Decision-Making Anxiety: How To Cope + Make Better Decisions

Annie Gurton

Relationship Therapist

Many people are feeling more anxious now than ever before. It seems that anxiety is in the air around us, and it is being stoked by the media and the situations we face.

It’s not always helpful to know it, but anxiety is a normal, healthy human feeling. If we didn’t have anxiety, we would have ended up being eaten by the lions in the jungle – it’s a very primal, old brain reflex.  However, when we feel anxious, we can feel overwhelmed and paralysed, and fearful that whatever we do it will be wrong. Anxiety comes from the fears that our imagination creates, and sometimes those fears are reasonable.

For some people this happens with all decisions, even down to what to eat and what to wear for the day.  But that’s extreme.  Many people, though, feel anxiety over serious life choices such as whether to commit to a relationship; what job to take; whether to leave a job; whether to move to a new house; whether give it all up and go travelling or whether to accept a promotion.

The thoughts usually include fears of getting it wrong.  People think, ‘What if I make the wrong choice?’, and the answer is of course that no-one knows, and yes, you may get it wrong.  The fear of having to live with that wrong decision drives people crazy and increase the levels of fear and anxiety.

Or it may be thoughts around failure. If you are offered a big promotion, some people think, ‘I’m not really qualified, I’m going to be found out as an imposter, I’m going to fail.’ and this thinking can quickly run out of control, taking over your rational mind.  Imposter syndrome is a real thing, with people convinced that at any moment they will be discovered as a fraud. They are not frauds, of course, and neither are they going to be discovered.

While anxiety can paralyse if the decisions are small, it can totally freeze when the decisions are large.  The obvious strategy is to try and find ways to unfreeze oneself, to stop the paralysis, relax and think clearly. But that’s not always the best way to cope, even if it is possible. 

How to Cope with Anxiety

Rather than try and avoid the anxiety, and try and find ways not to feel it, it can be useful to sit with the anxiety and let it talk to you. Feel the anxiety and allow the troubling thoughts and feelings to come to the surface.  Much of what the anxiety is saying may be very valid, but it is better to look at the fears and try and answer them than hide them away, unaddressed.

Say to yourself: ‘Exactly what is it that I am anxious about?’  Actually expressing the fears, drilling down into the detail, can make it feel less scary, but more importantly it can become something that can be challenged. When a fear is a big amorphous shadow it is scarier than when you shine a light on it, and see if for what it is.

So, you feel anxious that you may lose all or any income altogether. Is that a realistic fear? Probably not — this job offer may not turn into the fabulous opportunity you were hoping for, but it is unlikely to leave you high and dry either. If this job doesn’t work out, there’ll be other offers, and if not, there may be some other opportunity that you don’t even know about yet.

Challenging the ‘Unknown Aheads’

That idea that there are ‘Unknown Aheads’, in other words things in your future that you have no idea about at the moment, is what keeps many people from going crazy in indecisive paralysis. Just because you don’t know what will happen doesn’t mean that something good won’t happen.

Anxiety brings with it catastrophising and dramatising. Our imagination over-thinks the possibilities, and makes a vague thought into a probability. You need to challenge these thoughts, calm yourself and think more clearly and rationally about what might happen.

Step One:   

Sit in the Anxiety and acknowledge it.  Define it, clarify it, understand exactly what the anxiety is about.  Take time to feel the anxiety, feel where it is in your body, and write down what that fear is.  It may be simple: ‘I won’t be able to pay my rent’, and it helps to write it down in that simplicity.

Step Two:     

Acknowledge what lies under the anxiety, and that your anxious reaction is quite normal.  Taking the mystery out of the anxiety is the big first step towards controlling it. Not being able to pay one’s rent is a scary prospect, but if one job doesn’t work out, there will be others even if you can see that at the moment.

Step Three: 

Once some of the anxiety is alleviated by clearly spelling it out, create a decision-making plan. First, you should set a deadline for when the decision must be made. Then go back to the fears and concerns you identified when exploring your anxiety and create a game plan for investigating each issue. 

This could look like this:

Issue: I have to decide whether to apply for a new job

Deadline: I have to make the choice in three weeks’ time.

Fear: I will make the wrong decision. I regret the choice I make.

Others impacted:  My partner and our 2 children who will have to relocate

Fear: I will make the wrong decision and they will hate me for it

Fear: I won’t be able to reverse the decision

Fear: I will end up with no job, no money and be unable to pay the rent

See how the fears have escalated? But by writing them down you now have clarity over what is making you anxious. It’s not that they are unreasonable, but they are probably unrealistic.

Under each fear, write down the impact of each, and whether they are realistic by reality checking them:

Fear: I will end up with no job

Reality Check: There are other jobs I could apply for

Fear: We will have no money

Reality Check: There are other ways to earn money if this doesn’t work out.

Fear: We won’t be able to pay the rent

Reality Check; We can explain the situation to the landlord and ask for time to pay.  We can negotiate. If we can’t do that we will have three months to look for other ways to create income.

Step Four: 

Include other people in your worries, ideally well ahead of the deadline. The decision is likely to affect other people, so discuss with them what is making you anxious and your fears.  They are likely to be able to bring a calming perspective to your thinking, and calm you. Even if they are young children, you can present them with a simplified version of your decision, and ask them what they think. You may be surprised that their child’s eye view actually makes a lot of sense. 

Step Five: 

Try to strike a balance, but ultimately allow your heart to rule your head.   In the final analysis, decisions that are make by the heart are regretted less than those made by the head alone.

Life is full of decisions, some big and some small. For some people, all decisions are fraught with anxiety while others make decisions with remarkable ease. Most of us fall somewhere in between and have some anxiety about major life decisions around career, family, relationships and finances. Next time you find yourself struggling to make a decision, agonising over what to do, worried and fearful about making a ‘wrong choice’, allow your anxiety to help you identify the fears and concerns and then make the best decision you can.

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