Have you ever been faced with a difficult decision, only to find yourself unable to make it? What did you feel at the time? If you were anxious, well, that’s probably why that decision felt so tough to make: Anxiety makes it hard to make good decisions because it prevents us from listening to our intuition, according to science. A recent study published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science examined the issue, and found that, yes, we tend to trust ourselves less and have a harder time making intuitive decisions when anxiety is part of the decision-making process. The implications are many — and, indeed, can even affect us when it comes to our personal safety.
A pretty substantial body of research supports the idea that our “gut feelings” are often actually quite accurate and therefore worth listening to. A study published by researchers at the University of Leeds in the UK in 2008, for example, found that when we’re faced with the need to make a snap decision, we subconsciously draw on our past experiences and observe external cues — actions which frequently result in a vague feeling that something is either “right” or “wrong.” The key here is the subconscious part; we might not be able to articulate why we feel a certain way; we just know that we do feel that way. It turns out that those gut feelings — those intuitions — are based on concrete factors; we’ve just processed it all subconsciously, rather than consciously.
This, by the way, is what most of Gavin de Becker’s The Gift Of Fear is about. I know I’ve been referring to that book a lot lately, but it’s an incredibly valuable read, despite its shortcomings — and I think this current study helps flesh out why it’s important to have some techniques in your metaphorical tool box that can help you control your anxiety, if that’s something you deal with. Our intuition is important for our everyday lives and safety, and if there’s something that’s preventing it from acting as it should, it’s helpful to be able to counteract those blocks.
For the current study, the researchers asked 111 students from the University of Basel first to take a demographic questionnaire; the State Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI), which measured the participants’ emotional state in terms of tension, worry, and fear of future events; and the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS), which measured the participants’ current mood state. Then, the participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups: The anxious mood group, the positive mood group, or the neutral mood group. Worth noting is the fact that “there was no significant difference in levels of trait anxiety between the three groups” —that is, their anxiety levels were all pretty much the same.
Once the participants had been divided into these groups, they were presented with a task designed to induce the mood to which they were assigned. The task presented participants with a sentence, followed by a picture (each of which was either anxious, positive, or neutral, depending on the group the participants were assigned); they were instructed to read the sentences, watch the pictures, and “experience the emotional content conveyed by the pictures and sentences as intense as possible.” They were also asked to hang onto the feelings inspired by the sentences and pictures throughout everything that was to follow. They also took the STAI and PANAS tests again after this process was complete.
Then came the meat of the experiment: Participants were asked to complete an intuition task Periodically, an item that corresponded with the mood which had previously been induced in the participants was presented while the students were filling out this inventory. After they completed this part of the experiment, participants were asked to rank how much they would trust their intuition during it on a five-point scale. Lastly, all participants took both a test designed to assess their verbal intelligence and active vocabulary, and a questionnaire known as the Rational Experiential Inventory (REI), which allows takers to self-report how much they tend to use their intuition to make decisions during the day-to-day lives.
The researchers found that the group assigned the anxious condition “showed a significantly reduced intuition index, compared to the positive group … and the neutral group.” Katie Heaney at The Cut sums up the researchers' ideas on why this was likely the case succinctly: “Anxiety makes us risk-averse, pessimistic, and less confident — all qualities which make us likelier to choose what we perceive as the most safe, routine,and unchallenging decision.” Anxiety can also cause us not to make any decisions at all, proving there’s a lot of truth in the metaphorical description of feeling “paralyzed” by your anxiety.
So: If you have anxiety, what can you do to help your intuition be heard even when you’re under pressure? Working with a mental health professional is going to be your best bet; they’ll be able to help you find the best tools and techniques for your specific situation (here are some low-cost, free, and accessible options). You might try developing a bedtime ritual or picking up a hobby as more general ways to lessen your anxiety, but there are also lots of methods you can use in the moment, as well.
Learning to trust yourself isn’t easy — particularly when you live in a society that tends to gaslight you and tries to shrink you down on a daily basis — but it can be done. You’ve got this. I believe in you.