Accelerators, Corporates, Hubs, Startup Studios

How Anxiety Impacts Decision Making

This perspective from Dr. Terri Finney looks into how anxiety occurs and what entrepreneurs can do about it.

This perspective from Dr. Terri Finney looks into how anxiety occurs and what entrepreneurs can do about it.

by: Dr Terri Finney|

March 31, 2023

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Articles | Accelerators | How Anxiety Impacts Decision Making

Max is a brilliant and accomplished tech professional. When he and his co-founder started a business, it was the first time he had worked outside of a formal corporate structure. There were multitudes of decisions to make on a daily basis. You all know the drill. Some were big-picture decisions, and some were daily and procedural decisions. In our coaching sessions, Max often became overwhelmed to the point of being paralyzed. Together we figured out the anxiety traits (historical and situational) that led to his overwhelm. We sorted possible options and drilled down to what were the most appropriate decisions. He increased his self-awareness and learned some new tools.

I have spoken to hundreds of entrepreneurs about the unique mental health risks they face when starting their businesses. We focus on things such as managing the emotional roller-coaster, stress, burnout, resilience, the importance of social support, and self-care. We then focus on the cost to the business of compromised mental health on the part of the founder(s) such as lack of focus, poor communication, impact on relationships, decreased levels of energy, and optimism. Sometimes we forget about the impact of mental health challenges on decision-making. Decisions often need to be made quickly. Poor mental health can impair decision-making abilities and lead to excessive risk-taking or risk aversion. Anxiety can influence your decision-making by creating worry that you’ll make the wrong choice or a choice you’ll regret later. The decision-making challenges often surface during times of growth and then dissipates as the entrepreneur improves their mental health and self-awareness, and masters some tools.

When we’re feeling anxious, we’ve fired up a set of structures in our brain called the limbic system. That’s an area responsible for emotional responses, memory, and motivation. Our best reasoning and decision-making comes not from the limbic system, but from the prefrontal cortex, our “thinking brain.” The limbic system and the prefrontal cortex fight for attention. If your brain is in fight-or-flight mode, your overheated limbic system can cycle through an endless series of scary possibilities. Scientists call that “amygdala hijack”— it’s like your prefrontal cortex has lost control of the vehicle altogether. That spinning feeling can paralyze your ability to make a choice, and with your limbic system in control, you might not like what you settle on anyway.

There are two principal information-processing biases characteristic of anxiety:

  1. A bias to attend toward threat-related information
  2. A bias toward negative interpretation of ambiguous information, options, and thoughts.

For stimuli with more than one potential interpretation, anxiety is associated with a tendency towards a more negative perception. Anxious individuals unrealistically judge negative outcomes to be more likely than positive ones. Their negative biases extend to their thoughts about their own adequacy.
The amount of attention paid to an aversive choice option predicts its avoidance, suggesting that attentional bias toward potential adverse outcomes of risky gambles may cause anxious individuals to favor certain and safe alternatives. Measures of trait anxiety, worry, and social anxiety in healthy participants are all predictive of heightened risk aversion.

Here are some strategies and tools that my clients have used to win the war over anxiety:

  • Break big decisions down into smaller ones. Rather than looking at the decision as a whole, try to break it up into smaller steps. Determine your starting point, then think about each step along the way. This can help make the decision feel less daunting and more doable.
  • Create a checklist. If there are multiple steps to the decision, creating a checklist can help you keep track of what’s been done and what’s left to do.
  • Eliminate too many options. This can help with those day-to-day decisions, like what you’ll eat for lunch or wear to work. Consider eliminating the options by prepping your meals or choosing your wardrobe for the week.
  • Reflect on past decisions. Focusing on what you’ve gotten right can help improve your judgment, so you feel comfortable making good decisions moving forward.
  • Talk with trusted friends, family, and your coach. Sometimes talking the decision through with someone you trust can give you another opinion or perspective.
  • Make a list of pros and cons. Consider making a list of the positives and the negatives surrounding the decision. This may help you see the decision from different angles.
  • Journal about your feelings. Expressing your emotions throughout the process in a journal may help you reflect on the process later and see what worked and how you can improve it.
  • Set a deadline and stick to it. If you’re deciding on a big decision, create a deadline for your final decision and stick to it. But give yourself enough time, so you don’t feel rushed.

Max has become more comfortable with himself, his decisions, and his reduced level of anxiety. He is calmer, more confident, and more productive. The bottom line of his business reflects his growth. We all have places where we get in our own way. Anxiety need not be one of those places.