What is Anxiety Telling Me?

You know you are spending too much time researching decision making theory, when you cannot decide if the anxiety you are experiencing is the result of catastrophising, experiencing status quo bias,  the wise voice of your intuition speaking up, fear of regret or an unrealistic expectation of being able to control everything.

Psychology, Mind, Thoughts, Thought, Fear, Head, Ideas

Type one thinking (the intuitive, emotional way that we make many decisions) gets a mixed press.  The limbic system (sometimes referred to as the mammalian brain) is responsible for a lot of our quick, automatic decisions.  It is responsible for all our auto-pilot actions, and also our sense of “gut feeling” or intuition. It gets us through the day by making all sorts of decisions from what to wear, how to get to work and how to do our routine tasks.

Daniel Kahneman, in his excellent book, “Thinking Fast and Slow” describes the limbic system as a bit lazy and prone to bias.  It will tend to prefer the familiar option or the status quo, which probably protected us from danger in days gone by, but may keep us stuck rather than moving us forward.  My anxiety could simply be my natural preference for things to stay the same making itself felt.

Apparently, we tend to have a magnified fear of regret, which is why we prefer a passive, non-decision over an active choice to do something different.  When we find it hard to decide, we tend to stick with the path we are on rather than risk regretting our decision later.  When I find myself hoping that the decision will be taken out of my hands, that is probably because I have a fear of making the wrong decision and then regretting it (for ever, of course).

On the other hand, many people credit intuition with providing deeper insights that our logical, rational brain cannot access.  Type one thinking occurs as a result of the brain quickly and subconsciously analysing all the similar situations we have been in, all the information we have right now and how important different aspects of the situation are to us.  It then sends us a message in the form of an urge to take action or an emotional response.  It can sift through far more information than our type two, logical thought process could ever hope to.  The more relevant experience we have to draw on, the wiser this intuitive response is likely to be.

Dina Glouberman has written extensively about the power of images and imagination to guide us wisely, since they can operate without being filtered through the prism of language and logic.  I think she might say that this anxiety is coming from a part of my brain that knows me better than my logical, analysing neocortex, and I should listen to it.  I need to explore what images come to mind as I feel this anxiety and what is lurking in my sub-conscious.

Indeed, scientists have fount that there is one specific part of our brains that carries on subconsciously analysing a problem while our conscious brain is working on something else, and finally gives us the answer when we are not expecting it.  This is why we sometimes get that “aha” moment while in shower or walking outside.

Aaron Beck, in developing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, described a series of “thinking traps” that people with anxious or overly pessimistic thought patterns tend to fall into.  One common one is “catastrophising” or imagining that the worst will happen and we won’t be able to cope with it.  I can quite easily catastrophise about all the options open to me and imagine them all ending in disaster, so that is probably not doing my anxiety levels any good!  How likely are these disasters really?  Well, they could happen, but I am probably more able to cope than I give myself credit for, and I am definitely spending more time focusing on potential disaster than potential joy.  This is type two (logical) thinking going into overdrive and not really making any progress at all.  There are just too many unknowns for type two to cope with.

And of course, the gurus of mindfulness (Thich Naht Han, Tara Brach, Jack Kornfield, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Danny Penman) would all say – just sit with it.  Notice the anxiety, notice the sensations in your body and just allow them to be.  Stop trying to solve it all!  If you sit quietly, and focus on the present moment, instead of letting your mind run wild with all the things that could happen, things will sort themselves out and the right path will become apparent in it’s own time.

Perhaps I am over-analysing things!  I have always liked a good theory, but I am not sure that they are really helping at the moment.  Maybe I just need a holiday…

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Meditation on Life Choices

This one is for you if you are sitting at life’s crossroads, wondering  which direction to take with your life.  Should it be the high street, the country lane or the overgrown path that few others have walked down?  Maybe you are trying to decide whether to stick out your secure job until retirement, or take a chance on a new direction.  You could retrain or do a further qualification.  Maybe you are going through a transition (leaving school, parenthood, moving house, graduation) and you are not sure what comes next.

Girl, Crossroads, Choice, Way, Direction

Whatever dilemma you face, using visualisation is a great way to get in touch with your intuition and the knowledge stored in your unconscious mind, created out of all your memories and experiences.  Sometimes when we relax and empty our mind, and just stop analysing everything for a moment, an image arises which contains some kind of message about how we really feel deep down.

This happened to me recently when at at the end of a particularly busy week of working, writing, yoga, family activities and cooking for guests, I sat down and invited my unconscious mind to offer to me an image.  The image that came to mind was of a blacksmith hammering something into shape.  I knew that it was me hammering myself –  forcing myself to achieve all the things I wanted to achieve.  When I allowed the image to change to reflect how I wanted things to be, the blacksmith stood back and allowed the metal to shape itself in its own time.  This felt like a clear message that what I needed was to allow things to unfold rather than drive myself so hard.

The following visualisation is has slightly different instructions and may help you to visualise several paths or options so you can explore how you feel about them.  To get started you will need a quiet room where you won’t be interrupted for ten or fifteen minutes.

  1. Lie down on your back if this is comfortable, or on your side if it is not.  You can put cushions under your knees and head if this makes you more comfortable.  If it is chilly, cover yourself with a blanket. Close your eyes.
  2. Take a few deep breaths or sighs, and breath out any tension.  Tense and relax each part of your body, including your shoulders, jaw and eyes.
  3. Breath into every part of your body.  If any part still feels tense, send it a gentle message to relax – “relax my shoulders, let my shoulders relax”.
  4. Set the intention to allow whatever images arise to arise, and accept them just as they are, even if they seem strange.
  5. Imagine yourself at a crossroads.  What kind of roads or paths are there?
  6. Take the road or path that seems most inviting and walk along it.  What do you see?  How does it feel to walk this way?  What is there along the road? Is there anyone else there?  Imagine you have walked five years down this road?  Now how does it feel?  What are you doing? Has anything changed?
  7. Once you have explored this road enough, go back to the crossroads and try another pathway.  What is this pathway like?  How do you feel?  Again, walk five years into the future down this pathway and see how it feels?
  8. If you want to, you can come back to the crossroads and try a third road.  You could also re-visit either of the first two roads.
  9. Once you have explored as many roads as you want to, allow your mind to relax again.  Take a bit of time to focus on your breath and just see if anything else emerges.  When you are ready, you can bring some movement back into your arms and legs, turn onto your side for a few minutes, and then open your eyes and get up.

You may have quite a clear sense of what each path represents, but it may not be immediately obvious.  Perhaps one path feels riskier, but it’s not clear what risk you are contemplating.  It may be that further insights come to you some days later, or they may not come at all – you can’t force them, but you can invite them in by making quiet time to contemplate.

If you would like to read more about working with images, I recommend Dr Dina Glouberman’s book, “Life Choices Life Changes” which has many more activities using visualisation to support your decision-making.

The Downside of Following Your Gut

We are often told to follow our gut these days.  It’s not bad advice either!

I think some of the best decisions I have made were based on a strong intuitive sense that something was right for me.  After a lot of mulling over options and chronic indecision, my husband and I made up our minds to move to Wales quite suddenly, after spending a lovely afternoon in a garden in Wales.  We just had a flash of inspiration, and made the move within a few months.  An opportunity came up for a secondment at work, and it absolutely felt like the right thing to do; I didn’t need to analyse it.  I started writing again after a break of several years, after an insight that came to me while meditating; I stood up and knew that I needed to be doing something creative, and I started writing the next day.  All three of these decisions were absolutely right for me.

Gut feeling is the limbic brain’s signal to us, based on it’s subconscious analysis of the options open to us.  And true, listening to our own intuition can often help us to tune into what we really want, and develop a clearer sense of the right choice for us at this particular time.  Intuition has been shown to be just as effective a way to make a complex decision as rational analysis.

Psychology, Mind, Thoughts, Thought

However, psychologists have found a few cognitive biases that we are all prone to and we need to watch out for, especially when we are relying on intuitive decision making. The neural pathways in our brains develop in such a way that these biases are inevitable, as the more well used a pathway is, the easier it is for our brain to continue to use the same pathway. Simply being aware of these biases might help you to spot them in your own thinking patterns, and avoid falling into these common traps.

  1. The Familiar

We tend to favour the familiar over the unfamiliar.  We favour jobs that are quite similar to other jobs we have had.  We are more likely to take a job in place we know or take on a course with a college we have studied at previously.  If we are struggling with a problem at work, we will tend to favour the tried and tested solution rather than looking for a new way to solve it.  Sometimes, we just favour the status quo over making a change.  I know that I will certainly stay in a job unless I am pretty sure that the new job is considerably better than the old.  So, if you are struggling to make a decision, and one option is very familiar, while the other is less so, perhaps you should choose the unfamiliar option; your brain is has probably already overrated the familiar option and underrated the unfamiliar option when weighing them up.

2. The Default

We are also more likely to follow the “default” option.  If it is assumed that every employee will take out an occupational pension, unless they fill in a long form to say they do not want to, then the take-up will tend to be high.  If employees are assumed not to want a pension unless they fill in the form, then take-up will be lower.  If you find yourself clicking the button for the default option on your computer, or accepting the status quo rather than returning a form, just ask yourself – does the person or organisation who set up this default have your best interests at heart?  Do they know better than you do what the right option for you is?  (Sometimes, especially with computer programmes, the default genuinely is the best option for the average user; sometimes, however, the default option has been set up to suit someone who wants to sell us something or manipulate us).

3. The Crowd

If we do not have a strong opinion about something, we are very likely to simply follow the crowd.  This is not always a bad thing; after all, there are likely to be people in the crowd who know more about the options that you do, especially if you are pretty clueless.  But if you find yourself mindlessly following the crowd, do check in with yourself.  Is it likely that most of the crowd are able to make a better decision that you are in this situation, and that your needs are similar to most other people in the crowd?  If not, don’t follow them!

4.  The Plan

Simply asking people whether they intend to do something actually increases the likelihood that they will do it and getting them to think through how they will do it increase the chances of them doing it even more.  If you write down a plan for how you will find out about a course that you want to do, work out the route to the open day, think about what you will wear and what you will do when they get there, you are much more likely to follow through on your plan.  If you already have a plan to do something, make sure you are not over-committed.  Is this plan still the best option for you?

5. Confirmation

Once we think we know something, we look for information to confirm our beliefs and we discount other information.  If you already think you are no good at Maths, you will look for further evidence to corroborate this belief (maybe the test that went badly, or what a teacher said to you three years ago) rather than focusing on the evidence that might contradict your belief (the teacher that told you could pass with a little bit more work).  This is why people tend not to change their political or religious beliefs very often.  We often need to really work at being open to information that contradicts our beliefs.

6. Overconfidence

We usually tend towards optimism and overestimate our abilities and chances of success (unless we are prone to depression, in which case we tend to have a more accurate view).  Most of us find it hard to accurately assess our own potential and how likely we are to succeed.  Optimism can be very valuable in building resilience and the persistence to keep trying in the face of initial failure, but it doesn’t always lead to accurate predictions about the future.  When we are overconfident we may fail to take sensible preventative steps or develop contingency plans.  It’s great to be optimistic, persistent and resilient, but there is no harm in having a back up plan!

7. Loss

We hate loss.  And this tends to create inertia.  Psychologists have found that we are roughly twice as unhappy about losing something as we would be happy about gaining it.  Once we have something, we value it more than we would have done if we didn’t have it.  This is why free trials work so well; once we have that premium subscription to a service, we value it more and don’t want to cancel our subscription.  So, once you have been offered a job or a college place, you value it more than you did before the interview.  That is why it can be so hard to say no to a job offer.

8.  Short-Term

We are also very prone to valuing short-term gains over longer-term benefits (even more so if we are teenagers).  The short-term gain of earning some money to spend now often outweighs the longer term gain of studying for qualifications which may help us earn more money in the distant future.  Most of us could do with a little help to remind us to prioritise our longer-term goals – pensions, fitness, career development, savings, qualifications and so on.

For a bit more reading on this fascinating topic, try:

  • Thaler & Sunstein – Nudge
  • Malcolm Gladwell – Blink
  • Daniel Kahneman – Thinking Fast and Slow