“It was just sort of this anxiety around everything,” she said. “Sometimes it can manifest itself in the smallest ways, like ‘I don’t know what to eat right now.’ I can’t choose the simplest thing.”
Those numbers might be shocking, but some mental health professionals say they’re not surprised.
And while the symptoms of anxiety can be deeply unpleasant, Marques said the emotion is actually an essential tool our body uses to get us out of dangerous situations. “Anxiety, as a biological response, is a state of fight or flight,” she explained.
Escaping from a lion? The hypervigilance associated with anxiety can help.
But while that heightened awareness and vigilance makes biological sense, Marques said the emotion also erodes our ability to make well-reasoned choices.
“When you have a lot of anxiety you actually have trouble making decisions. That’s something I’m seeing in my clinic,” she said. “Patients are having trouble figuring out: ‘Is this a good decision or not?’ And that’s because their brain is not fully on to be able to make decisions.”
That’s concerning: As the Covid-19 pandemic unfolds, many are facing daily decisions with high stakes for their families’ lives and livelihoods.
Want more good news? Marques and other experts say there’s also a lot you can do to manage anxiety at home — techniques you can use to feel better and make wise choices. Here’s where to start.
Why is it so hard to make decisions?
When we’re feeling anxious, we’ve fired up a set of structures in our brain called the limbic system, said Marques. That’s an area responsible for emotional responses, memory and motivation.
Our best reasoning and decision-making comes instead from the prefrontal cortex, what Marques called our “thinking brain.” The limbic system and the prefrontal cortex fight for attention, she explained.
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. The amygdala is a part of the limbic system.
“When you’re on [amygdala] hijack, you’re ‘spinning,'” Marques said. “You might say: ‘If I don’t put on a mask right now I’m going to catch the virus, and if I get the virus, who’s going to take care of my kids?’ — which of course makes you more anxious.”
That 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. “Because they are emotionally driven, those are decisions that might not be your best decisions,” Marques said.
How to hack your brain’s anxiety response
“The best response is to cool off your brain before making decisions,” Marques said. By doing that, you’ll give your rational prefrontal cortex the chance to take control.
Those strategies can help you step out of the cycle of anxiety, putting your prefrontal cortex back in the driver’s seat.
And while Marques recommended employing these anti-anxiety strategies as needed, she said it’s just as important to lay some healthy groundwork by taking care of yourself. That means you’ll have more resources to draw on when anxiety strikes.
Determine what you can (and can’t) control
Once you’re in a good frame of mind, Marques suggested reminding yourself that you don’t need — or get — to manage everything.
“We’re in the middle of this major uncertainty, and a lot of things are out of our control,” she said. Rather than try to plan for every possibility, Marques recommended we face uncertainty head-on. “Staying with this discomfort for a little bit is important.”
Lynn Bufka, a psychologist and a senior director at the American Psychological Association, agreed. You might not be able to control whether your employer stays afloat, for example. Instead, she suggested focusing on the things within your power while letting go of the rest.
“Some things, you can say: ‘This is not a decision I have to make,'” she said. Your kid’s messy bedroom, for example? Bufka said to let that one go.
Once you’ve narrowed it down, pull out a sheet of paper and write out pros and cons, Bufka recommended. When everything is down in black and white, it can be easier to put your issues in perspective.
And if you find yourself obsessing over research and news-reading, consider setting a time limit: “Like ‘I can spend one hour researching this issue and then I have to stop,'” she said.
Make an imperfect decision in an imperfect situation
You might not make the perfect decision, but Bufka offered a gentle reminder that it’s OK to forge ahead anyway. “We are making the best decisions that we can with the information that we have,” she said.
As for Valentini, the London-based writer, she employed the kind of self-care that experts like Marques and Bufka recommended. She tuned in to virtual yoga classes. Normally an exercise hater, she started taking jogs that seemed to elevate her mood.
She’s still super anxious. As the pandemic wore on, her friends and family wanted to know when the wedding would be. Valentini said that thinking about it gave her heart palpitations.
But in the end, Valentini and her fiance made the best decision they could with the information they had, putting down a deposit for a 2021 wedding in Southern California.
And you know what? It helped, she said, even though the world is as confusing and stressful as ever. “It was like an exercise in forcing yourself to do something when there’s no certainty around you,” she said.
“You’re like: ‘That actually made me feel a lot better.'”