Standing in the grocery store I stare vacantly at the products. I repeatedly question what I want, even though it’s not important or life changing. Yet, I’m frozen in indecision and my brain has checked out. I’m in the grips of an anxiety attack.
During these times, I’m known to wander aimlessly around the shops. I go with a definitive list to avoid distraction. But, hours later I’ll return with nothing, bar a frustration that anxiety wields such power over me. A power over which I have no control.
But it’s not just making decisions that’s hard. It’s the aftermath of making the wrong ones. When anxiety takes hold I often think irrationally or jump into things with gusto. This is mainly an attempt to escape the anxiety, but the outcomes aren’t always great.
However, feeling like this isn’t uncommon. In fact, research has shown anxiety is linked to an inability to make decisions and science may well have an answer.
When anxiety takes hold I often think irrationally or jump into things with gusto. This is mainly an attempt to escape the anxiety, but the outcomes aren’t always great.
A study carried out by the University of Colorado explored the brain mechanisms responsible for making decisions, specifically focusing on ‘neural inhibition’. This is a process that occurs when one nerve cell suppresses activity in another.
The findings showed that people with anxiety have decreased neural inhibition in their brain, which potentially explains why they have difficulty making choices.
"The breakthrough here is that this helps us clarify the question of what is happening in the brain when we make choices, like when we choose our words," says researcher Professor Yuko Munakata.
"Understanding more about how we make choices, how the brain is doing this and what the mechanisms are, could allow scientists to develop new treatments for things such as anxiety disorders.”
Another study, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, found that people who are prone to high anxiety struggle to read environmental cues that could help them avoid a bad outcome.
So why is this?
Health and wellbeing psychologist, Marny Lishman, says that when anxiety kicks in, the brain turns on the flight or fight response. Everything needed for survival switches on and everything secondary to survival switches off, including decision making.
“The part of the brain necessary for good decision making is turned down in times of stress and anxiety, and so sufferers really have trouble 'thinking' about things,” she says.
“Usually everything’s a blur because the brain is just in an automated mode, focusing only on the task at hand. Analysing thoughts or weighing up the pros and cons of an action outside the trigger is incredibly difficult.”
So how can we best overcome this anxiety, or at least alleviate it?
“The part of the brain necessary for good decision making is turned down in times of stress and anxiety, and so sufferers really have trouble 'thinking' about things."
Lishman’s initial advice is to stop for a moment and acknowledge our anxiety. In doing so, it may actually have a calming effect.
“It takes our mind out of the fear response and out of the fight or flight state. We can even tell ourselves that ‘it’s only my anxiety making me feel this way’,” advises Lishman.
By doing this, everything secondary to survival, such as digestion, problem solving and decision making, turns back on again.
It’s a similar result if we try to focus on the bigger picture and spend time looking at decisions from different angles and perspectives, as opposed to an automated response and not considering all options.
“Most decisions in life do not have to be made straight away, and they’re most likely not life or death,” says Lishman. “So calmly walking away, breathing and talking to others is often a good way to go.”
“Everyone has a different perspective, so talking to others might not only have a calming effect, but give you an alternative way to think about things.”
In the case of an on the spot decision, Lishman recommends trying some deep breathing for a few minutes or writing a quick list of pros and cons. She also advises that chewing and drinking shift you out of fight or flight mode and can help you make the right decision at that time.