North Carolina vs Universities near my home in Michigan. It hasn’t always been a dream to live in North Carolina but I adore the mountains, outdoor life, small town feel, country, and a small campus. As far as the program I’m going into I’ve done a ton of research on it and I love how hands on it seems but at this point I truly don’t know if it’s the right program until I’m in it. The things I do know that I love have to do with mostly the location, even though the school seems great. But this school is 11 hours away from home so the biggest downfall is not being able to go home on weekends whenever. I guess what I’m confused on is how much should I care about the location of a place I’ll be living in when the reason I’m there is for school? Sometimes I think I’m crazy and living in lust over a place if that’s the right word.

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Alyssa C

This has been the first and only article for me to understand that I have been battling anxiety for almost all my life. I never knew I suffered from it until now. This has helped me in so many ways.

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Gina B.

Hello !

I found this article helpful because I have this nasty, vicious cycle that I need to break. I am 34 and have been wanting to go to college for as long as I can remember. I just keep talking myself out of it. I am so afraid of failing ( mommy issues ! haha ) I have a daughter and another one due in May 2019. One part of me is saying that it’s crazy to even think about starting school at this point in life. Then I feel so disappointed for not having acted sooner. I don’t want to have any regrets. I am tired of being scared to fail. My husband pushes me in a good way, to make a decision but sometimes he can be too pushy and I get scared. I know that for many of you this sounds ridiculous but I just felt the need to put it out there and see if anyone else has experienced something like this ?
Either way, thanks for listening !!

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Nichole

I know this is a year old, but as a mom and a college teacher, and a thirty-something, if you want to go, go. You will be fine academically (I know, I have taught kids who had legitimate academic challenges, and they made it). You already write better than many of them. You can do this.

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Hope

I’m not sure you’ll see this, but I love that you’re still interested and excited to go to college! I think if you’re still thinking about continuing your formal education, that’s a great sign. School is not for everyone, but I hope you can take steps to continue in school if you’re still as motivated as you sound to go back! Having the additional experience of being in school right alongside your children might also inspire them and their academic journeys. Although the cost of attendance can be high, if you find that school isn’t right for you, you can choose to stop attending at any point and stop payments. I’m not sure if that’s a factor, but I hope you consider education an investment in yourself, and therefore an investment in all those you care about (since your success is their success in healthy relationships). I hope you and your lovely family are well! All the best.

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Elizabeth S

Yes I have. Left school didn’t want to go into further or higher education but underneath the reality was I saw failure before I had even started.I settled down married had a daughter and still a yearning for education coupled with fear of failure and of course fitting it in. Then I sort of gave up on it. At one part if my life everything that could go wrong did my personal life and working life. My marriage was going to the wall and my business partner ran off with all our assets and emptied the bank account. This is the moment my head woke up and realised I had nothing to loose and if I failed so what I wouldn’t die. I went back to college gained enough passes and went to University as a mature student it was hard work and stressful and I absolutely loved it. I came out with a good degree and completely changed my life. I think you will know when you are ready there will be a point were you think not just I can do this but so what if I can’t at least I tried. There is no such thing as failure there is just finding what is good for you and to do that you have to try so many things that aren’t. You will go, something inside is driving you and you will know the moment. Best wishes for your future the door is there when you are ready to push it.

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Shelia

Great article. I struggle daily with anxiety but I do believe it’s mostly fear based. I grew up in a family where we never set boundaries and we never knew how to settle disputes or conflict resolution. I believe next year I’m going to seek professional help and get my anxiety under control.

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David

This was an extremely helpful article. I have wanted/needed to move to a new town for about 20 years, but anxiety cripples me. I’ve gotten great jobs multiple times in the towns/cities I’ve dreamed of living in and then turned them down at the last minute due to crippling anxiety. I’ve worked with realtors in several of these places and found great homes that I can well afford, but backed out of deals due to this crippling anxiety. I retired two years ago and have done well financially and saved. Only the crippling anxiety keeps me from moving. I am well able to rent places in other cities for a month or two, but have been unable to move. My home and areas has turned very bad and I just can’t leave. Your article is vey insightful and it is comforting to know that I am not alone in this kind of challenge. I’ll try to use it in trying to conquer this crippling challenge. Thank you.

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Annette B

Yes , anxiety is crippling and unfortunately many years of cognitive therapy has not given me the tools to change it. I too find this article informative. I am doing a 8 week course on zoom from San Diego on mindfulness. I have seen the benefits after one session. I recommend being taught it ,not just doing mindful meditation from app,though that can be helpful. I also medicated the anxiety which did not help to find ways to modify the anxiety it made it more progressive. I feel your pain I do see a way out because for the first timeveven though I have been diagnosed with generalized anxiety for years I now understand how it has effected all my decisions and behaviors with self, relationships and making choices I have felt like a victim to the anxiety rather than a creator of my life. It has been debilitating I feel empowered it no longer has to rule my life. Thank You and good luck. This is generational.

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Chris

Hello, well I am 29 and stuck in a hard place. Right now I’m in PA which is where I have grown up but due to relationship issues and the fact that I have always put everyone else ahead of myself has put me in my current situation. I have a son that is 11 but he stays with his mother mostly. She and I do not get along and tho we have tried, just didn’t work. Now almost 9 yrs after we split ways she still hates me and everything I do or who I’m with. Either way, right now I’m stuck with a decision to either stay here in pa and try again, only focusing on myself…. this is crazy cuz even while writing this I can not make a decision on how or what I am trying to say.. Umm, ok so I have family and a son here in pa but I also have a great chance to start new and fix myself down in AL. My parents moved there last year and I love it down there but I don’t want my son to think that I am leaving him behind because the mother won’t respond to me and I can’t talk to my son. Besides going directly to her house, I have tried all others. My decision making has gotten so bad to the point I can not tell someone if I want a drink or not, like I have to think bout every option if I am gonna finish it or is anyone else getting anything. I try not to show all of it but this not being able to make a simple freaking decision is driving me crazy. I used to be very strong minded and very ambitious. Now only thing I can yes to right away to is when someone asks to hiking or alil walk adventure thing. I love outdoors and my son and i wish me and his mother were on better terms but woth all the wrong that has happened in my life, sometimes you do wonder, IS IT JUST ME? Everyone tells me that most of the crap wasnt my fault and that they warned me of things but i was to good hearted.. Now I’m unsure

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Holly W

I am and have been in a similar situation. I have been separated for many years, we don’t get along to the point of me getting a restraining order. I have custody, dad lives in TX, I’m in PA. I used to live in TX. Lost my career, house, cars, everything! Step kids that I raised won’t speak to me. My mom passed after 2 years of extensive medical issues. I want to go back to TX. It’s taken me 6 years to come this close to follow through. I have severe anxiety, taken Effexor forever. Doesn’t seem to help much. I finally put a deposit on movers and started packing. I can’t sleep because I worry about money, finding a place to live, my son’s happiness, and everything that can go wrong. I make lists every day for finances and what needs to be done. I feel like a nut! I think the only comfort I have is my few friends reassuring me that I’ve got this. I try to tell myself that change is good when you have no real happiness. It took that distance between my ex and I to get to a place where I am ok with him being in my son’s life. You’re not alone and it sounds like a big change, like AL, might be what you need…..I wish u lots of luck and God bless.

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Kirsty

I’m in the middle of making a life changing decision for me. I’m thinking of moving with my boyfriend but would mean I’ll need to get regular trains to get to work. Public transport scares me causes panic attacks etc and I’ve only started getting on certain trains do I push myself to desensitize myself or do I wait until I conquor more?! I don’t want public transport to rule my life but it’s the only thing holding me back from going for it.ive tried pros and cons list and just can’t come to a final answer because I’m afraid!

Reply

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Honestly isn’t this the way it is for all of us though?♥️

#childanxiety #parenting #separationanxiety
Big feelings can be so beautiful. And so tricky. 

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We have to change the way we think about school. When we prioritise academics, it's like building the walls - because that's what we see - before fortifying the foundations.

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First though, we need to value relationships and the way kids feel at school, even more than how they do at school. All kids are capable of their own versions of greatness, but unless they feel safe and cared for at school, we just won't see what they are capable of, and neither will they.❤️
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