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How Anxiety Influences Our Judgment

Anxiety hinders one’s ability to view a situation objectively and rationally.

Anxiety influences our perceptions, beliefs, reasoning, and ultimately our choices. The experience of anxiety hinders one’s ability to view the situation objectively and rationally.

In some situations, these tendencies may cascade into undesirable outcomes. Furthermore, the repeated practice of worry becomes habitual such that the individual automatically engages in these mental processes. Becoming aware of our thought processes is an important step in overcoming negative biases.

1. The power of emotion. At the basic level, individual decisions are best understood as the interactions between the deliberative system (logical brain) and the emotional system. Cognitive evaluations of risk are sensitive to probabilities and outcomes. In contrast, emotional reactions are sensitive to the vividness of visual imagery and immediacy factors. As a result of these differences, people often experience an inconsistency between the emotional reaction to, and logical evaluations, of a threat. It is easier for emotional information to overwhelm our conscious thought.

2. The “what-if disease.” Worry is a common characteristic of persistent anxiety. Worry is a form of problem-solving, presumably helping a person plan and prepare for future (potentially) negative events.

However, excessive worrying can take the form of “what if” something terrible happens. And by doing so, the individual sees the worst-case scenario. The worries often focus on issues such as health and illness. Worries can be triggered automatically by several cues, such as listening to news stories. Therefore, catching our distorted thinking is an important strategy for reducing anxiety.

3. The psychological need for control. Uncertainty is the breeding ground of anxiety. People with anxiety have trouble tolerating uncertainty or threats. So they are motivated to reduce uncertainty and eliminate the discomfort. They tend to resort to “magical thinking” that they have control over the world, such as runs on toilet paper and paper towels during the current pandemic.

4. Playing it safe. Avoidance is a well-known form of coping with anxiety, such as playing it safe, procrastination, and distraction. Escape and avoidance are the most common unhelpful coping strategies associated with persistent anxiety. Ironically, safety-seeking behavior and avoidance may contribute to the persistence of anxiety.

5. Coping strategies. Anxiety is thought to encourage unhealthy lifestyle behaviors, such as substance abuse and eating disorders. For example, alcohol consumption and binge eating are often seen to cope with anxiety, sadness, and boredom. Indeed, anxiety disorders and impulse control frequently precede drug abuse and represent a specific risk factor for addiction (the need for self-medication). The escalation of addiction, in turn, worsens anxiety and impulse control disorders.

6. Self-confidence. When we feel anxious, we tend to see ourselves as weak and unable to cope. The greater one’s doubts concerning one’s level of competence, the more one will worry about adverse outcomes taking place.

However, when a confident attitude is adopted, the individual focuses on the positives in a situation, and may even assume a greater sense of personal control. So when someone is anxious about becoming infected with the dreaded virus, it’s best to emphasize their ability to handle the problem rather than reassure them their fear won’t true. Making a specific coping plan so that you are fully prepared to help yourself will calm—rather than accelerate—anxiety.