Should I wear this red dress for the party? Would it seem formal? I don’t want to come across as stuck up. How about this romper? Yes, this looks go… Wait. Didn’t I wear it to Anita’s birthday last month? Will she be there today? And what about these stilettos? They are a little slippery. What if I spill my drinks? God! That would be embarrassing. Flats sound better. But would flats even look good? What if everyone thinks I am a bore who can’t even afford a decent wardrobe? Ugh, this is too much. I will call them and say I can’t make it. I am sure they will understand.
Or will they?
By and large, overthinking is a normal part of the human condition. Now and then, everyone overthinks some of their decisions, especially when these are crucial decisions. For instance, whether to leave their job or have kids.
But, if you aren’t careful, this tendency may heighten to such an extent that it renders normal functioning impossible. That is the snare of Analysis Paralysis!
What is Analysis Paralysis?
According to Rachel Wright, LMFT, “Analysis paralysis is the state of over-analysing (or overthinking) a situation so that a decision is never made or action isn’t taken”.
This inclination towards overthinking is prone to lead to anxiety-depressive disorders (Nolen-Hoeksema 2000). It is a potentially deadly combination, which can render people incapable of even everyday tasks such as sleeping or choosing what to wear to a party.
Liar, liar, stuck in a quagmire.
Studies show a clear relation between overthinking decisions and anxiety disorders (Wilkinson et al, 2013). It is essential to understand why this link arises in the first place as that can provide us with vital clues in resolving it.
Generally speaking, there are several reasons why people tend to overthink their decisions. These include low confidence in decision-making capacities, fear of failure, traumatic experiences or merely the fear of losing out by making a wrong decision. However, in the end, the common factor that all these causes boil down to is fear.
Those with anxiety disorders are prone to Cognitive Distortions. These are lies surrounding reality that often lead to flawed perceptions. Nearly 50 types of Cognitive Distortions have been documented. The most common being Catastrophising, Black/White Thinking, thinking in Ifs and Shoulds — but that is a topic for future discussion. The vital fact to focus is that these Cognitive Distortions can cause people to believe that the consequence will be unfavourable, regardless of the option they choose.
When it comes to making decisions, no matter how insignificant, such patterns of thinking indicate a deep-seated sense of fear. To cope with this, people tend to rely upon over analysing the situation. That is because overthinkers believe their constant mental rehearsal is the best way they have to prepare themselves for all kinds of scenarios (Nolen-Hoeksema, Wisco, Lyubomirsky, 2008).
But, chances are the only thing it will lead to is greater confusion and fear and a state of Avoidance-Avoidance Conflict. Avoidance-avoidance conflict is a situation where taking a decision is unfeasible as all options are undesirable. As the conflict builds up, the person seeks to escape the situation by avoiding the decision entirely (Tversky and Shaffir, 1992).
Fear can be healthy if it steers us away from danger. But, as we just saw, an unhealthy sense of persistent fear can result in vicious circles of self-sabotage and avoidance behaviour.
How to resolve this conflict?
People with neurotic personalities who are Perfectionists are extremely likely to overthink their way into Analysis Paralysis. So it naturally follows that the first step to resolve this should be fixing this mental habit of Overthinking.
According to Catherine Pittman, author of Rewire Your Anxious Brain, “Telling yourself not to have a certain thought is not the way to not have the thought, you need to replace the thought.” Here, mindfulness is the key.
You need to be alert to the fluctuations in your mental state, especially to the thought patterns that trigger an anxiety spiral. Once you identify this you can, as Dr Pittman says, work on replacing them.
For this process, CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) techniques might come handy. These involve challenging or questioning your persistent negative thoughts and anxieties. For instance, let’s go back to the example we saw at the beginning of this article.
A person stuck in such a situation may ask themselves :
- Why do I attach so much importance to what everyone thinks of my fashion sense?
- Say I do end up embarrassing myself, appearing stuck up or stupid. Will that really be as irredeemably awful as I think it is?
- How can I guarantee with absolute certainty that things will go wrong? Why can’t everyone end up all right for a change?
Questions like these will help you realise the fallacies of your own logic. By exposing the lies in the perceptions that your brain feeds you, they break the grip of Cognitive Distortions. If you are too disturbed to engage in such questioning, try to distract yourself. Once you are calm enough, you can come back to these mindfulness techniques.
Yoga and meditation (which, by the way, also happen to sharpen mindfulness) have also proven to be helpful. According to a study led by Psychology Richard Chambers, these practices had a significantly positive effect on decreasing rumination and increased attention.
When it comes to decisions, it is equally important to trust your instincts.
Set a deadline within which you must arrive upon a decision and hold yourself accountable to it. Refuse to engage in any form of analysis once the deadline has been crossed. Take a risk and execute the decision. You will either make a mistake and learn from it or be successful and grow in confidence.
At the end of the day, it is important to remember that anxiety, just like everything else is a habit. And with dedicated effort, it too can be broken and replaced with healthier habits.
Note: Our articles are not meant to diagnose or treat any medical condition. If you think you have issues that are making everyday functions difficult, reach out to our free counselling service or talk to a mental healthcare professional.