Which job should you take? What should you wear to the party? Swipe left or swipe right? We all struggle to make decisions from time to time – from where to live to what to have for dinner. But if you’re frequently frozen in indecision when presented with a range of options, it can stop you moving forward in life. Often an inability to make decisions is down to anxiety. Here’s why – and what to do to overcome your indecisiveness.

The link between anxiety and an inability to make decisions

Sitting on the fence is uncomfortable. And people who stand in the middle of the road get run over. You may hear comments like this if you’re chronically indecisive. But they don’t really help, or make it any easier for you to make decisions. Because your problem likely isn’t apathy or dithering: it’s anxiety.

The relationship between anxiety and indecision is a complex, two-way one. Decision-making may make you anxious; and if you’re already struggling with anxiety, that can hamper your ability to make good decisions. Reasons why decision-making may cause anxiety can include:

  • Choice overload. How do you know which option is the right one? Today’s world is full of endless possibilities. The vast choice presented online makes things even worse. From online shopping to dating apps, this over-abundance of choice itself can cause anxiety around decision-making.
  • Fear of responsibility. What if you make the wrong choice? Making a decision, good or bad, right or wrong, has consequences. If any of the possible outcomes of your decision could be negative, you may feel unwilling to take responsibility for it.
  • Perfectionism. What if your choice isn’t perfect? It’s often said that a bad decision is better than no decision at all. While this isn’t necessarily true, if you have unrealistically high standards, you may wait until the perfect option comes along – which may never happen. If you procrastinate like this, you won’t make any decisions.
  • People-pleasing. What if people don’t like your choice? Do you tend to base your decisions on what you think will please others? People-pleasing can be the result of the subjugation schema or ‘lifetrap’ – and it can become very stressful. You can’t please everyone, all the time!

Indecision is really a way to avoid the anxiety caused by decision-making. If making a decision makes you anxious, what better way to avoid anxiety than by not making a decision? But that is, of course, flawed logic – and does nothing to help you in the long run. Besides, that very indecision may itself also cause anxiety. Napoleon Hill said: “Indecision is the seedling of fear.”

But what if you’re anxious to start with? Perhaps you’re struggling with an anxiety disorder, panic attacks, or you’ve just been feeling a bit anxious lately – as many of us have due to the pandemic. Anxiety itself – whatever the cause – can also lead to indecision.

How anxiety causes indecision – and bad decisions

Anxiety can result in an inability to make decisions at all – and an inability to make good decisions.

If you struggle with anxiety, you’ll recognise that old evolutionary ‘fight or flight’ feeling that kicks in when you’re having an anxiety attack. That rush of adrenaline and racing heart that provides everything you need for survival – and switches off everything else, including your ability to make decisions.

There’s solid neuroscience behind the reasons for this. Decision-making happens in the pre-frontal cortex – the front part of your brain. According to research published in The Journal of Neuroscience (2016), anxiety decreases activity in this area. Basically, anxiety slows down and disengages the specific part of your brain that you need to make good decisions. It’s no wonder you feel stuck in indecision!

While anxiety can cause indecisiveness, it may, at times, also have the opposite effect. You might make quick, rash decisions in an attempt to avoid anxiety – or because you’re not able to think straight due to your emotional state. A study published in Nature Neuroscience (2015), showed that anxiety can make it harder to accurately process all the information you need to make a good decision.

Finally, anxiety can also lead us to make the ‘safe’ choice. This may be the right one – but it may not. And if your anxiety has led you to make bad decisions in the past, this may make you even more anxious about decision-making.

Seven ways to stop anxiety interfering with your decision-making

To overcome indecision caused by anxiety, try the following strategies:

  1. Avoid choice overload. Research at Colorado University (2010) concluded that: “If someone with an anxiety disorder has difficulty selecting among multiple options, he or she might benefit from learning how to structure their environment to avoid choice overload.” Are there ways you can avoid being presented with quite so many options in your daily life?
  2. Avoid perfectionism. Are you holding out for a hero? The perfect partner, the perfect job, the perfect holiday? Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. Your decisions don’t have to be perfect – just made.
  3. Don’t catastrophise. ‘Catastrophising’ is an unhelpful thinking style, or ‘thinking trap’ that’s associated with anxiety. When making a decision it’s easy to imagine the worst possible outcome. But it probably won’t happen.
  4. Flip a coin. Not every decision is like Sophie’s Choice. Sometimes, if there’s very little difference between two options – especially if it’s not a major, life-changing decision – it makes sense to just pick one at random.
  5. Make a list of pros and cons. Sometimes decisions are big and life-changing. Such as whether to change job, move to a new city or end a relationship. How can you avoid anxiety when the stakes are so high? For big decisions, you may want to make a pros and cons list, and spend time considering your options. But do this to help you make a decision – not instead of it!
  6. ‘Ooch’ into big decisions. In their book Decisive: How to Make Better Decisions Chip and Dan Heath recommend a process they call ‘ooching’. They define this as taking a small step to test a choice before fully committing. For example, if you’re thinking of moving to a new city, can you work remotely from there for a month to test the waters?
  7. Live with uncertainty. How can you stop anxiety keeping you stuck in uncertainty? First of all, accept that life is uncertain, and you can never know what the exact outcome of your decision will be. You’ll never have perfect knowledge to make the perfect choice. Live with ambiguity and accept the unknown.

While these are strategies that can help you with decision-making, if anxiety is the source of your inability to make decisions, it makes sense to tackle the root cause. There are lots of ways to deal with anxiety, from speaking to a therapist to self-help resources. Find out how you can get started with My Online Therapy – or check out our Self-care audio course ‘Manage Anxiety’ for lots more information, approaches and practical tips.

Bertrand Russell said: “Nothing is so exhausting as indecision, and nothing is so futile.” If you can recognise and manage your anxiety, you can also overcome your indecisiveness – and make good decisions you can live with.