Is Anxiety Getting In Your Way Of Making Good Decisions?

Decisions, decisions, we make them all day long. Naturally we’d like to be making sure they are always good, but let’s face it, there are many things that can get in our way especially our emotional state and level of fatigue.

With too much to do, too little time and always thinking “what’s next?” stress levels rise along with those negative emotions and self-talk that start to become our dominant narrative.

Unless steps are taken to overcome this, anxiety starts to rear it’s ugly head, moving in by stealth, stripping away our confidence, self- esteem and self belief.

The hidden side of anxiety

When we doubt ourselves, it’s much harder to feel comfortable that the decision you just made, whether to take on a new project, let go of a relationship or hand in your notice was a good one.

This can make those feelings of anxiety even worse, creating a negative feedback loop of worry, anxiety and more poor decisions.

In Australia, it’s estimated that one in seven of us will develop an anxiety disorder. Now that’s a lot of stress and worry.

What worries me is that this is only part of the story because the statistics only relate to those diagnosed with a clinical disorder.

My concern is there are many people falling under the radar because they have chosen for what ever reason not to make their difficulties public. They develop strategies to help them cope, some of which will be successful, others less so.

The other concern is that some of these coping mechanisms are not sustainable or healthy; like drinking more alcohol, smoking more or self medicating to block out those uncomfortable feelings.

What I’ve noticed in my travels around different workplaces is just how pervasive anxiety is in our society.

Addressing the problem before it manifests into something worse

No matter your position or role at work, being able to think clearly and make smart decisions is a must. Taking good care of your brain health is the best place to start by adopting those lifestyle practices known to make the biggest difference to better brain function – how well we think, learn and remember.

As a brain health workplace consultant (now there’s a mouthful) I am able to provide cognitive assessments. This provides a snapshot of a person’s cognition for that particular day and is backed up with some questions relating to mood, because it is well understood how our emotions impact mental performance.

Many have reported they found taking these assessments very helpful including the high performers looking to stay at the top of their game and those who find themselves working in a pressure cooker environment, contributing long hours and dealing with work that is frequently complex and demanding and worrying they are doing themselves damage.

What has been apparent from the assessment results is how frequently an underlying mood disturbance is picked up – most commonly anxiety, that hasn’t been reported, and that may not be impacting performance, yet.

How much better is it to address a problem that hasn’t fully evolved before it leads to reduced performance?

The elephant in the room that needs to be urgently addressed is how to get better at providing a safe working environment that protects physical, mental and cognitive well-being.

The Fire hose of Information Overload

Carol works full time. She has three small children in primary school and a partner who is frequently away on business. She is also currently studying for a diploma she hopes will increase her chances for promotion.

Proud of her ability to juggle work and family, she was surprised to notice how recently things weren’t going quite to plan. She was making more mistakes; frequently forgetting things unless she wrote them down and feeling so darn tired all the time.

When her boss asked if everything was all right, Carol’s insight was she had basically taken on too much.

Cognitive or mental load management has been identified as an important challenge to master in the modern workplace, because the risk otherwise is the growing possibility of developing a mood disorder, stress related illness, exhaustion and burnout.

Which is why our continual sensory diet of incoming data, tweets, texts, emails and phones calls and meetings adds to our difficulty of making sound decisions, and that’s even before we get down to the supermarket to grab some items for dinner where we are faced with 26 different varieties of tomato sauce for our pasta bake.

According to Clifford Nass from Stanford University: information overload leads us to make a quick decision, even when based on limited information rather than going through the process of critical thinking. When the pressure is on, knowing there are other decisions waiting to be made we discount previous information and work with what we discovered most recently.

Five Things to Help Reduce Your Mental Load

Give your brain a break.

Analysis paralysis comes from an over reliance on our pre-frontal cortex to work out a problem. Our focused attention isn’t designed for long- term use so look for ways to block your day into times where you can take a well earned brain break, even if just a couple of minutes in between tasks.

  • A brain break is something that typically takes you away from a screen. It could be a quick get up and stretch.
  • A trip to the water-cooler or the loo
  • Time out away from your desk to get outside for a breath of fresh air, to look out of the window or to speak with a colleague.

Look for the simple.

Have you noticed how good we are at creating huge terrifying monsters in our mind when overwhelmed with the latest complicated challenge?

No matter how complex it appears, you can help your brain by seeking out the simple that lies beneath. It’s like learning to play a difficult piece of music. By going back to the basics and breaking it down into smaller pieces it becomes easier to master the trickier elements.

As Anders Ericsson reminds us mastery comes from deliberate practice.

Declutter.

Muddled thinking from having too many competing thoughts jostling for your attention is not only risky for poorer decision-making; it’s frustrating too, knowing you’re not thinking clearly.

Decluttering begins with clarifying what is your intention here?

Stepping back and pressing pause allows you to ask:

  • What am I trying to achieve?
  • What do I need to learn?
  • Who can help me?
  • What’s the next step?

Harnessing your internal drivers helps you to imagine the outcome. This energises your focus by activating the brain’s reward circuitry that leads to the greater release of dopamine in anticipation of success.

Get some sleep.

Sleep is not only the best cognitive refreshment around, it’s helps to consolidate long term memory, helps you to get the gist of the new information, and regulates emotion.

Geoff had a difficult decision weighing on his mind. The more he thought about it the less able he was to distinguish the pros and the cons. Others were pressing him to make up his mind, but he stood firm, saying he would “sleep on it” and announce his decision in the morning.

While this doesn’t always guarantee the best decision, it does provide the mental space helpful to the subconscious processing of information. Sleep deprivation is well recognised as being especially hazardous for good decisions.

Adopt a mindful approach

Anxiety is sneaky, pervasive and inhibits our best cognition. Dealing with it effectively requires a veritable toolbox of ways to help you achieve the mental relaxation required to help you think well.

You don’t need to access all of these, just the one(s) you think will work best for a given situation. These include

  • Breathing
    Taking several slow deep breaths activates the parasympathetic nervous system, influencing what is called your vagal tone leading to a lowered heart rate, blood pressure and calms the mind.
  • Meditation
    Mindfulness mediation has been shown to reduce anxiety through the activation of brain areas associated with executive function and the control of worrying.
  • Self compassion
    Feeling anxious is often linked to feelings of guilt, self-criticism and the fear of not being ‘enough’.

Self-compassion starts by listening to the language you’re using in self-talk. If you’re being overtly self-critical, think of how you might respond to a friend experiencing the same thoughts to reframe your thinking.

Loving kindness meditation can be extremely helpful. The work of Kristen Neff has shown this leads to greater self-acceptance and reduces stress.

With 30-35,000 decisions waiting to be made every day, what do you do to reduce the potential effect excess anxiety can have on your decision-making ability?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.