How to overcome decision-making anxiety

Are you struggling to make decisions based on your gut feeling? Does a decision not quite 'feel' right and you end up overthinking it? How easy it would be to be able to listen to our innate gut feeling!

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In this article, you'll learn more about instincts and gut feelings, and how to overcome decision-making anxiety. If you're looking for one-to-one support, feel free to contact me. I offer flexible online sessions in the evenings. 


Gut feeling vs instincts

While an instinct could be an ingrained response from within us, like a baby crying for food, the gut feeling is something more subtle. We may become suspicious of something or someone, thinking the situation is not quite right. Or we have a gut feeling about which decision to make based on previous experiences. The gut feeling comes from the enteric nervous system, a web of neurons in the gastrointestinal tract that some neuroscientists call the “second brain.” 

From an evolutionary perspective, one theory to explain instincts is the one of natural selection, championed by Darwin, which suggests that instincts are inherited traits that enhance survival and reproduction. Behaviors that proved beneficial over generations, like seeking food or avoiding predators, became encoded in our genes and passed down. 

From a genetic standpoint, the theory of epigenetics explores how environmental factors, early life experiences or even parental experiences could potentially mark certain genes, subtly influencing the development of instincts in offspring. This could be an explanation for why some people tend to worry more than others. As a psychotherapeutic counsellor trained in transactional analysis, these are the areas I often explore with my clients so they can understand how their family history and upbringing influence their emotional responses and decision-making abilities in the here and now.

The limbic system, particularly the amygdala, plays a crucial role in emotional processing and survival instincts. The amygdala is often referred to as the brain's "fear centre" because it plays a crucial role in processing and reacting to threats. When we encounter a potentially dangerous situation, the amygdala sends signals to our body to trigger the fight-or-flight response, preparing us to either confront the threat or get away quickly. The amygdala also plays a role in fear conditioning, a process where you learn to associate certain stimuli with negative outcomes. For example, if you get bitten by a dog as a child, your amygdala might develop a heightened response to dogs in the future.


The impact on our day-to-day life 

This could also lead to overthinking in the future. When we are not able to process the event properly, we risk becoming stuck in a fight-or-flight state. This could then potentially to seeing the world as black and white, becoming increasingly anxious, and finding it difficult to make decisions and trust our gut feeling. Our brain is then on constant alert and we're finding it hard to make rational decisions. Often out of fear of making the "wrong" decision, as if decisions exist in stark binaries of good and bad, right and wrong. But this rigid perspective is a distortion of reality.

Decisions are simply choices, each leading to diverse and often unpredictable outcomes. When we're anxious we're trying to control the outcome, which can also be linked to perfectionism and fear of losing control. We start overthinking and seeing the world as black and white. However, this is not the reality and we often forget the spectrum of possibilities.


Strategies to help

If you consider yourself an anxious person or tend to overthink, here are some strategies for you.

Grounding in the present

To break free from anxiety's hold, engage in the here and now. Practice simple grounding exercises, like naming objects you see or feeling your feet on the floor. These anchors bring us back to the present, preventing anxiety from steering us on autopilot.

Cultivating inner serenity

Consider meditation as a long-term solution. It helps you connect with your body and intuition, easing decision-making anxiety and fostering self-awareness.

Unravelling the knots

Journaling offers an outlet for anxieties around decision-making. Make pros and cons lists, explore potential outcomes, and challenge the weight you might give to worst-case scenarios. Often, writing it down brings perspective and reveals the improbability or manageability of those dreaded outcomes.

Self-compassion

A powerful ally: Be kind to yourself. Not every decision leads to your desired outcome. Learn from it, move forward, and remember, we all make choices that don't pan out as planned.

Ask for help

Something I like to ask myself when I have a big decision to make is "Will it matter in five years?". The answer will help you gain a new perspective on how important the decision is. If the answer is yes, it indicates that this is a decision with a higher impact, i.e. starting a new job, buying a house, or moving to a new country. In such cases, take your time with the decision and gather all information you can. Perhaps seek trusted advice from a close friend or a family member and ask for their experience. Listen to your body's subtle messages and connect with your gut. What does it say? Is it calm, or anxious?

If these feelings persist, consider seeking professional help from a therapist to explore the roots of your anxiety and learn to make confident choices grounded in the present. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Rossendale BB4 & Bacup OL13
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Written by Laura Spreitzer, MBACP, Psychotherapeutic Counsellor, PgDip Integrative TA
Rossendale BB4 & Bacup OL13

Laura is a psychotherapeutic counsellor, using Transactional Analysis and other forms of therapy to help clients understand how their here-and-now challenges are linked to their past, and what clients can do to overcome those challenges to achieve long-term healing. Laura offers flexible online sessions during the evening and weekdays.

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