Anxiety and decision making: why is it so hard?

My palms are clammy, I feel cold, a chill comes over me. A trembling in my hands, my breathing becomes faster. I worry, I think, and think some more, the same problems and fears over and over.

I have to make a decision, and now is a good time right?

When I’m anxious or afraid I find it harder to make decisions, and those I do may not always be the best.

This is why I liken anxiety to a flood of cold water. My anxiety drowns out any other good feelings or thoughts I have.

Anxiety becomes all that I am. I’m unable when it’s bad to be able to function normally. Because the symptoms and the thoughts are so pervasive.

It turns out some research backs me up on this. Scientists have found that anxiety can make it difficult to sense our intuition.

In the experiment, 111 people were split up randomly into three groups. Each group was primed (‘inducted’) with a different emotion (optimistic, anxious, neutral) by reading emotionally charged sentences and looking at photos. Once so primed they filled out questionnaires on their intuitive capabilities.

What the researchers discovered is that those with pessimistic, anxious attitudes found it harder to make intuitive decisions. Whereas those with a neutral or optimistic mind found there was no inhibition.

The thinking of the researchers is that suffering from anxiety affects our decision-making abilities. When afraid or anxious we become more pessimistic, risk-averse and less confident. Instead, we choose the safer, familiar option, even if that means not making a decision at all.

To use intuition well you must first have trust in that intuition. Those who lack self-esteem find that difficult and will tend to ignore what their gut is telling them.

I can relate to all this, I find it hard to make quick instinctive decisions because of my anxiety and low self-esteem. But in recent years my anxiety has decreased and my self-esteem has increased. So I learned to trust myself more and accept that the process of growth and happiness is going to be messy and uncertain.

But there’s a concern in this paper, brought on by what the researchers said.

‘It may thus be suspected that due to low levels of confidence, hypersensitivity and pessimistic evaluation tendencies, anxiety interferes with letting oneself be guided by intuitive hunches.’

It’s the implication that beneath the anxiety, fear, low self-esteem our real selves, our ‘true’ hunches exist.

I have my doubts. I’m not sure underneath all that anxiety there is any intuition. My gut feeling in these circumstances is telling me to run, hide, find a safe place. Such intensity of feeling leaves me afraid to make decisions and choices which is why I’ve found it so difficult to do well in life.

Neuroscience tells us that our feeling emotional part of our brain tends to be stronger and easier than the thinking part.

‘Thinking needs to be invited into our mind, whereas emotions just walk straight in.’ – Richard Collison

The anxiety, the fear is the emotional centre (amygdala) hijacking the brain. Something the more deliberate, conscious, decision making part (the prefrontal neocortex) is there to counter and control.

Perhaps it’s better to ignore such feelings and symptoms. Because your body is overreacting to a harmless situation.

This is what treatments like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) tell us to do. Asking us to focus more on using reason to discover how irrational and erroneous our intuitions are.

To use intuition effectively you have to trust yourself. But if anxious types did that then the anxiety would win each time. Sometimes it’s better to do what the famous self-help book says, Feel the Fear and do it Anyway.

It’s not that anxiety makes it hard to find our intuition, but that we mistakenly listen to our intuition and the sweaty palms too much. We give such feelings far too much authority.

That’s what anxiety is: our intuition, our feelings run amok. It’s not that we don’t notice them, it’s that we can’t ignore them!

This intensity/sensitivity of feeling reminds me of what I have learned about Highly Sensitive People (HSP), as explained by Elaine Aron in her book. The Highly Sensitive Person.

HSPs have a nervous system that’s more reactive. It’s a physiological trait that means sensory information is processed more deeply.

HSPs notice more, feel more, are more easily distracted. So when a stressful event does occur it affects them more readily and deeply. I can attest to that, feeling so much makes it hard to live in a world that’s loud, fast and demanding.

This is the real problem. The feelings are so overwhelming sometimes that everything else gets ‘drowned’ out. Anxiety in some people, some circumstances can be that problematic.

Our intuition doesn’t get ignored, instead, it screams at us to get our attention.

Image Credit: sifotography / 123RF Stock Photo

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