Understanding Your Anxiety Helps You Make Better Decisions

May 26, 2019 George Abitante

Understanding your anxiety and yourself can be really challenging. Last week I wrote about techniques to avoid labeling yourself as anxious, and as a strange continuation, today I want to share the value I see in using labels to overcome anxiety by understanding your anxiety's source. Here's a question you may not have considered: how do you know whether a thought is a product of you, or of your anxiety? Now, the easy answer is that it's both -- our minds defy simple categorization, and our thoughts are the same. But I think distinguishing between behaviors and thoughts that result from anxiety and from our preferences is a crucial strategy for understanding your anxiety so you can move past it. Let's walk through an example to illustrate why.

Suppose you've been invited to lunch. In attendance will be several close friends, a few people you haven't met at all, and then one or two people you have met before and, for whatever reason, don't feel comfortable around. You notice that you're feeling a bit apprehensive about this lunch, particularly those two other guests, but you are also excited to see your close friends. It seems like there are going to be several pros and cons for going to this lunch, but the question I want to focus on is this: are you feeling apprehensive because of anxiety or just because of your preferences? And, perhaps more importantly, does it matter? 

Why Understanding Your Anxiety Matters 

Understanding your anxiety and where it originates is important. When we avoid something simply because we don't like it, we are behaving in alignment with our preferences. As a child, I couldn't stand brussels sprouts, for example, but they didn't make me anxious. I made decisions about my behavior regarding brussels sprouts purely based on how much I (dis)liked them. On the other hand, we also tend to avoid things because of how they make us feel. When I avoided eating apple seeds as a child because I was afraid they would grow in my stomach, I was making a decision based on my emotional response to the situation, not based on my preferences. When we make decisions based on preferences, we are staying true to ourselves (for better or worse, in the case of my brussels sprouts), and when we decide based on anxiety, we can end up limiting ourselves. 

Identifying when our decisions are predicated on preferences or anxiety is, consequently, an important skill for living in a way that is true to ourselves. Understanding our anxiety by identifying its source is the skill we need. But how do we learn that? I'm going back to the lunch example to describe three strategies you can use to check on whether you're acting based on your preferences or your anxiety. 

3 Ways to Understand When Anxiety Is Making Your Decisions

  1. Imagine the past. When you're struggling to make a decision, it can be hard to tell whether you're deciding based on anxiety or your preferences. When you think about how you'll feel afterward, however, it can become clear very quickly. From the lunch example, you could ask yourself, "After the lunch is over, will I feel better knowing I went, or that I didn't go?". When your future self (who doesn't have to deal with going to lunch) wants to have gone, that's usually a sign that your preference is to go, even if it feels tough at the moment. On the other hand, if your future self doesn't particularly care, or would rather not have gone, then that likely means you'd actually prefer not to go, not that it's just something you're anxious about doing. 
  2. Imagine the future. Now let's flip strategy #1 on its head and imagine that you are committing to a lunch that won't actually happen for another month or even a year. Do you want to go or not? If your apprehension decreases the further out you push the date, that's probably a sign that your anxiety is telling you not to go. On the other hand, if you're just not excited about going and it doesn't matter when, it's more likely a sign that you just don't want to go. We tend to experience more anxiety about challenges we will face in our immediate future, so imagining events far off in the future can help us step back from anxiety and consider our preferences more clearly.
  3. Examine your expectations. Last, it can help to look at what expectations you have about the event already. If you've been imagining something specific and negative, in this case perhaps one of the people you aren't comfortable with saying something mean to you, then that may indicate your anxiety is driving your decisionmaking. Focusing specifically on outcomes we are afraid of happening, especially ones that are unlikely, is a consistent sign of anxious thinking. On the other hand, if you don't have any positive expectations or thoughts about the lunch, that probably just means you're not interested in going because you'd rather not spend time with those people. 

Each of these strategies can help you understand your anxiety by figuring out why you're making certain decisions, and from there you can figure out ways to make the situation work. Thinking about our lunch example again, if you realize that you're just anxious about going to lunch with people you don't like, but still want to see your friends, you can develop a new plan that enables you to go to lunch anyways. This might mean going early to make sure you sit with at least one good friend, but regardless the goal is to use the insight you attain about your decisionmaking to enjoy your life more fully.

Please share other strategies you use to understand your anxiety below.

APA Reference
Abitante, G. (2019, May 26). Understanding Your Anxiety Helps You Make Better Decisions, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Author: George Abitante

George received his Master's degree in Clinical Psychology from Northwestern University and is pursuing his PhD in Clinical Psychology at Vanderbilt University. Find him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @AbitanteGeorge.

Lakshay Bhasin
May, 28 2019 at 4:43 am

Thanks for your words. It really helped me a lot. Thank you for sharing.

Lizanne Corbit
May, 27 2019 at 10:47 am

These are such insightful suggestions and opportunities for really mindful, empowered thinking. I love the breakdown of looking at something in a past context and then future, and the also examining expectations. Expectations are almost always at play when anxiety is making the decisions and this can be a really great way to decipher. Wonderful post.

May, 27 2019 at 12:04 pm

Hi Lizanne, thanks for your kind words. You make a great point that focusing on expectations specifically can really help people identify anxiety.

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