Decision anxiety: how to make decisions when feeling anxious

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Have you noticed that sometimes you can make decisions in an instant, but at other times the choice feels overwhelming? Anxiety can reduce your willingness to take risks, leading to a phenomenon known as decision anxiety. Decision anxiety causes a fear of making the wrong choice and later suffering the consequences. This may cause you to hesitate, ruminate, or fail to make any decision at all.

When anxiety impacts the decision-making process

Experiencing some level of anxiety when making decisions is common. For example, if you are considering investing in an expensive purchase, you could worry that it might not fulfil your requirements and therefore later feel like a waste of money.

But this anxiety can sometimes have important consequences in our lives. If you dream of working freelance, you may talk yourself out of the idea by worrying that you will not earn enough money to pay the rent. When searching for a professional course, you might give up simply because the vast choice of providers is overwhelming.

Rather than make the best choice based on rational criteria, you may opt for safer, less risky options. While these decisions may not have a high risk of failure, they may make you miss some exciting opportunities, which could leave your career, or even your life, feeling stagnant. Learning to overcome decision anxiety can help you stay on track with your goals and aspirations.

The science of decision anxiety

When anxiety is present, ruminating on the potential negatives of a decision can impact the choice we make. Researchers from New York University explain: “Anxiety increases the attention to negative choice options, the likelihood that ambiguous options will be interpreted negatively, and the tendency to avoid potential negative outcomes, even at the cost of missing potential gains.”

Let’s unpack how anxiety alters our cognitive decision-making processes. First, anxiety is closely linked with risk aversion. Anxious individuals tend to believe that a negative outcome is not only more likely, but that the potential outcome would be particularly awful. As a result, even when a decision is the “right” one, anxiety can lead our decision-making astray because of the fear it induces regarding the potential risks.

Decision anxiety is also linked to fear of loss, which means that we tend to prioritise avoiding a loss rather than gambling in the hope that we may attain something. Scientists have found that a structure in the brain called the amygdala is more sensitive to loss when anxiety is present. This sensitivity may lead us to make a decision that seems to be less likely to lead to loss, even though our assumptions are not always rational.

Research has shown that most people prefer to choose an option with a known outcome, rather than taking one with unknown risks. This aversion to ambiguity is known as the Ellsberg Paradox. Opting to remain in a job that you do not enjoy, but that provides a regular monthly income, therefore trumps taking the risk to set up your dream business. Your income and your job satisfaction could be far higher if your business were to be successful but because the probability of your success is unknown, you choose to remain in employment. This ambiguity effect can keep us trapped in the status quo rather than striving for more.

Finally, choice overload plays a role in decision anxiety. Psychologists have long understood that being faced with too many choices can make individuals less likely to choose anything at all. This may be because having more information or options offers greater opportunity for direct comparison, consideration of trade-offs, and an increased risk of future regret. Rather than risk booking a disappointing holiday or buying the wrong car among many options, those with anxiety fail to act thus avoiding disappointment.

How to manage decision anxiety 

Decision anxiety will likely affect us all at some stage in our lives. Rather than letting anxiety direct you to the safest option, it is possible to manage how you feel so that your decision-making skills are not negatively affected.

6 ways to manage decision anxiety

One of the first steps is to acknowledge when you feel anxious about a decision. Then, determine the root of your anxiety. By understanding why you feel anxious about making a decision, you will be better prepared to manage the way you feel.

If your anxiety stems from the risk of loss associated with the decision, try to be objective about whether your fears are justified. Ask friends, family or colleagues for their opinion on whether you are being sensibly cautious or over-thinking the matter.

If you are overwhelmed by choice, purposefully narrow your options down. Choose one shop to visit to purchase a gift, or only look at renting a flat in one geographical area. In this way, you limit the decision’s ability to consume you.

However, many people have low-grade anxiety that does not have a specific trigger. Tuning into the background hum of anxiety can help you pinpoint when your ability to make decisions is affected. If you suddenly start finding it hard to choose an outfit each morning, or spend months researching college courses without applying, it may be because of decision anxiety.

Decision anxiety can create a lot of internal noise without leading you any closer to the answer. Take control of the decision making by exploring your options rationally without the distraction of any unhelpful fears.

If you feel stressed about making a decision, put it to one side for a day or two. Take time to practice self-care, prioritise sleep, and come back to face your options afresh. Take advice or seek reassurance from those whose opinion you value. For career related dilemmas, speak to your boss, a colleague, or someone in a similar field. Invest in therapy to help you tackle difficult decisions in your personal life. Getting objective opinions can give clarity to your decisions.

If you are still struggling to decide what to do, keep your long-term goals in mind. Decisions of all sizes can take you towards, or away from, your dreams. Start journaling your ideas, and document your fears, hopes or expectations so that you have a clear idea of where you are now, and where you want to get to.

Rather than focusing on potential losses, be driven by the gains that could be achieved with a decision. Although leaving the security of employment in favour of freelancing might put your income at risk, the benefits of working independently, driving your own career, and setting your own fees could outweigh this.

To mitigate the potential risks, write down how you would cope in a worst-case scenario. If your business was to fail, how quickly could you become employed again? By recognising that a bad outcome could be managed, you reduce the impact of your internalised fears. 

Finally, set yourself a deadline for making a decision to help prevent over-thinking. Decision anxiety lends itself to long periods of rumination. To help you decide more quickly, make a list of all the needs a decision must meet. If your new home must have outside space, reduce the choice down by filtering out rentals that do not have a garden or courtyard. Focusing only on the homes that meet your criteria may help you to make a prompt decision. 

Decision anxiety can make it hard to recognise the right choice. It can commonly lead to making low-risk, but inappropriate, choices, or failure to reach any conclusion. By recognizing the symptoms, as well as the root, of your anxiety, it is possible to make the right decision even when you feel anxious. Keep your goals in mind and explore your options objectively to ensure that anxiety does not keep new experiences or achievements out of your reach.