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10 Ways Anxiety Can Cause You To Make Poor Decisions

Anxiety affects 40% of us. Here's what you can do about it.

Key points

  • Anxiety can weaken - or shut down - executive function, your high-level decision-making ability.
  • When anxiety develops, executive function needs to be protected by your calming system, the parasympathetic nervous system.
  • Many of us did not receive the programming needed to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. It can, however, be established now.

Anxiety can develop if stress hormone levels rise and our calming system, the parasympathetic nervous system, fails to counteract them and keep us emotionally balanced. Anxiety can then cause problems with decision-making.

  1. Anxiety can cause executive function (your high-level thinking and decision-making) to weaken or shut down. If it does, you make no decision, or you unknowingly base your decision on habit.
  2. Anxiety can cause reflective function (your ability to look inward and sense what kind of mental processing is going on) to shut down. This allows what is imaginary to be processed in the mind as though it were factual reality. This can alter decision-making by making a favorable outcome seem assured or allow an unfavorable outcome to appear inescapable.
  3. Anxiety can cause physical feelings (increased heart rate, breathing rate, perspiration, tension) that, because these feelings are associated with danger in the past, make you believe what you are thinking about is a threat. You may overreact and treat a situation that poses no danger as though it were a threat.
  4. Anxiety can cause you - probably without knowing it - to employ some form of magical thinking. Although magical thinking has no direct effect on the outcome, it can have an indirect negative effect. Magical thinking can make success seem assured and stand in the way of accurately predicting the outcome, determining whether action is needed, and taking effective action.
  5. Anxiety can cause you to deny reality in order to avoid a level of uncertainty you are not prepared to tolerate or an outcome you cannot accept. Example: the belief that COVID-19, or global warming, is a hoax.
  6. Anxiety can cause you to believe you don't have to protect yourself because God is protecting you.
  7. Anxiety can cause you to put off a decision because thinking about aspects of the decision that are in conflict is stressful. The door to an opportunity can close because of the delay. Or an impulsive decision is made at the last minute.
  8. Anxiety can cause you to avoid making a commitment because it might be "the wrong" decision.
  9. Anxiety can cause you to let others decide for you though they are less well-equipped to make the decision than you are.
  10. Anxiety can cause you to avoid acting in your own best interest because someone will say you always only think of yourself.

We make better decisions when anxiety is under control. Our stress level is supposed to be regulated automatically and unconsciously by the interplay between the system that revs us up (sympathetic nervous system) and the system that calms us down (the parasympathetic nervous system). Though we usually blame stress for causing our anxiety, the actual cause may be an underactive parasympathetic nervous system. Its activation takes place through unconscious processes which we develop early in life if reliably calmed and never frightened by our caregivers.