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ANXIETY MAY INHIBIT RATIONAL DECISION MAKING... BUT WE CAN HELP!

by Jessica Cohen

Physiological consequences of anxiety: Most of us know the dreaded feelings of anxiety. Even if you don't suffer from clinical anxiety, you may recognize how certain triggers make you more aggravated or worried. These triggers may affect our performance, body temperature, or ability to concentrate or remember information. When one feels anxious, he or she might act out and become very angry and defensive or might coil up and turn in - not being able to act or react at all.

Anxiety affects decision making: Our brains are affected by these triggers and might process information differently and contrary to how we would respond if we were not in an anxious state. Neuroscience research has suggested that anxiety affects our decision-making ability. Specifically, research indicates that the anterior cingulate cortex (the "ACC") is involved with decision-making.

A Neuroscience Crash Course: The ACC:

  • The ACC can be divided into two subregions:

1. The cognitive (dorsal) ACC is involved in executive functioning, decision-making, motivation, and conflict detection; and

2. The emotional (rostral) ACC is sensitive to assessment of emotional information and emotion regulation.

  • The cognitive region of the ACC governs our ability to flexibly adjust our behaviour based on internally maintained goals and away from behaviours that are more automatic/emotionally driven and may distract from these goals.
  • Usually, in normal situations, both the cognitive and emotional subregions of the ACC are activated however, fMRI research reveals that when the emotional ACC is highly activated there may be a decrease in activity to the cognitive ACC.
  • In other words, if one is in a heightened emotional state, say due to anxiety, his or her brain might be getting less activation in the region responsible for rational thought and decision-making. In turn, one's emotions may overtake his or her ability to act rationally.

Anxiety and Family Law Disputes: Being involved in a family law dispute is a stressful ordeal. The dispute is very personal and important to the individuals involved and likely elicits feelings of anxiety and stress. Emotions may overtake your otherwise rational thought and may negatively impact your decision-making ability. This is problematic because it is very important that you are able to effectively process information and make well-informed decisions when dealing with such an important proceeding.

So What Can We Do?: In our practice as a family lawyers, we often find that our clients are much better at reasoning through problems and making decisions if they are calm rather than feel pressured, angered, or provoked by the other party. If overcome by anxiety, even the most sophisticated client can react based on emotion rather than focus on his or her long-term objectives. We understand how important it is to recognize clients' anxiety and emotional triggers and to employ strategies to help them reduce its interference.

Strategies: By neutralizing your emotional state you can facilitate activation of both subregions of the ACC and encourage effective conflict resolution motivated by rational thought and reason.

The following strategies can help you redirect your thinking when overcome by anxiety or emotion in order to promote clear thinking and effective decision-making:

1. Take a breath. Although it might seem cliché, stopping and taking a deep breath and counting to ten is a very effective tool. Research has shown that controlled breathing can affect our nervous system and decrease symptoms of anxiety. Additionally, counting may distract from the anxiety-provoking trigger and might decrease emotional hijack.

2. Slap an elastic band on your wrist. During high anxiety situations, like court or mediation, I sometimes suggest that a client wears an elastic band on his or her wrist. I tell him to snap the band against his wrist if the opposing party does something upsetting that triggers him into an emotional state. The snapping of the band acts as a jolt to remind the client that he is feeling upset. By acknowledging that he is feeling upset he might be able to reduce the emotional state. Also, this snapping acts as a cue to me to possibly request a break to allow the client to compose himself.

3. Write a list of objectives down in advance. Anxiety might overtake your ability to make effective decisions in line with your objectives. Accordingly, I like to ask my clients to write a list of their objectives, and reasons for such, before any all-party meeting, mediation/arbitration, or court appearance. In advance, I make sure to work with my client to adjust her expectations to ensure that her desired outcomes are grounded in law. If the client reacts out of emotion/anxiety, I draw her attention to the list to remind her of her true objectives.

4. Distraction. If you are anxious, take a break and do something unrelated to the situation. Emotional regulation research suggests that distraction is an effective technique in reducing anxiety. Excuse yourself from the anxiety provoking situation and look at pictures on your phone, listen to a song, or check social media. Don't spend this time discussing or ruminating over the anxiety-provoking event. Let yourself escape it. This should help ground you and make you calmer.

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