New Research On How Anxiety & Depression Affect Decision Making

mindbodygreen Editorial Assistant By Sarah Regan
mindbodygreen Editorial Assistant

Sarah Regan is a writer, registered yoga instructor, and Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Portrait of A Stressed Woman

If you struggle with anxiety or depression, change can be a challenge. But according to new research out of U.C.–Berkeley, the key to making good decisions in the face of transitions could lie in remembering what you've done right in the past rather than what you've done wrong.

Here's what this study found and why it's significant (and potentially helpful) for anyone with anxiety and depression.

Revisiting previous research.

Researchers from Berkeley had previously established that those with high levels of anxiety tend to make more mistakes when forced to make decisions in rapidly changing environments (in this case, during computerized assignments). Those without anxiety, on the other hand, fared much better when adjusting to change.

They theorized that this was the case because when people are faced with shifting circumstances, we often call upon what's known as probabilistic decision making. This involves recalling previous outcomes from other situations to help us make a current decision. But for people with anxiety and depression, the tendency is to fixate on negative outcomes from the past, which makes it harder to make good decisions in the present.

The more emotionally resilient someone is, the more they can "focus on what gave them a good outcome, and in many real-world situations that might be key to learning to make good decisions," explains study senior author and professor of neuroscience Sonia Bishop in a news release.


New findings on how depression and anxiety play a role in decision making.

In their latest research, the team gathered 86 participants, some with clinical anxiety and depression, some with symptoms but no diagnoses, and some without symptoms. They were led through a task that resulted in either a small electrical shock or a monetary prize.

And when the task began to get more volatile and rapidly changing, researchers found those with depression and anxiety, including those with just some symptoms, had a harder time keeping up, indicating they weren't learning from their mistakes as well.

"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 says. "People with anxiety and depression, on the other hand, are less able to adapt to these changes."

The takeaway.

According to Bishop, the results of this study suggest people with anxiety and depression could benefit from cognitive therapies that help shift the focus to positive outcomes instead of negative ones.

When someone is struggling with anxiety and depression, things like rumination, dwelling on past mistakes, and subsequently allowing those mistakes to inform new decisions, is not uncommon. But by remembering the things they've gotten right, they could improve both their decision-making skills and resilience going forward.

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