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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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68 Comments

HW17

This was very helpful. I’m currently trying to make a big decision (choosing between two countries to settle in, my country of birth or my husband’s…along with our 3 children who have spent time in both countries!). I’m terrified of making the ‘wrong’ choice…and anticipating lifelong regret! I like the idea of making the decision right no matter which way we go…
But its still paralyzing 😣

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Sarah

Hi, I just want to say I am in a similar situation to yours (I don’t have children however) and I totally know the agony of what you’re going through. I hope it works out for you 🙂

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Sam Dog

There is no wrong decision there…. figure out what is best and most practical here and now to do and then deal with whatever comes up after … if it ever happens…. that’s how life works… flip a coin if you have to … and then make plans to also include the other place by visiting … after a period of time it will become obvious which is the better place to be…. then decide to change….

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Kristina

So happy I found this article. I want to change my life, my location and almost did it a few months ago…house on the market, new rental in the next state, etc. I had a panic attack one night at 1:00 a.m. and pulled the plug on everything. This article was an aha moment for me. I do struggle with depression and anxiety but have been on medication for years and just started therapy. I see where fear has pulled and prodded me along for years. I am ready to start practicing mindfulness. Thank you thank you!!!

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Geo

Well I’m from the nj/ny area amd have been thinking for years bout moving to the southwest but I’m in a good paying job and am close to my family but have this drawing to go to the southwest where I visited 3x so far and love it the only thing is I’m having a hard time making this decisons i have diff fears amd also ill be leaving family and being alone for the first time. I think well if I get this job with this company I been talking to and I don’t do good and they let go of me well now I lost my job here up north and down there and am back to square one at 40 yrs old. I don’t think positive bout it but all the negative things that can happen . There r some days I say yea I’m gonna do it then there r days I’m like I can’t leave my family, my friends everything I kno but I’m not happy here anymore the prices of houses rent and taxes went up and it’s so discouraging also the women here r not family oriented and career driven. I wanna try it but I’m nervous that I’ll lose everything I worked hard for savings etc amd I’ll be at square 1. I kust wanna get over this and make the right decision I think bout it everyday and even wake up in yhr middle of the night hoping some switch will go on and I can make the deciding amd be at peace with it but I can’t and it’s draining. Thank u

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Josh

Hey, I feel ya! I’m in the same boat but instead of wanting to move to the southwest I live in the Midwest and want to live in California again. I’ve lived in California for about 15 years of my life off and on but always moved to live somewhere cheaper. Now that I have a house and some equity built up I’m thinking about selling and buying a mobile home or even an RV to live out of to make my stay in California cheaper. Problem for me though is I am almost done with school but don’t really want to work in the that field so I am debating on getting my CDL license to drive a truck, with that license I can live and work anywhere. So, everyday I play the same scenarios over and over in my head debating back and forth what is the right decision, should I stay and finish school, live here and work this job, pay off my house, or should I get my cdl, stack some money , sell my house and start over in California? I know, I know, 1st world problems one would say but after living in the Midwest for going on 8 years, I am sick to death of it. I enjoyed every day I lived in the Central Coast of California, beautiful place, cool people and awesome weather. Here in Missouri its a 180* difference, most of my stay here has been horrible, only moved because it was cheap. Sometimes its worth it to shell out more money for a better product. Most everyone here is so close minded and decades behind. Good luck in your decision.

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Satya

I’m in CA and have done the leaving because of finances and other dramas. This isn’t an easy state to live in ‘normally’ full-time if you didn’t have early roots here but when it’s in your blood, nowhere else can feel as home. I wish you luck on your return home!

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Serena

I agree with you that between two tough but good decisions, there is no right or wrong answer. I know this in my core, but how do you ever truly let go of the other option, especially when things get hard?

I am currently in rough shape, having been accepted into two very different grad programs which lead to two very different lives. One is environmental studies and the other is physical therapy. Environmental work is my passion and I’ve loved the jobs that I’ve had – but the higher you get the more desky your work gets and with ADHD and GAD, I struggle with focus on a computer. There are some jobs that pay well and have a field component, but they are few and far between – you likely have to move to the job and funding is often a struggle. PT is easily employable and hands-on, but despite having shadowed 150 hours, I’ve never truly done it so I don’t know if I’d like it long term. I like people and I like service but who knows whether it would be worth the risks. I am nervous about the pressure for high productivity, amount of charting and that I’d be forever pigeon holed. But also…too much freedom and too many options is dangerous for me so the idea of being on track for a known profession and ability to choose location is comforting. With the price tag and expiration of my undergrad prerequisites, it’s now or never…especially for PT.

I needed to decide yesterday, but after flipping coins and reviewing my pro/con lists and reading testimonials, I finally went to bed at 4am…with no decision. The decision is making me sick and I know that there isn’t a right answer but the results are so different and I have to live with my choice. I have to live with the debt and the unemployment and the job dissatisfaction and the anxiety. I know once I make a decision I ‘just’ need to let go and move forward but HOW?! How do I get my constantly doubting mind to cooperate and not sew what ifs into every thought and action.

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Sam Dog

I had the same problem with fear of water and swimming… my decision was like this… just take a few steps – which is a physical movement and then just jump in…. and if you move your arms and legs you should be able to swim … same way everyone else does it… so I did exactly that… and discovered how to swim and love the water ever since…. Life is like that too… jump in the pool of decision making and do the same as other people do and you might love swimming…and after a bit realize that you are really quite good at it…

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Donna

I too am in a similar situation. Except over furniture of all things. We bought a new lounge and I immediately got panic when it was delivered. I had this overweaknung desire to get rid of it and go back to the old one. My husband didn’t want that. But I was able to convince him to sell it to my family. So we did that reluctantly even though he was sad about it. But then the old couch just wasn’t the same anymore. It’s like I resented it because I know how much my husband likes the new lounge. My anxiety over this has been horrible. I’m now seeing a counsellor and a psychiatrist and am on daily medication as well as an “as needed” tablet for panic attacks.
We’ve been able to get the couch back from my family; crazy I know. But they’re doing it because they understand how this is all affecting me. It’s not here yet, but I’m already anxious about it all. I was ok at first but then during the night it all hit me. The new couch makes the loungeroom darker cause it’s taller. How am I going to study in the lounge room with terrible light, there’s really nowhere else I can put my desk in our small house. Do I really want my good old sofa in the back dining room. Yes and no on that. All this indecision is eating away at me terribly. I took my first ever panic tablet during the night which calmed me down and help me sleep a little better. How do we cope with decisions when everything makes us so anxious. Something’s it’s so bad I start to scratch myself a lot and feel like I need serious help or don’t want to be here anymore. I’d never do anything drastic, but in the moment hurting myself seems like a good way out. I’ve even thought I may need hospital treatment oh my goodness. My anxiety is ruling my life right now. I’m missing work. I could lose my job. I’m worried about me and how it’s effecting my husband too. If either of us miss work then we lose pay. I just want to be ok again.

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Sally

I just wondered if you took the PT route for study and did the environmental work in a voluntary capacity? You are still very young, one does not have to preclude the other, at least with PT you can possibly work p/t to release you for interesting environmental projects?

You will probably train and retrain during your lifetime, think about portfolio working rather than it having to be all or nothing. PT could be the breadwinner which allows you to fund your passion? Just a thought.

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Bunny

What kind of meds do they give for you in this situation? My husband had several strokes. I took care of him for 2 years then he passed away. He passed away in our home. That is what we wanted, we did not want him to pass away in hospital. Now I’m stuck. I CANNOT make any decisions about anything. I hate being in my own home. I need help. I’ve got a 6 year old and a 18 year old at home. They have lost both parents. I have to start living if not for me, for them. Can someone tell me is there meds that can really help. I have always been a strong person. Never needed drugs to keep my mind straight. I have started every day saying today I will start a new day. It never works. I feel scared to death !!!

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Karen Young

Bunny I would really encourage you to get support from a therapist. A doctor will be able to speak with you about meds, but if you do decide to go on medication, it’s important that while you are doing that, you are also strengthening your brain in other ways – mindfulness and exercise and 2 things that have been proven by a lot of research to strengthen the brain against anxiety. It sounds as though you are dealing with a lot at the moment. You can manage this, and you can feel strong again, but support from a therapist will help you get there.

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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!

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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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Hey Warrior - A book about anxiety in children.