Many of my clients, all of whom are coming to see me for help with anxiety, complain that they have a difficult time making decisions. Anxiety sufferers often have perfectionistic tendencies, and this plays into their decision-making process as well. When faced with multiple alternatives, they want to feel certain that they are choosing the right path. It is normal and often healthy to analyze different options when making a decision, but we each have our own “threshold” for when we have analyzed enough to pull the trigger on making a decision, even if we can’t be certain what the outcome will be.
For people with high anxiety, this threshold for certainty is too high; they don’t want to finalize the decision until they can be 100% certain that it is the right decision. Of course, if the decision is not an inherently obvious one, reaching 100% certainty that you are making the right decision is not a realistic goal. So the decision-making process becomes endless. We call it “paralysis by analysis.”
The process at play here is the same as it is for any type of anxiety: short-term avoidance of anxiety is feeding more anxiety in the long term. Anything you do to try to relieve anxiety in the moment you are feeling it actually creates more anxiety the next time you’re in a similar situation. Short-term resistance to anxiety unintentionally teaches your brain that you need the anxiety to stay safe.
Let’s say a person with anxiety is unhappy in their job and is thinking about quitting. There might be a lot of factors to weigh here, such as how much money the job pays, how much they enjoy the people at work, the prospects the person might have for other jobs, etc.
The trigger for anxiety around this decision is uncertainty: the decision is not an obvious one, and it is uncertain what is the right decision. When your brain senses uncertainty and perceives it as dangerous, it warns you about it by using anxiety as an alarm. Your brain tells you to try and get away from the supposedly dangerous uncertainty with a simple instruction: try to get certain about it!
There are various ways we try to do this: mentally analyze it over and over (that’s what worry is), get other people’s opinions about it, or research the topic online. Doing these things often leads to reassuring answers about what the right decision might be, which leads to a temporary decrease in anxiety. But because anything that decreases anxiety in the short-term feeds more anxiety in the long-term, the anxiety gets worse the next time the person has a thought related to the uncertainty about the decision.
Often, this happens about 5 seconds after we get a potentially reassuring answer when our brains say, “Well yeah but how do you KNOW?” In other words: “You aren’t 100% certain about this yet, so keep analyzing it until you are!” So the process keeps repeating itself.
So what’s the solution? The answer is the principle of Exposure Therapy, a form of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that has a strong evidence base for its effectiveness in treating anxiety. Exposure therapy means doing the opposite of short-term avoidance: purposely doing and confronting the things that make you anxious in the short-term, which retrains your brain that these triggers are not actually dangerous and decreases the anxiety in the long-term.
Here’s how this applies to decision-making: the best therapy for anxiety about decision-making is to simply make faster decisions!
When you have a decision to make, try to keep the analysis about it as brief as you possibly can — so brief that it even feels risky. Then make the decision and take action on it even though you are not sure it is the right decision.
When you do this and no harm comes to you, your brain will learn that uncertainty around decisions is not actually dangerous and will give you less anxiety about it the next time you have another decision to make. As you do this repeatedly in many different situations, it will get easier and easier with less and less anxiety.
My clients are often understandably anxious to do this because what if they end up making the wrong decision? When they are reluctant, I often have them add up an estimate of how many hours they have spent analyzing this decision already. The answer is usually dozens and sometimes hundreds of hours. My question to them then is: if you’ve already spent 100 hours analyzing this, do you really think the 101st hour is the one where you will become certain about it? Also, are you really going to make a different decision after 100 hours than you would have after one hour? Or even 10 minutes? I doubt it.
When my clients follow through on this and make quicker decisions even though it feels risky, they often express a feeling of profound freedom, like they are off the hook from this hugely burdensome task that wasn’t doing them any good anyway. Even though it’s scary at first, it’s really a relief to spend less time in decision-making mode. Try it for yourself and see the power of making rapid, uncertain decisions!