26 Jul 2020

BY: Online Therapy

Anxiety / Decisional Fatigue / Depression / Fatigue counselling

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Decisional Fatigue and how to solve it

By Sara Taveira

The anxiety of making choices

Today I decided to talk about the paradox of choices. I went to lunch at a restaurant with so many options on the menu; it made me anxious. I share my experience with you, dissected it from a Clinical and Health Psychology perspective to help get to an understanding of how the thought of “the more options we have the better”, is a great fallacy!

The menu offered more than 20 options for main courses and I felt the anxiety running through my body. The sweet anxiety of choice! The first consequence of this was mind-boggling, being confused without being able to read the name of all the dishes. I don’t need to explain how this increased my indecision, right? The truth is that it was really difficult to make a choice, without even realizing it. In fact, when I reflect on what happened, I now realize that my choice, like all of our choices, adds to anxiety on an unconscious level. In particular, here I was thinking about what others would think of my choices and even more, I ended up basing my choice on what I saw others selected.

Finally, I became aware of my anxiety about making choices and wondered if I had chosen the best meal. With so many options, my expectations naturally increased. When the meal finally arrived it was good, but I was disappointed because “I expected more”. Ultimately, I started to think that I made a mistake and felt guilty for not enjoying the meal as much as I could. That, of course, made me even more anxious and frustrated with myself. Do you notice the endless loop? Now let’s translate my experience of eager gastronomic choice to Psychology.

How many choices do we make a day?

We make an average of 35000 choices per day, from deciding whether to take a step left or right, to the more complex professional decisions. The simpler choices come from a fast, automatic, and intuitive system in the brain instead of the complex choices, which arise from a slower, analytical and rational system that therefore expends a lot of brain energy.

The more choices we make in our day-to-day lives, the more tired our brain gets, especially if they are complex. And it is at this point that we feel daily wear and tear and may wonder if we are depressed or just fatigued. Don’t get confused. This lack of mental energy for making too many choices is called “decisional fatigue” which has the consequences of reducing our capacity for self-control, leads to inertia and automatic decisions accepted by the status quo. This explains why I froze and ended up ordering what others ordered.

This phenomenon also explains why we sometimes make so many “mistakes” later in the day. We may decide not to go to the gym because we are tired, we get home, lie on the couch, order fast food and we binge-watch our favourite series. Sound familiar? That is, the more decisions you make during the day, the more difficult it is to make good decisions at night, as your self-control diminishes, your brain becomes tired, just like our muscles after an hour of physical exercise.

How to prevent this decisional fatigue?

Basically, we have to work with these two systems that I explained and automate as many daily decisions as possible to save the most rational system for when it is necessary to avoid impulsive decisions and mistakes.

What do I want you to retain today? Choices imply risks, losses, and changes, and for that reason are unpredictable which undoubtedly goes hand in hand with anxiety. Leaving things to chance is intolerable and that is why we try our best to prevent the risk of this happening. But by stopping chance, we decrease our happiness because we do not allow ourselves the possibility of pleasant surprises. Even more serious, we are stuck with regret and dissatisfaction because it is impossible to arrive at the ideal choice which leads to feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and high self-criticism. Another way to increase anxiety. The choice is, then, the hesitation before the decision, which, when increased and diversified, can lead us to mental confusion, to feelings of constant doubt, which diminishes our self-confidence.

A Solution strategy

Why not try to understand your choices as clouds? For example, have you ever heard someone say that cloud format was good or bad? Never, right? So why don’t we also think that choices are just that, choices, possibilities and that they can’t be good or bad? If we take this stance, we cannot make catastrophic mistakes even when it seems that we did it when we chose A or B. The truth is that everything ends up being resolved in one way or another. Think back to a problem that seemed huge and impossible to solve at the time. The likelihood is that now you even smile when remembering how you exaggerated your fears and anxieties. Trust yourself, as there are many roads to the right path.

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