Do you find it hard to make up your mind about almost everything? Do you spend far too long weighing up your options? Then you could be suffering from decision paralysis
Whether it’s choosing the size of your morning coffee, swiping through dating profiles, or considering whether to accept a big promotion at work, we’re presented with thousands of choices every day.
Considering all the options before you make any decision is sensible, and often happens quickly, without too much thought. But what if you spend so much time weighing up the possibilities, in so much detail, that you’re actually unable to decide at all?
This loop of overthinking) is called decision paralysis, and although it might seem like an insignificant problem, or a slightly irritating personality quirk, it might be having a greater impact on your wellbeing than you realise. Although ruminating on an important decision may present as a solely psychological issue, if taken too far it can lead to shallow breathing, insomnia, fatigue, sweating, and a general inability to focus. Long term, overthinking can lead to more serious mental health conditions, and impact your capacity to deal with everyday stress.
What causes decision paralysis?
Several factors play a role in decision paralysis. Firstly, sometimes there genuinely are just too many options to choose from! With Google at your fingertips, it’s no wonder it takes you three days to order a new lip balm when there are 10 million search results to sift through.
There is also the fear of failure, regret, or making a mistake that could have serious consequences on your work or personal life, as well as personality traits like perfectionism and people-pleasing. Different childhood environments can exacerbate the problem, too.
For example, if you were raised by overly-critical caregivers, or experienced childhood trauma, then your worldview may be tainted by an underlying belief that the world is a scary place, culminating in a lack of trust in your own abilities.
Because attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, and depression affect the brain’s executive function, decision paralysis can be more common for individuals with these conditions. If you think decision paralysis is a symptom of another condition, it’s important to talk to your GP.
Talk to someone you trust
You know that thing where you talk through a problem with a friend, and before you’ve even finished explaining it, you’ve realised what the solution is? Verbalising your options to a trusted pal can make the world of difference when you are stuck in decision paralysis.
Just make sure you’re upfront about exactly the kind of support you’re looking for. Perhaps you need a sounding board, help to make a list of pros and cons, or maybe you’re open to their advice because they have specific knowledge or experience that can offer a fresh perspective. This is also an opportunity to get honest about the potential worst-case scenarios associated with your final decision. Can they support you, or help you make a plan if things do take an unexpected turn?
Try therapeutic journaling
One technique that I love to use as part of my decision-making process is a journaling technique that allows me to imagine the potential outcome of each option on the table. Here’s how it works, using my personal example of choosing whether to move in with a friend or live alone:
Start by narrowing down your options to a maximum of three to choose from.
Then, imagine yourself in the future living out the changes that have happened as a result of one of these options.
The trick is to journal in the present tense, for example: “I have just moved in with my best friend. We spend most nights cooking and eating together, our house is warm and cosy.”
Be honest with yourself about the experience, noting down any obstacles or uncomfortable moments, such as: “We don’t socialise together as much as we used to, our friendship has changed, and it means I feel left out sometimes when she goes out with her work colleagues.”
Bring as many sensory elements to your writing as you can, imagining the smells, tastes, sights, sounds, and textures in your potential future. This can tap into your intuition, and may elicit a ‘gut feeling’ about your decision.
Repeat this process for the other options available and compare the results to get clarity.
Embrace the unknown
As much as we like to think we can control every minute detail of our lives, the truth is that even the easiest decisions can lead to unexpected outcomes. Once you have settled on a decision, don’t ignore the very real anxiety that exists in your body. Dr Avigail Lev, psychotherapist and founder/director at the Bay Area CBT Center, in California, suggests connecting with the body to release the discomfort associated with uncertainty.
“Engage in vagus nerve activation exercises like humming, sighing, or shaking parts of your body to dispel anxiety,” Dr Lev says. “Also, explore somatic experiencing, [which is an approach] where you pinpoint where anxiety is most intense in your body. Describe the sensation physically, considering its colour, shape, movement, and texture. Continuously rate the distress level from 0 to 100%, and observe it non-judgmentally.”
Show yourself kindness
When contradictory thoughts appear, Dr Lev suggests challenging them by “placing your hand on your heart, taking diaphragmatic breaths, performing grounding and mindfulness exercises, practising progressive muscle relaxation, and employing defusion techniques [a way of detangling thoughts from feelings] to distance yourself from challenging thoughts. This might involve thanking your mind for a difficult thought, or visualising placing such thoughts on passing clouds or leaves.”
Many of us hold ourselves to such high expectations that the prospect of making a bad decision is often linked to feelings of low self-esteem. Over time, try to get comfortable with the idea that mistakes are a normal part of being human. As you practise making decisions, repeat the affirmation ‘May I learn from my mistakes’ or ‘My decisions are always the right ones for me’, and then see how it feels.
If decision paralysis is affecting your mental health, don’t let the thoughts spiral out of control. Open up to a friend, write it down, and remember that getting comfortable with uncertainty is a process that you might find easier with the support of a trained therapist or counsellor. Take it one little decision at a time, and be proud of yourself for moving forward at your own pace.