The options are endless! This is usually a sentiment that brings on excitement and relief. But other times, it can fill you with dread.
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If you’ve ever felt the latter to an extensive degree, you may have experienced something called analysis paralysis. This is a type of overthinking that makes you feel unable to make a decision — no matter how big or small.
While weighing your options when making a decision is something we all do, it can get to a point where too much analysis does more harm than good.
Registered psychotherapist Natacha Duke, MA, RP, discusses what analysis paralysis is, how to know if you’re experiencing it and ways you can overcome it.
Sometimes referred to as “choice paralysis,” analysis paralysis causes you to have an intense, emotional reaction when faced with making a decision. While it’s not a medical diagnosis, it’s a symptom often tied to mental health conditions like anxiety, depression and ADHD. But it can also happen even if you’re not dealing with a mental health issue.
“In some cases, analysis paralysis can lead to mental health difficulties, so it’s a little bit of a cycle in that way,” says Duke.
Let’s say you’re faced with a decision to book a flight to go overseas. You go online and search for your destination and about 10 options come up for different airlines (and that’s just the first search engine result page).
While you may want to choose one airline for certain perks, another one is cheaper. You start weighing the pros and cons, and before you know it, hours have gone by. Instead of making the decision and buying a ticket, you close your laptop and walk away from the task completely.
This is how your decision-making gets affected when you’re in a hyper-indecisive state like this. When analysis paralysis hits, you become so wrapped up in the different options that you can’t make even one decision. It quite literally causes you to freeze in your tracks.
So, how do you know that your analysis paralysis isn’t just you being a type-A individual? Obviously, making tough decisions is a part of life and we’ve all felt indecisive at one point or another.
“Oftentimes, what we see with this phenomenon is that people start to doubt themselves or question themselves,” explains Duke. “And they think that other people know more than them or other people are more capable of making the decision.”
In other words, if decision-making starts to affect your self-esteem and well-being, you should see this as a red flag.
Here are some signs that you’re dealing with analysis paralysis when faced with a decision:
While analysis paralysis can definitely feel annoying, it can also become a health concern. “In our lives, we need to have decision-making skills to be able to function at our optimal level,” notes Duke. “If we’re not able to do that, it can cause physical stress symptoms like heart palpitations, insomnia, migraines, even digestive issues as well.”
Analysis paralysis can happen due to a variety of factors, but it’s common for it to be a symptom of a specific mental disorder. So, it’s important to understand and talk about any other mental health symptoms you may be experiencing to help figure out the root cause of your analysis paralysis.
If you’re often haunted by not being able to make a decision, you may be wondering if it’s tied to an attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder (ADHD) diagnosis. It’s true that being in a paralyzed state of indecision can cause you to distract yourself and procrastinate — both of which are factors in ADHD.
According to the Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA), it’s common for people with ADHD to go through feelings of intense burnout when they’re faced with too many decisions. This can also be triggered by other things such as having too many thoughts at once or being overwhelmed by too many tasks.
“The reason for this is that a lot of people with ADHD have trouble performing some executive functioning tasks, such as time management,” Duke explains. “So, there’s a lot of different things that tend to be started but not completed. It can start to accumulate over time and cause someone to feel overwhelmed by everything they feel like they need to do.”
Analysis paralysis can also tie in with anxiety disorders. Experiencing anxiety often means you’re looking toward the future and worrying about what might or might not happen. Duke refers to this as “what if” thinking, which can often be the fuel to the fire under analysis paralysis.
“It could be that anxiety is causing your analysis paralysis because you become so worried about making the wrong choice,” she says. In this sense, you start to worry about the outcome of your decision before you’ve even made it.
Your mind might start racing with questions like: What if I do this and this bad thing happens? What if I try this and I fail? What if it doesn’t work out in my favor? What if this is too much of a risk?
“We have this important decision that we feel we have to make, and we’re not making it and then that also causes anxiety in itself,” Duke adds.
Finally, analysis paralysis can also manifest if you have depression. This is because when you’re feeling particularly down, it affects your motivation and confidence, which can make decision-making really difficult.
“Oftentimes, with depression, we see this indecisiveness happen when making simple decisions,” notes Duke. “Mainly because someone’s mood and self-esteem are low.”
Even something seemingly “easy” like getting out of bed or brushing your teeth can feel like a huge mountain to climb if you’re experiencing depressive symptoms. This can lead to you avoid making decisions and falling behind on tasks, which can then cause you to feel more overwhelmed and depressed.
Even with smaller decisions, like grocery shopping or choosing what to wear in the morning, it can be even more helpful to just force yourself to make a quick decision to keep yourself moving. Duke explains that doing this quick-decision practice is especially good with smaller decisions because the stakes aren’t as high.
Try practicing this with small decisions throughout your life like:
“Give yourself maybe five minutes in front of the shampoo aisle or the protein powder aisle and really just try to make those simple decisions with a time limit,” suggests Duke. The key here is to not get stuck. “This way you’re not feeling bogged down and you’re building your confidence to make other decisions in the future.”
At the same time, there’s also big decisions that need to be made in life that are a tad more stressful than shopping. Duke recommends approaching these with a reassuring attitude toward yourself.
If you’re suddenly feeling overwhelmed that the decision you’re faced with is too hard or impossible, take a step back and remind yourself that it may not be as impossible as you think.
“For the bigger decisions, I think the first thing you can do is just think about the times in your life where you’ve made good decisions,” says Duke. “And remind yourself how you were able to get through those and navigate those.”
A pros and cons list can sometimes be helpful when making a decision, but there’s a point where you can start overwhelming yourself. Duke recommends having a healthy balance of weighing your options, but also trusting your instinct.
“You really want to try and avoid getting yourself into a situation where you have information overload,” she says. “If you start considering so many different options in so many different scenarios, that actually is what can cause you to feel immobilized.”
Yes, it’s important to ask for advice and refer to other resources to help guide your decision, but you should also make sure your mind is clear and at ease.
It’s safe to say that uncertainty is a part of life, but Duke recommends trying to be at peace with this fact as best as you can. A lot of times, not knowing how a certain project or life situation will turn out is the very thing stopping us from making a decision and moving forward. But you can’t let uncertainty haunt you and cause you stress.
In the same way, Duke points out the importance of not framing every decision as having a “right” or “wrong” answer — because this just pumps up the pressure even more. “Oftentimes, we create this dichotomy of, ‘I don’t want to make the wrong choice,’ or ‘I have to make the right choice,’ but oftentimes, it’s just a choice,” she clarifies. And either choice could often bring you just as much joy.
When in a state of analysis paralysis, the worst part is when you start to really panic and feel overwhelmed and burnt out. At times, this can lead to something called decision fatigue, where — big surprise — you get so overwhelmed by all the decisions you have to make that you can’t make any choices. So, if you find yourself deliberating with yourself back and forth, try taking a break and stepping away from the situation completely.
Get out of your head a bit by trying relaxation techniques like:
“Anything you can do that will bring a sense of self-soothing or self-compassion is important,” encourages Duke.
If you know you’re prone to getting analysis paralysis every day, try doing five minutes of meditation first thing in the morning to help get your mind and body in a calm state that’s ready to make some choices.
While analysis paralysis is often associated with decision-making and productivity issues rather than a direct health concern, there are situations where seeking support from a healthcare provider might be beneficial.
“Whether it’s one big decision or a lot of smaller decisions, I think that it’s worth talking to a therapist about your analysis paralysis,” recommends Duke. “Even one or two sessions can help you get some tools to tackle decision-making in a more optimal way.”
Here are a few signs that indicate it may be appropriate to consult a healthcare professional:
Remember, healthcare providers, including primary care physicians, psychologists and psychiatrists, are trained to address various aspects of your health, including mental well-being. If you believe that analysis paralysis is causing significant distress or impairing your ability to function, seeking professional help is a proactive step toward finding effective strategies and support.