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I suffer from GAD (Generalised Anxiety Disorder) and one of the most frustrating aspects of this disorder that I come up against is indecision. I’m talking about when I can’t make even the simplest of decisions because of the ‘what ifs’ flying out of my overactive brain. I can end up feeling paralysed, having flitted from task to task in the hope of finding easier, clear-cut decisions to make. Finally, I reach a complete impasse as I realise I’m cycling through the same few decisions over and over and am no closer to a resolution.
I used to get mad at myself and my internal voice would be telling me I’m useless. Now I have a selection of things that I try to help me move on and discover what had halted me in the first place. It’s not a magical fix but it helps me to get on with what I need to do, whether that be jobs around the house or work. I hope the explanations below can help you or someone you love too.
It’s so easy to get locked in, desperate to achieve something, to find yourself thinking, ‘if I can just…’. Yet, most of the time I end up more frustrated if I keep plugging away endlessly at something when I’ve hit the roadblock stage.
At this point I try to walk away from what I’m doing for a moment. Go to the toilet, get a drink of water, gently stretch my arms, neck and shoulders and then come back to whatever I was doing. Sometimes this is enough to stop the ‘what ifs’ cycling, and even if it isn’t it usually gives me the clarity to see that I need to try one of my other methods.
If stopping and walking away hasn’t helped, I take some deep breaths. I try not to think about anything apart from imagining the anxiety (and any tension I’m feeling) leaving my body when I exhale. I’m lucky and I have a lovely view from almost every window in my house, so I try to look outside while breathing but without focusing on anything in particular.
This one can sound like a bit of a cliché, I was skeptical too, but breathing can have a calming effect even if it doesn’t put me right back into the mindset to carry on.
When I have a jittery feel about me as well as the racing ‘what ifs’ I consider how much caffeine I’ve consumed. Have I had more than usual? Have I had drinks closer together than I should? Have I had things that contain caffeine (like chocolate) that I wouldn’t normally have? For me the answer to this one is often ‘no’, but it’s worth thinking about. If I find the answer is ‘yes’ I ditch any caffeinated drinks I have on the go and replace them with water and relaxing herbal teas and take a short walk if I’ve really overdone it.
The jittery feeling isn’t always caffeine though, sometimes it’s anxiety working its way out of control. Those are the times I need to carry on working through my checklist.
Have I been so engrossed in what I was doing that I’ve missed a meal? Is my anxiety spiraling because I’m hungry? For me there is a definite link between my level of anxiety and how well fed I am. I’m sure it varies for everyone, but I notice a distinct drop in the ‘what ifs’ once I’ve got a full belly again.
Obviously, if you don’t take medication you can ignore this one. I do take medication for my anxiety, so this is something I take into consideration. When my anxiety is really bad, I take the maximum dose at regular intervals or suffer the consequences. At these times I have to think about whether I have missed a dose.
When things are going better I take this particular medication on an ‘as-needed’ basis, so I have to decide whether it’s time to take it or whether something else could help.
Break It Up
If I’ve reached a point where I think I can try again, where possible I break the task down into smaller, more manageable chunks. I do this to try and get some momentum going so that I can avoid feeling overwhelmed by ‘what ifs’ again.
For example: if I’m doing laundry I would break the tasks down into taking down the dry clothes; folding them; putting them away; hanging the wet ones; sorting the dirty ones and putting on a wash. In my mind I would be ticking off each job I completed rather than grouping it all together and thinking, ‘I need to do the laundry!’
If I’m doing work (one of my jobs is as a languages tutor) I could break tasks down into planning lessons, making resources, finding shared resources, editing resources etc. Some of that sounds similar but making those distinctions helps to stop me getting overwhelmed.
Pick a No-Decision Task
When it seems like I just can’t make any progress with what I’m trying to do I step away again in a different way. I pick a small task to do that I always do in the same way and that requires virtually no decision making. For example, I might put the dishes away (they always go away in the same places) if I’m doing housework or if I’m working I might create a learning resource from one of my templates (just requires me to fill in the blanks, e.g. with a verb conjugation which doesn’t change).
This helps me to feel like I’ve accomplished something and to silence the voice growing in the back of my head saying, ‘you’re wasting time!’ It also helps to take my mind away from the task that was blocking me, then I can try again with a more positive outlook (I’ve finished something!) and also with fresh perspective (I haven’t been staring at that same screen in frustration for X minutes!).
Do Something Physical
If my mind is really racing and nothing else seems to be helping I try to do something physical that gets my whole body moving. I might take the dog for a walk (of course, you can still go for a walk without a dog), go cycling, vacuum, mop the floors or go for a run. Any and all of these help to clear my mind and use up excess anxious energy that might be blocking me from making decisions.
I often find that while I’m moving, I think over the decisions I need to make and that the motion helps me to reach a resolution. It seems that the physical act of moving can unclog my brain and help cycling ‘what if’ thoughts to come to an end. It doesn’t work every time, but even if it doesn’t work for that task I feel better for moving.
Take a Break
If all else fails, I have to consider whether I’m tired and need to stop what I’m doing for a while. Have I been working non-stop? Have I been powering through job after job without taking a break? If the answer is ‘yes’, I need to step back and do something to relax for a while before carrying on.
Tiredness feeds ‘what ifs’. I’ve found out the hard way that on the days when I carry on regardless it reduces my ability to make decisions dramatically compared to when I step back and take breaks.
Manage What You Can
For me, the checklist, or steps I go through to try and get back on track with my task are about managing what I can. I look at all the bits I can control to do with the ‘what ifs’ preventing me from making decisions and see if there’s anything that I can change for the better. I try not to focus on the things that I can’t control, like not being able to carry on with the task when I want to, and instead focus on what I can do to get me going again.
It hasn’t been an easy adjustment and I still get frustrated at the time I lose to anxiety indecision, but I feel like I’ve clawed some time back since I started running through my checklist. I hope this can helpful for someone else too, or perhaps give you some ideas for your own checklist.