How to deal with decisions that make you feel sick

There are certain decisions that make you feel sick – should you take that new job, should you go off and study, is now the time to travel? The intense fear comes from worrying that you’ll make the wrong choice and this “paralysis by analysis” can strike us at any time.

Why do we struggle so much and torment ourselves?

The fear of making the wrong choice or mistake can make you feel sick. Some of us hate making decisions precisely because of the fear of setting something irrevocably in motion that can never be rectified. Maybe we made a mistake once before that was a shocking decision and we fear regret. You might even be telling yourself you are bad at making decisions.

You might be decisive about the minor things in life, granted, but when asked to pick between jobs, houses, careers, schools, financial packages, countries – you freeze. The ramifications of such a choice cause your gut to churn. In a way, it’s completely understandable. We read news stories all the time about people who’ve made a fatal decision (often through no fault of their own). They got on the wrong bus, they took a flight that never returned, they bought a house with incurable damp. Too often, there isn’t time to make a fully-informed decision.

Psychological paralysis can keep us stuck

The delay in deciding sometimes makes it worse. We procrastinate, thinking “oh I must decide” but delaying and being unable to decide leads to bad feelings; it keeps us stuck in the past by predicting we will not cope in the future. Our subconscious or conscious thoughts are like a spell: “This is going to be a nightmare”, “I’m freaking out”, “I can’t handle this”, “I don’t know what to do” or “I wish I didn’t have to make this decision now”. 

What can we do about it?

What can you do when you’re presented with a difficult choice?

Here are some simple ways to minimise bad feelings when making decisions:

1. Reframe – break the attachment to negative consequences

Instead of focusing on the negatives, get into gear and do some research about the decision. Become more informed, discuss and get advice. Be sure that you’ve researched the decision as best you can in the circumstances. Ask around, get what information you can, especially if something’s nagging at you, and you haven’t been able to pinpoint it. Sometimes you’re procrastinating for very good, if not yet consciously identified, reasons. Talk your dilemma over with someone you trust and this will help you detach from negative consequences. Research the pros and cons to the best of your ability (if you have the time).

2. Realign to guiding goals

Remind yourself of your main goals, in life and at work. This will help you with your decisions because you can align your decision with your main guiding goals. If the decision clashes with your goals and values, and your gut definitely doesn’t like what you’re considering then don’t proceed for now.

3. Trick yourself with a quiz

You can create a quiz for yourself. Write out a few questions, walk away a few minutes then come back and write out answers. For example:

  • Name three people that would be good to talk this through with and say why.
  • List three reasons this is a great decision – the pros.
  • List three reasons this decision is a poor one – the cons.
  • List five consequences of your decision then put them in two columns – “okay” and “worries me”
  • When I make this decision who will I tell and how will it feel on a scale of 1 (not a good feeling) to 5 (feels great)?
  • Complete this sentence. When this decision is finally made I will ……

4. Live it a little: take a lucky dip

Write out your answer to the decision you’re making – there may be more than two answers. Put them in a hat and choose one. Now live with that for a few hours – choose an amount of time and live it as if it is true. See how you feel.

Now, set yourself a deadline for the decision. Sometimes you really have to take the plunge on the basis of not much information – and no, there won’t always be safety nets beneath you either. Surround yourself with some padding if the decision warrants it – for example, insurance, savings, expert advice if the going proves difficult – but remind yourself you are the captain of your ship and you’ll look after your cargo, no matter what.

5. Worst-case-scenario desensitisation

What is the worst-case scenario? You fail? You lose something? You make a mistake? Keep going over the worst-case scenario for 30 minutes. Go for a walk and face it. You know what it is and although the dye may be cast, you will take responsibility

It’s tempting for some people to say, “oh well, I made my decision – now the dye is cast”.  They adopt a fatalistic attitude, which is almost worse than the period of indecision that preceded it. It’s just as annoying when people (well-meaning friends plus some enemies) like to wag the metaphorical finger: “You made your bed, now lie in it”.  Not necessarily so. We are not omniscient; sometimes the best decisions and intentions go awry. This is true particularly for those awful crossroad-type decisions (often about a relationship or career move or family member). Some decisions, like babies, should never be left to muddle along unsupervised. Keep watch, as events can veer rapidly, requiring you to dodge an unexpected black swan or two. Be ready to adapt behaviour, should circumstances alter.

By now, you could be thinking the above only seems to apply to tricky or bad decisions. You’d be right, because obviously if a decision plays out in your favour, then life is pretty good.

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace. See the rest of Eve’s blogs here.

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