When unexpected events occur, or life just feels particularly hectic, it can be easy to spiral into uncertainty. “Why did that happen to me?” “What did I do wrong?”
Everyone experiences these thoughts to varying degrees when things go awry, but people dealing with anxiety or depression often struggle with such repeating thought patterns more than others.
All of that self-doubt usually gets in the way of making decisions with a clear head. When our thoughts are fogged by recurring reminders of past failures and perceived mistakes, choosing between something as simple as what to wear next Monday can feel like an impossible task.
A new study just released by the University of California, Berkeley tackled this complicated topic and problem and uncovered a useful approach for anyone who feels like anxiety or melancholic thoughts are holding them back. In short, when life gets chaotic, focus on your past successes and everything you have accomplished.
Choosing to focus on these milestones over failures will lead to less uncertainty and ultimately improved decision making.
In more scientific terms, the team at UCB tested the “probabilistic decision-making skills” of over 300 adults. A portion of those participants had been diagnosed with either major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder.
Spread across two experiments, study authors collected considerable evidence that people who worry a lot, generally don’t feel good about the future, and often feel unmotivated have a much harder time adjusting and coping with a volatile, hectic environment. All of those aforementioned symptoms are very common among those experiencing anxiety, depression, or both simultaneously.
In one of the experiments, participants had to choose between two shapes (circle, square) on a computer screen. One of those shapes would produce a cash prize, while the other would elicit a painful electric shock. For most of the game, these symbols stayed consistent (circle = shock, square = $). But, during certain rounds, the symbols switched. Those who showed symptoms consistent with depression and anxiety became much more flustered by these unexpected developments.
Everyone engages in probabilistic decision-making daily without even realizing it; this term refers to how positive or negative outcomes from previous choices help us make new decisions. For instance, if you burned your hand while cooking the last time you didn’t wear an oven mitt, chances are you’ll be wearing one the next time you’re in the kitchen.
When anxiety and depression enter the picture, however, this whole process becomes a whole lot more complicated. When someone is filled with anxiety, every little choice and movement feels like it carries the weight of the world. Seemingly inconsequential decisions become matters of life and death. On top of all that, conditions like major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder usually cause people to ruminate and continually focus on their past mistakes.
This constant carousel of mental self-abuse can make it exceedingly difficult to cope when life gets especially chaotic or unexpected problems pop up. Consider for a moment being assigned a big client at your job. You’ve dealt with tons of similar, high-maintenance clients like this one in the past, and always found your way to success. This time, though, the client doesn’t like your approach and asks for a new point of contact.
This, of course, would be upsetting for anyone who takes their career seriously. But for people experiencing anxious or depressive thoughts, an incident like this may cause them to second guess everything they do on the job and rethink their entire work approach. More “emotionally resilient” individuals, according to the research team, won’t let one mistake or negative result rock their world.
“When everything keeps changing rapidly, and you get a bad outcome from a decision you make, you might fixate on what you did wrong, which is often the case with clinically anxious or depressed people,” says senior study author Sonia Bishop, a professor of neuroscience at UC Berkeley, in a release. “Conversely, emotionally resilient people tend to focus on what gave them a good outcome, and in many real-world situations that might be key to learning to make good decisions.”
In the end, much of these findings come down to having some faith in oneself. Conditions like depression and anxiety are like awful devils on our shoulders telling us we’re not good enough. Inevitably, life can become hectic and even scary at times. It’s during those moments when we need a little bit of self-assurance more than ever. Just having the confidence to say to yourself “I know what to do next,” even if you may not 100% be sure of that, is usually enough to point you in the right direction.
“We found that people who are emotionally resilient are good at latching on to the best course of action when the world is changing fast,” Bishop adds. “People with anxiety and depression, on the other hand, are less able to adapt to these changes. Our results suggest they might benefit from cognitive therapies that redirect their attention to positive, rather than negative, outcomes.”
No one should interpret these findings as flippant advice for people dealing with depression or anxiety to “snap out of it” or simply wake up one day and be more self-assured. Every one of us struggles with self-doubt, anxiety, and forlorn feelings from time to time, and it isn’t a stretch at all to say that 2020 has been a mental health test for all of us. We’re all feeling a bit more on edge, and there are no easy answers when it comes to mental health.
That being said, that doesn’t mean there’s no hope either. Researchers say they believe the right type of individualized treatment, such as cognitive behavior therapy, can help those diagnosed with anxiety and depression focus on their successes in life, build self-confidence, and make better decisions.