It’s no secret to anybody that knows me: I struggle with anxiety, and have for as long as I can remember. I was first medicated for anxiety and depression around 6 years ago. Since then, I have tried a variety of options to ease my symptoms: meditation, therapy, self-care, Xanax, Lexapro. Although I now generally have control over my anxiety, dealing with the physical, mental, and emotional symptoms associated with the mood disorder can be tough.
More recently, the world is being subjected to COVID-19, a global pandemic with 14.1 million diagnosed cases and 598,000 fatalities. As a result, it is no surprise that people are struggling with anxiety at a much higher rate. However, says Jen Rose Smith, this causes people to struggle with decision-making, self-care, and positive attitudes. But if you are having difficulty with this, have no fear. Here is some information on why anxiety makes decision-making so difficult, how prevalent anxiety actually is, and what you can do to benefit yourself.
What is Anxiety?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), anxiety is:
an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure. People with anxiety disorders usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns, [may] avoid certain situations out of worry, [and] may also have physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, dizziness or a rapid heartbeat.
When experiencing anxiety, each person experiences different symptoms. Personally, I feel difficulty breathing, chest pressure, trouble focusing, and a heightened heart rate. For a friend, who wishes to remain anonymous, she noted that anxiety is something she just “feels in her bones.”
It is sometimes characterized as a mood disorder, or a condition which impairs your ability to live or function normally. There are multiple subsets, such as panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Although the two are distinct mood disorders, anxiety and depression are often associated.
Over the last few months, COVID-19 overtook our conversations, livelihoods, and health concerns. Now, anxiety is at a more heightened level than we can remember. Says psychologist Luana Marques, this makes sense, as:
“Anxiety often goes up in any moment where our bodies perceive a real threat.”
With COVID-19 numbers continuing to rise, it seems understandable that we are concerned about this threat to our health. At least 39% of married or partnered people in the U.K. are experiencing heightened anxiety, alongside nearly 33% of American citizens and 35% of Chinese citizens. Additionally, levels of anxiety, depression, and poor mental health are being reported at alarming rates throughout Europe.
Anxiety & Difficult Decision Making
So WHY is it so hard to make decisions when you are feeling anxious? According to Marques, it has to do with our limbic system. The limbic system is a group of structures within our brains that regulate emotions, motivation, memory, behavioral reinforcement, and response to emotional stimuli. Generally, when we’re making a choice, our limbic system clashes with our prefrontal cortex, another area of the brain that helps us think and make good choices.
But when we get anxious, we head into fight-or-flight mode. Do we run away from the problem, or face it head-on? When we’re grappling with this decision, we overwork our limbic system. Suddenly, our limbic system is trying to figure out what happens if we have to respond to a variety of frightening possibilities. Suddenly, our prefrontal cortex has lost control, and we start spinning.
The What Ifs
Personally, I know that I get caught in the “what if” cycle – What if I get COVID-19? What if I get sick and can’t contact anybody for help? All of this is thanks to my limbic system being overworked. When this happens, we spin. We think of all of the possibilities, and the worst ones, only increasing our anxiety to worse heights.
As a result, when we try and make decisions, they are solely based on emotions. Thus, sometimes we don’t even like the decisions, sending us into a further anxiety-spiral.
Making Better Decisions
- Stop and think. Yes, this seems pretty intuitive. But when we’re caught in the moment, we may forget to just stop, cool down, breathe, and let ourselves think. In doing so, you let your rational brain take control back. If you’re struggling with slowing down, try doing something you enjoy. Whether this is calling a friend, taking a shower, doing yoga, or making yourself a hot toddy, participate in something that lets yourself relax.
- Eat, sleep, and exercise. Your body needs proper fuel to run correctly. So let yourself get enough sleep, drink enough water, exercise, and eat a nutritious diet. As a result, your body will be better prepared to handle an anxiety attack. Additionally, these actions help you become more resilient, regulate emotions, and manage worries.
- Focus on things you can control. There is no use worrying about things outside of your power. Of course, I know that is easier said than done. But choose what decisions are important for you to make, and what are not. For example, if you have a family, feeding your family is important. But if your child hasn’t cleaned his room, it is not something to worry about in the immediate.
- Make lists. Write down pros and cons of different decisions and ideas. By getting these down on paper, you’ll be better poised to make informed decisions.
- Limit yourself. If you want to see what’s happening in the news, but it stresses you out, limit yourself to a 1-2 hour time period. Once you’re done, participate in self-care to remove your mind from the worries.
- Engage in self-care. This can mean reading, meditation, yoga, jogging, or whatever else makes you feel loved and cared for.