As anyone who has ever suffered from an anxiety disorder knows, the illness is a constant, unwelcome companion. Many people are familiar with the usual mental and physical symptoms, which include (but are definitely not limited to) nonstop worrying, restlessness, trouble concentrating, insomnia, headaches, and stomach problems. Anxiety can also make us feel exhausted simply from attempting to accomplish small daily tasks, because it's extremely difficult to control how much time and energy you spend worrying about the little things.
But it's not just the everyday routine that's a struggle. Anxiety can also cloud your judgment and impact your ability to make sound decisions — and that can have ramifications on your overall quality of life. And, no, it's not because you're "weak," "unintelligent" or any other negative word that may have popped into your mind during a moment of struggle — it's because anxiety sufferers' brains work differently than people who don't have the disorder.
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that anxiety disrupts activity in the brain's prefrontal cortex, which plays a crucial role in executive functions such as long-term planning, calculating risk and reward consequences, regulating emotions, problem-solving, and decision-making. Scientists have observed humans, monkeys, and lab rats and they've reached similar conclusions — anxiety indeed often leads to "bad" decisions, especially when conflicts and distractions are present.
If you think you may be making anxiety-fueled decisions, here are three signs that anxiety is clouding your judgment. The first step in making more sound, healthy choices is to understand what's going on in your head.
1. You Turn Down Exciting Opportunities
An opportunity presents itself and your first instinct is excitement — but ultimately, you end up turning it down. Whether it's a new position at work, an opportunity to travel somewhere exciting, or a fun social networking event, you initially think it sounds amazing — but then your mind inevitably spirals into every single "worst case scenario" possible. By the time you need to make a final decision, you say "no" because you've convinced yourself that it's simply not worth the risk. In short, it seems more likely than not that something will go wrong or you'll fail in your new endeavor.
What You Can Do:
Although overthinking is the enemy of people with anxiety disorder, try to think about opportunities in a different way when you're making a decision. Roger S. Gil, MAMFT, in an interview with Lifehacker, suggested that tracking your moods can help you better understand your anxiety triggers — and this can especially apply to decision-making, if you know that it's something you struggle with. What kinds of decisions make you the most anxious? Noting them down might help you detect a common theme.
And even if you take the risk and things don't pan out exactly the way you hoped and dreamed, chances are it won't be the end of the world. "The worst that can happen" is usually not as terrible as we convince ourselves. Very few decisions are completely irreversible and, worst case scenario, you'll know that you challenged yourself and gave something a try — and that's something to be proud of.
2. You Give Into Pressure Easily
On the flip side, there are times when you definitely know you don't want something — like, say, you'd rather stay in watching Netflix than play wing-woman to your friend at the bar on Friday night, you're flattered by a job opportunity but it's not up your alley, or you love living alone but have a pal who's clamoring for a roommate. Many people with anxiety disorder — especially social anxiety disorder — are consistently nervous about upsetting the people around them, whether they're close friends or strangers. You may even feel pressured to buy something you really don't want because a friendly salesperson spent time helping you out and you feel guilty leaving the store empty-handed. When you have anxiety issues, saying "no" can be very difficult.
What You Can Do:
Setting boundaries is uncomfortable at first, but it gets easier with practice — and figuring out how to incorporate more healthy boundaries into your life is worth the effort. As psychotherapist Carolyn Tucker wrote on Patch, "Developing loving, firm boundaries is essential to maintaining self esteem and a sense of safety in a relationship."
Which is why saying "no" to something you don't want will actually prevent resentment in your friendships and relationships. There's nothing worse than feeling secretly annoyed with your friend for "dragging you out" or "pressuring you to move in with her" when the truth is you didn't make clear what you really wanted because you were worried about rocking the boat. One uncomfortable conversation is unpleasant — but it's way better than letting your anxiety interfere with an amazing relationship.
3. You Can't Make Decisions...At All
The platitude "not making a decision is a decision as well" is especially true for people struggling with anxiety. It can be paralyzing — if you panic when you're asked to pick a restaurant or a weekend activity, it's a sign that your anxiety has taken over. The inability to make small decisions is a hallmark of generalized anxiety disorder, one that you can ignore for awhile because you can always fall back to the line "I really don't care! You decide," and someone will. But it's a sign of a larger issue and it can negatively impact your life when it's time to make a major decision that's 100 percent up to you.
For example, if you're unhappy at your job, don't like your living situation or city, or need to decide whether or not to stay in a longterm relationship, the anxiety associated with change or making a decision can cause you to simply do nothing. In many situations, you can avoid making a decision and life will go on — but you may feel dissatisfied and unhappy in both your personal and professional life if don't actively make choices that will help get you out of a bad situation or even just a rut.
What You Can Do:
If your anxiety is clouding your judgment, remember that it doesn't have to be this way forever . Medication is helpful for many people, and it's best accompanied by a form of therapy like CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy) that can help you adjust your thought patterns and problem-solving skills. You can also take part in CBT or other forms of therapy without taking medication — the "right" way to manage your anxiety varies from person to person. Anxiety may feel like it's always in control of your thoughts and actions, but you can always take steps to help yourself make better choices.