- How Does Depression Affect Your Decision Making?
- Today’s Column
- Decisions, Decisions: Not So Easy When You’re Depressed
- Depression, Decisions, and Regrets
- 1. Let Someone Else Decide
- 2. Flip a Coin
- 3. Go With Your First Instinct
- 4. WWXD (What Would X Do?)
- When an Inability to Make Decisions Is Actually Fear of Conflict
- Why Is It So Hard? I Need Someone To Make A Decision For Me
How Does Depression Affect Your Decision Making?
When we think of depression, we typically think of prolonged sadness, lethargy, disturbed sleep, and suicidal thoughts. However, depression has effects beyond your energy level and mood. One of these effects is that depressed people have a harder time making good decisions. Interestingly, antidepressants don’t appear to improve decision making even when they improve mood. Depression affects your decision making in several ways. When we say depression leads to poorer decision, it means that the decisions lead to outcomes that have less positive impact on your life over the long run. The first way depression leads to poor decisions is that depressed people tend to be more indecisive. They have more trouble making any decision at all. One reason for this indecisiveness may be an attempt to minimize regret later on. If someone makes an active decision that leads to a bad outcome, she tends to feel worse than if the decision had been out of her hands. Not only has something bad happened, but she is responsible for it happening. Delaying or refusing to make a decision is a way of accepting the default option, so even if turns out badly, at least you’re not responsible for it. This is connected to another feature of depressive thinking, pessimism. Depressed people are more likely to believe that a situation will turn out badly. If they think an active decision will have a negative result, they are less likely to make it. This is compounded by the fact that depressed people, as part of their pessimistic thinking style, believe they have fewer resources to deal with problems and are also likely to have fewer resources to deal with problems in the future. So, for example, if someone is depressed and is offered a promotion, she may be more likely to decline because she believes she will fail in the new position. This is often a distorted assessment, and taking the promotion will often be the better decision in the long run. A common feature of depressive decision making is risk aversion. Studies have found that people with depression often make decisions specifically to avoid anxiety. People with depression often feel hopeless and as a result, don’t want to waste energy on plans they believe won’t work. This leads to less information gathering, less idea generation, and less thinking through options. These tend to be labor intensive activities requiring mental energy and focus, which depressed people have in short supply. Because of this impaired decision making ability, therapists often recommend that patients not make major decisions during a depressive episode. Fortunately, studies have shown that using specific techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy can help even depressed people make better decisions, leading to better long-term outcomes.
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Thirty Years or Life through Rose-Colored Glasses by Raoul Dufy –
So let’s say that you’re dissatisfied with something about your life, and you’re thinking of making a big change. Your job isn’t satisfying, your marriage or relationship isn’t working out or maybe you don’t like where you live. You’re pretty sure there’s something better waiting for you if you change your circumstances.
If you’re feeling this way, stop! Don’t do it until you read this.
Is there any chance that you’re clinically depressed? The reason I’m asking is that one of the most useful guidelines about living through depression that I can give is this: Never, ever make a major life decision while you’re depressed.
For many people with depression, it’s not even necessary to make this point. People who are depressed tend to, more often than not, stick with the status quo because change is often an anathema when you’re depressed, and it’s hard to make any decisions or take action.
However, I’ve known people who have made life-changing decisions because they think that the problem is the work that they do. They’ve changed jobs, changed careers or even gone back to school. They figure that the reason they’re feeling so crummy is that they’re in the wrong career or in the wrong field, or have the wrong degree.
I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve heard “I think I’m going to leave my spouse. My marriage just isn’t working and it’s better to end it now.” A variation on this statement is, “He/she would be better off without me.” You know what happens most of the time when they finally realize they have depression and get it treated? Well, the spouse or partner has often moved on to another relationship. Their relationship with their children might be irreparably damaged, not because of their depression, but because they broke up the family.
Maybe the problem seems to be where you’re living. You think that moving to another state (or house or city or even country) might do the trick. Unless you’re moving to a climate with more sun to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder, don’t hire the movers yet.
Here’s the main problem with acting on this type of thinking if you’re depressed: depression distorts reality. It affects your ability to perceive your life in any kind of positive light. It’s the opposite of rose-colored glasses or beer goggles, which make things look better and more attractive than they actually are. Everything that’s viewed through the distortion of depression is negatively affected by it and seems to be worse than it really is. Jobs aren’t satisfying; relationships are unworkable. Depression distortion can even send older people into nursing homes sooner, since they perceive their health as worsening more quickly than it really is.
What happens when you act on this dissatisfaction? Well, unless you’ve recovered from depression, all that happens is you find another career or partner, and sure as the sun rises in the east, eventually you’ll realize that you’re still unhappy. You’ve changed your situation, but chances are that the situation was not the problem; your depression is.
And let’s be blunt – if you’re depressed, there’s a good chance that it’s having a negative impact on your relationships and work performance. All sorts of abilities go to hell with depression. Your communication and cognitive skills are very possibly affected, so it may be that your life is indeed deteriorating in certain ways, but the only thing that will make a permanent impact is treating your depression.
So if you’re thinking about making a major life change and there’s a chance that you’re depressed, take some time to find out if you could have clinical depression. Make an appointment with your general practitioner specifically to talk about this (don’t beat around the bush). If you do, get treated with therapy or medication or both.
When you start feeling better in general, if you still perceive problems in your relationship or work situation, then you’re in a much better position to judge what can be done, if anything, before chucking it all.
I’ve been in a serious relationship for two years and not sure I still want to be in it. We’re both early-30s, met online when each wanted “more than just dating.”
I was in the Armed Forces, contemplating whether that life really was for me. We met a few months before her father passed away.
I’d previously been in many short relationships, nothing “meaningful.” She’d barely dated at all but was ready to meet “the one.”
She was the first person who made me truly realize what and who I am, deeply. She grew up surrounded by oppression and judgement due to her religious beliefs and skin color. She’s a social justice warrior, which I think is awesome.
Critical thinking is always at the forefront now. I feel more on “edge, “more” responsible” to think about everything and anything, all angles of why and how, to the point of anxiety and exhaustion.
I sometimes feel afraid to speak without “offending” or “slighting.” I want to be a responsible and humble human but not to this extreme.
Meanwhile, I’ve been suffering from depression for a decade and it’s worsened these past two-to-four years… affected either from the military, this relationship, passive aggressiveness from my family, living with them, my job, etc.
I even told her I’m breaking up with her because I don’t want to be in a relationship.
Yet I “need” her. She’s the sweetest and kindest girl I’ve ever met, despite her social justice warrior mindset.
She’s helped me – seeing deeper into my depression (and paying for some therapy!) – with getting my current job, with sorting my finances.
She’s done absolutely nothing wrong other than demand the best from me and life.
I’ve told her I just want to move out of my family’s house and “live on my own” (though I’m scared because of finances and my depression).
She wants to move out too but only if she marries (strict family religious rule).
But I’m not quite ready to settle down and marry! Yet here we are, both too scared to break up with each other and somehow just “making it work.” I know this isn’t easy on her either. Am I just dragging her along?
Decisions, Decisions: Not So Easy When You’re Depressed
For here or to go?
Cash or credit?
These are simple questions that most people don’t think twice about. But to a person in the midst of a depressive episode, answering any one of these queries can be utter torture. I’ve sat there looking at a grocery cashier like a deer in the headlights, tormented by the choice between a paper bag and a plastic bag — as though the rest of my life depended on the decision between which kind of material would transport my eggs and granola to my car.
The inability to make a decision is one of the most infuriating symptoms of depression.
According to a study published in August 2011 in Cognitive Therapy and Research, a few things factor into the difficulty a depressed person has in making decisions.
For starters, good decisions happen when people have the ability to evaluate alternatives and make judgments that are free of bias. In a depressed state, strong emotions and incorrect predictions of the future negatively impact a decision; the pessimistic thinking and heightened sense of potential disappointment in the outcome cloud rational thinking.
Listlessness and passivity affect decisions, as well as a lack of confidence, an inaccurate appraisal of personal resources (“I could never do that”), and a hopelessness about the future.
Depression, Decisions, and Regrets
Several studies have shown that depressed people are especially likely to regret their decisions, so the anticipatory regret handcuffs them and they can’t make future decisions. According to the authors of the Cognitive Therapy and Research study:
Anticipatory regret likely serves as a warning mechanism, protecting a decision-maker from bad decisions and prompting them to reevaluate possible alternatives. Inappropriate or excessive regret can thereby impair future decision-making.
Given the common tendency of people to experience more regret for active, rather than passive, choices, anticipatory regret may bias a person toward inaction. People may believe, irrationally, that by accepting a default choice passively they are avoiding making a decision and thereby minimizing their responsibility for the outcomes of that choice.
I know how painful any simple decision can be for the person who is assailed by a biochemical storm in the limbic system (the brain’s emotional center). You brace yourself for any sentence that ends with a question mark and requires a response. Panic descends. “Oh God, no, not another decision!” That’s why tasks like grocery shopping can be so laborious and humbling for a person in a depressed state.
Like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, I have been without a brain for about six months now, trying my best to make decisions despite my inability to assess situations and facts accurately. I thought I’d share a few techniques that I’ve been using to help me arrive at a “yes” or “no,” “plastic” or “paper” response when my brain can’t help me.
1. Let Someone Else Decide
I know this sounds like the pansy’s way out. I reserve it for those times when I’m completely disabled by my depression.
Earlier this year, I had three weeks where any kind of minor decision incited so much panic in me that I couldn’t stop obsessing and crying. I was overwhelmed with fear and regret and therefore terrified to make even a simple decision. During this period, I removed myself as best as I could from every decision and had my husband decide for me.
This included big decisions — like starting TMS and determining how much to continue the treatment — as well as smaller decisions, like whether or not I was capable of going to my cousin’s wedding shower and how I would get there.
For three weeks, I essentially gave my husband the power to make most of my decisions, and told myself that I was going to have to trust him and then let go. Even if you’re not in crisis mode, it can be helpful to give your brain a break and have other people make decisions for you — especially if they aren’t all that important, like where to go for lunch or what day to meet up for coffee.
2. Flip a Coin
This is my standard way of making a decision when I’m depressed. I flip a coin so often when I’m in an episode that sometimes I get scared I’m turning into Rain Man and will soon be counting straws.
But it’s a clean, easy way to make a decision on just about anything when your brain won’t cooperate.
Sometimes for the bigger decisions, I will incite the help of my deceased father or God or someone else in heaven, asking for a little guidance, and then flip the coin.
Then the trick is letting it go and not continuing to flip, looking for 3 out of 5, or 7 out of 10, or 82 out of 100. Sometimes, though, you find out what you really want to do because you’re disappointed with the result — which you wouldn’t have known had you not flipped the coin.
3. Go With Your First Instinct
Researchers say that our first thought is often our best, and that we’re right to trust our gut instincts. A University of Alberta study published in January 2011 in Cognition and Emotion found that the unconscious mind is smarter than we think, and can be a great motivator in working out future goals.
Of course when you’re depressed, it can be extremely difficult to discern that voice: The whisper is usually crowded out by SOS signals. When we do hear it, though, it’s best to go with it and try to do our best to arrest the insecurities and anxiety that follow it, trusting that science says that our first decision is the best one.
4. WWXD (What Would X Do?)
In the midst of a depressive cycle, most of us have self-confidence issues. We’re quite positive that we will screw up just about anything left up to us, which then leads us to the inability to make decisions.
That’s why I sometimes have to ask myself, “What would Mike do?” Mike is one of the wisest people I know on this planet. He makes great decisions. Or “What would Eric do?” My husband is also extremely insightful, grounded, and makes good decisions. Sometimes I’ll ask myself, “What would my doctor say?”
For example, I was recently deliberating on whether or not to volunteer at an event at my kids’ school. I very much wanted to — I want to be the type of mom who can pull off being the class mom, work a full-time job, be in great physical shape, and cook a gourmet, organic meal for her family each night.
But I know that right now I’m extremely fragile, and my first priority has to be getting well. I think that Mike, Eric, and my doctor would all tell me that there will be plenty of years that I can volunteer for all kinds of activities at school, but for right now, I should concentrate on getting blood work done, swimming, trying to sleep as much as I can, and writing my column. I think they would also say that I’m fine the way I am, even if I’m never class mom or a gourmet chef.
Join Project Hope & Beyond, a new depression community.
When an Inability to Make Decisions Is Actually Fear of Conflict
When a company’s planning and decision-making process involves a lot of meetings, discussions, committees, PowerPoint decks, emails, and announcements, but very few hard-and-fast agreements, I call that “decision spin”. Decisions bounce around the company, from group to group, up and down the hierarchy and across the matrix, their details and consequences changing as different stakeholders weigh in. Often, the underlying problem isn’t an inability to make decisions – it’s a tendency to avoid conflict.
Decision spin doesn’t prevent decisions from being made altogether. But they often don’t stick, because people hesitate to express their disagreements during the discussion. There is a lot of head nodding, smiling, and camaraderie — which is undermined later when participants don’t follow through on the decisions that they didn’t really buy into.
Decision spin can be incredibly frustrating at all levels of the organization. It also has a huge impact on cost, productivity, and customer service. For example, when managers at one company I worked with couldn’t agree on the best way (or the few best ways) to configure their sales management software, they ended up with dozens of variations, which not only increased licensing fees, but also made it much more difficult to coordinate sales across divisional or geographic lines. Similarly, when another company needed to reduce its expenses, the pain was spread like peanut butter across the different cost centers because the senior management team couldn’t reach a decision about where to focus — which meant that areas with growth potential lost as much muscle as those with less opportunity.
From the outside, of course, this kind of behavior looks silly. Why can’t managers — even at a very senior level — have open, honest and candid debates, work through their differences, and then reach agreement? That’s what they’re paid to do. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy, for two reasons:
One is that managers are people and have a very human desire to be liked. They want others to think well of them and not feel that they’re difficult to work with. They want to get along and seem like team players. So even when they disagree with something, they often hold back on expressing it too vociferously so as not to get into a fight. In fact, many managers I’ve talked to are afraid that disagreements might turn into uncomfortable battles that will damage or destabilize relationships. So they unconsciously pull their punches to keep things calm.
The second reason for avoiding conflict is that many managers lack the skills to engage in it constructively. Perhaps because of the psychological issues described above, these managers don’t get a lot of practice at conflict, or they’ve never been trained in conflict management. As a result, they miss some of the basic principles and tools necessary to engage in positive conflict, such as defining the overarching goal to be achieved, identifying common ground, focusing on the problem instead of the person, objectively listing points of agreement and disagreement, listening more than talking, and shifting from debating to problem-solving. While none of these principles are rocket science, they’re also not necessarily skills that everyone is born with. And in the absence of these skills, it’s easy for business conflicts and disagreements to quickly escalate into interpersonal tensions — which triggers the avoidance syndrome described above, and a continuation of decision spin.
Breaking this kind of cycle is not easy, particularly if it’s deeply engrained in the culture of your company, and in the emotional makeup of key senior leaders. However, if you want to address it — from wherever you are in the organization — here are two steps that you can take:
First, convene your team, or a group of colleagues, and talk about whether decision spin is an issue. If it is, discuss some real examples, how they played out, and the consequences for the company. Consider whether these are isolated instances or part of a recurring pattern, and what the payoff might be to reduce some of the spin. The key here is to avoid abstractions and build some awareness and alignment about the need to make improvements.
Once you’re in agreement that decision spin is worth attacking, work with your team or your colleagues to develop some ground rules for constructive conflict. These might include giving everyone two minutes to share his or her views; appointing someone to write down pros and cons of an issue; reminding everyone that disagreements are not personal attacks; setting a time limit for debates; or agreeing that decisions don’t get changed unilaterally. Obviously, this is not the same as full-blown conflict management training, but it’s a way to get started — and if you experience some success, it could create the readiness for additional developmental work.
Companies can’t afford to let decisions spin around with no resolution. Shortening that cycle, however, requires managers to understand that conflict should be embraced, rather than avoided.
Every day is filled with decisions. What to have for breakfast? What to wear today? Should I do my math homework first, or should I read first? Then there are the big decisions. Should I take this new job? Should I buy a house or rent one? Which college should I attend? For those with ADHD, indecisiveness is often a real problem. The inability to make a decision can leave them paralyzed. They might do nothing because they don’t have a clear idea of which path to follow.
The inability to make a decision might stem from executive functioning impairments. In an article on CHADD.org, Russell Barkley and Tom Brown, who have both done extensive research on ADHD, explain executive functioning differently, but both agree that it includes prioritizing, planning, organization, and self-regulation skills. The article also notes that deficits in executive functions and ADHD symptoms are commonly considered to be interrelated. Decision-making requires the ability to prioritize, plan, and self-monitor yourself to determine whether the process is working or should be revised.
Other symptoms of ADHD can also contribute to indecisiveness:
- People with ADHD often have a problem starting tasks.
- Some people with ADHD avoid complex problems or tasks that are unpleasant or uninteresting because of attentional difficulties.
There might also be the fear of making a wrong decision. Past failures might hold you back from moving forward. You might be afraid of making the wrong choice or worry that you will be judged. Sometimes, however, not making a choice means you give up your power. It allows someone else to make the decision for you.
The following are tips to help you become more decisive:
Categorize your decisions. When faced with a decision, decide if it is a small, medium, or large decision. Small decisions usually don’t have large consequences, and these are ones you should be able to make quickly, without too much analysis. Deciding what type of decision it is gives you an idea of how much thought and worry you should put into making it. You can ask yourself, “Will this matter in five minutes, five days, five months, or five years from now?” The answer might help you decide the category in which to put your decision.
Give yourself a time limit for making decisions. This becomes easier if you categorize them as in the previous tip. For small decisions, limit yourself to a few minutes and add to the time for larger decisions. Set a timer or put the deadline on your calendar. If you haven’t made a decision in that time, it might be helpful to talk it over with someone.
Think about what scares you about making decisions. Is it concern that you will make the wrong decision? If so, consider what will happen. Will it be consequential or a small inconvenience? Use this information to help you decide if a decision can be made quickly. Are you concerned about whether others will judge you? Consider whether their opinion is important in your life; if so, talk to them about the decision. If not, go ahead and make it. If you overcome your fear, your decision will be easier.
Give yourself credit for the decisions you do make. If you are always telling yourself, “I am not a good decision-maker,” think about the hundreds of decisions you successfully make each week: What should I wear? What route should I take to work? What movie should I see? Where should I go for lunch? Pat yourself on the back for making decisions every day and rephrase your thought to: “I make decisions all the time. I can make decisions.”
Get treated for ADHD. For some people with ADHD, treatment, including medication, helps ease the decision-making process. When ADHD symptoms are better managed and you aren’t quite so distracted or overwhelmed, decisions are easier.
Gather information. Before assessing your options, gather all pertinent information. Keep in mind that you can’t make a decision until you have all the information.
Make a pro-and-con chart. Look at what the potential benefits and costs of each decision are. Not every decision is going to offer the perfect choice, but you can look at which option has the best outcome.
Trust your instinct. If you keep coming back to one answer, or if one choice jumps out at you as the best choice, trust that it is the right choice to make, at least for now.
Remember that most choices are reversible. If you decide to take a job and it turns out not to be a good fit, you can look for another one. If you choose to move to an apartment and don’t like the noise from outside, you can find another one and not renew the lease. Most decisions can be adjusted, modified, or reversed.
See More Helpful Articles:
How ADHD Symptoms Manifest in Adults
Understanding Brain Fog in Adults with ADHD
6 Ways Adult ADHD Comes Across As Selfishness
Strategies for Managing Adult ADHD
Why Is It So Hard? I Need Someone To Make A Decision For Me
By Sarah Fader
Updated December 06, 2018
Reviewer Lauren Guilbeault
All day, every day there are decisions to be made. Some are simple and some are difficult. Should I wear black or brown shoes today? What should I eat for lunch? Which movie should I see? Paper or plastic? These may seem silly to some people, but when you are depressed, even making the smallest decision can seem impossible. So, if you are having a hard time making any decision, even the small ones, you may be suffering from clinical depression.
What is Clinical Depression?
Clinical depression is one of the most common mental health disorders there is. In fact, almost 8% of the American population has depression. That is almost 15 million people! Women are twice as likely to have clinical depression as men and the highest rate of depression was found in women between 40 and 59 years of age. One of the most common signs of depression is difficulty making decisions. Some of the other signs of depression are:
- Feelings of unexplained sadness
- Loss of interest in favorite activities
- Withdrawing from friends and family
- Changes in sleep (sleeping less or more than usual)
- Feeling agitated or restless
- Extreme fatigue
- General chronic aches and pains
- Trouble concentrating
- Eating less or more than usual
- Crying episodes
- Lack of motivation or enthusiasm
- Suicidal thoughts
What Causes This Problem?
One of the reasons that people who are depressed have trouble making decisions is because they are not as motivated as they used to be. The reward of making any decision does not seem important, so you basically just do not care one way or the other. Some experts claim that the prefrontal and medial cortex in the brain is impaired when someone is clinically depressed and this causes the impaired decision making ability. One study showed that the process of making decisions is affected by the severity of the depression a person is suffering from. Whatever the reason, there is help for you if you have this problem.
Anxiety May Contribute
Anxiety can be defined as a physiological, behavioral, and psychological reaction occurring at the same time. If you are experiencing anxiety, you may experience worry, fear, isolation, or general worry. You also may experience indecision. You may have fear that you make the wrong decision and overthinking/overanalyze any choice that you make. Seeking help from a therapist is the best option if you feel as though you are experiencing anxiety symptoms. Your therapist will likely work with you using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT. The crux of this theory is that our cognitions or thoughts contribute to our feelings and thoughts which then impacts our mood, or in this case inability to decide. One aspect of treatment may be to work on changing negative thinking and exploring where the fear of decision making comes from.
What You Can Do
Those who suffer from clinical depression usually do not have the motivation to get help. You may just not want to get out of bed at all. Luckily, there are websites with over two thousand trained and licensed therapists and counselors who can help you with this and you do not even have to leave your bed. All you need is a phone or other electronic device where you can login to one of these sites and you can get therapy right there in bed. Of course, it is not healthy for you to stay in bed all the time but- one step at a time.
Is Online Therapy Effective?
Actually, online depression therapy is very effective and may be the only answer for those who just do not have the motivation to get up and leave the bed, let alone leave the house. One of the best treatments for depression is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which can be done online right from the comfort of your home.
So, you do not even have to get dressed. Of course, if you have severe depression that requires medication you will eventually have to see a psychiatrist in person because they cannot prescribe medication online. However, when it comes to depression and making decisions, you have to take it one step at a time.