Do You Avoid Things?

Two suggestions for high anxiety decision makers.

Posted Jan 02, 2021

Experiencing occasional anxiety is a normal part of life; we all experience anxiety from time to time. For example, most of us experience it before and during an examination or an interview. This lasts for a limited period. It is only when the symptoms are recurrent and last for a long time that we would diagnose it as an anxiety disorder.

People with anxiety disorders frequently have intense and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations. Each day is filled with doubt and distress due to the terror of making a mistake. Everyday decisions can be crippling: “Should I put the car in the garage or leave it out and risk snow covering it?” For people with anxiety disorders, anxiety can be manifested in physical symptoms such as:

  • Restlessness
  • Nausea, or cramps
  • Sleep-related problems – excessive sleep or sleeplessness
  • Cold or sweaty hands
  • Shortness of breath
  • Increased heart rate
  • Chest pain
  • Chills
  • Sudden trembling

Avoidance is a common method of trying to control anxiety. We are all tempted to avoid anxiety-provoking situations. For example, we may put off fulfilling an assignment. However, people with anxiety disorders are more likely to put off the task until shortly before it is due, precipitating a panic attack. Or they may not complete the task at all, resulting in failing a class or losing a job. The fear of “not being good enough” can lead to the outcome they fear most — failure.

Nathan Dunsplash/Unsplash
Source: Nathan Dunsplash/Unsplash

Anxiety sufferers often have perfectionistic tendencies that impact their decision-making. When faced with multiple alternatives, they want to feel certain that they are choosing the right path; it is normal and healthy to analyze different options. We each have our own “threshold” for when we have analyzed enough to pull the trigger, even if we cannot be certain what the outcome will be. However, decision-making is particularly difficult for people with high anxiety because the threshold for certainty is too high — they do not want to finalize the decision until they can be 100 percent certain that it is the right one. Since reaching 100 percent certainty is not a realistic goal, the high anxiety decision-making state can be endless.       

Two Suggestions for High Anxiety Decision Makers

1) Passive vs. active decisions. Avoiding a big decision is often passively deciding. For example, Caroline could not decide whether she wanted to have a baby because she could not be 100 percent sure that her life would be better as a mother. Since she was in her late 30s, her indecision was going to eventually take away her choice – she would lose her fertility. Like Caroline, Jeffrey has difficulty making decisions. Many women have wanted to marry him, but he could not decide. He was not 100 percent sure that he would be happy with any of them and he was not 100 percent sure that there was not another woman who would make him happier. In each case, he avoided the woman’s phone calls and emails until each of the women gave up. His avoidance resulted in ending the relationship. Additionally, ignoring the women made him feel guilty about mistreating them and created more anxiety. Short-term avoidance of anxiety creates more anxiety in the long term.

2)  Take small decisions off the table. Create routines that remove the element of decision making. For example, if you always put your car in the garage, you will not need to check the weather report each day to decide. If you go to sleep at the same time every night, you will not have to decide whether you should watch one more movie or not.

Of course, these two suggestions will not cure your anxiety disorder, but they may reduce your anxiety and that is no small matter. The anxiety-avoidance-more-anxiety loop is cumulative; the longer it goes, the more the anxiety will be displaced in other areas or transformed into somatic symptoms, making it more difficult to identify the original trigger.