When Anxiety Drives Decisions – You Tend to Go in Circles

May/June 2017

The purpose of decisions is to usher you into the possibilities of life so you can live life more fully.

Anxiety cripples your ability to make good decisions and live life fully.  Why?  Because anxiety pushes the brain into a place of fear… that place is called the amygdala.  When you make fear-based decisions from the amygdala, the decision-making process feels rigid, uncertain and shaky. 

The Journal of Neuroscience published research from a University of Pittsburgh study that demonstrates how anxiety works to disengage the part of the brain that is essential for making good decisions. The pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is located in the front of the brain and it infuses an aspect of calm, creativity and flexibility into the decision-making process.

The PFC is the part of the brain that evaluates pros/cons, looks at consequences, generates options, scans for additional possibilities, and generates ideas of how to negotiate.  It looks at your emotional responses as well as those of your loved ones as important information and includes that as data in the decision-making process. And, oh-so-importantly, the PFC calms the amygdala, the part of the brain that runs on instinct, impulse and raw emotions (e.g. fear) – so that decisions are more balanced and flexible.

3 Tools to Take Anxiety Out of Decision-Making:

1.  Engage the Pre-Frontal Cortex with Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where you are and what you’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around you.  Mindfulness strengthens the pre-frontal cortex and keeps you out of the fear-based amygdala. Mindfulness limits the influence of the things that don’t matter, so you can focus on the things that do.  

Takeaway:  Eliminate the distractions and allow your mind to be fully present in the moment. Engage in mindfulness practices to quiet the fear in the amygdala and strengthen the PFC for decision-making:  Sit quietly in nature –pray – reflect on your bigger purpose in life – meditate – turn off the TV/radio/internet – put down the drink or smoke or dip – stop the busyness – spend time with who you are and who you want to be.  

2. Take the Best

Psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, whose work was cited in the Malcolm Gladwell bestseller book, Blink, has found that people make the best and most solid decisions based on limited information. Gigerenzer coined the phrase  “Take the Best.”  When we use a take-the-best strategy, it means that you reason and calculate only as much as you absolutely have to; then you stop — and begin to move forward in implementing the decision.   

Takeaway:  Lay out the pieces of information that you think should be considered to reach a decision.  Look for the one piece of information that is clearly more important than the others.  Stop. That one piece of information is often enough to make your decision. You don’t need the rest.  

3. Trust the experience of others

Psychologist Daniel Gilbert, author of the bestseller, Stumbling on Happiness, has done a lot of study around “decision-making”. Gilbert argues that if we don’t have the knowledge or experience to make a decision, the best course of action is to ask a friend, colleague, mentor, spiritual director or anyone you trust.

Takeaway: Ask someone you trust – not what you should do – but how they handled a similar decision and what their experience was — what were the upsides and downsides to their decision.  Often times when someone else has gone through something similar – their experience is an excellent data point to be considered.  It takes some of the mystery out of your decision.  

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