When 'Analysis Paralysis' Becomes Clinical

Fear is healthy and natural. But what happens when the fear becomes a danger?

Fear is healthy and natural. But what happens when the fear becomes a danger?

This article is not intended to diagnose or provide treatment guidance for any mental health conditions. If you suspect you may be experiencing symptoms, please speak with a medical professional.

I spend a lot of time thinking about fear and how it drives a lot of our decision-making. It shapes a lot more of how we behave than we may realize.

Fear is healthy and natural. Instincts about danger keep the species alive, after all. Fear is what keeps us from, quite literally, not walking too close to the edge of a steep drop and urges us toward life-preserving actions like eating more salad than bacon.

But what happens when fear itself becomes the danger?

First, let’s just talk about ‘analysis paralysis’ 

Used colloquially to denote the over-analyzing or over-thinking that can prevent a person from making a decision or taking an action, you’ve probably experienced it yourself. If you’ve ever considered leaving a job that, by most accounts was a Good Job, one that came with the financial and prestige perks we’re all supposed to want, but maybe left you under-stimulated or wanting in some area, you may have been faced with a pro and con list that was unnervingly balanced. Without the scale tipping in one clear direction, it’s easy to become stuck in the decision. 

You find yourself debating the relative value of securityvs. fulfillment. It goes something like this: I hate this job. But I need the money. Money isn’t everything. But it’s a necessary evil. I don’t want to keep a job just to pay the bills. Then leave and try something more fulfilling. That’s selfish; I have a family and responsibilities. They want to see you happier. They want the lights to stay on. 

And on and on ... This tit-for-tat style of argument is unwinnable. Moreover, it’s an argument rooted in false equivalencies. The reasons to leave are primarily based on personal desire, that internal spark of hope that we can find happiness. Conversely, all the reasons to stay are fear-based (like not being broke, rejected by peers, and teetering on the edge of homelessness). When pitted against an unknowable future, all too often it’s the fear-based argument that ultimately prevails.

What is healthy fear?

A healthier relationship with fear is possible but requires some work. Learning to distinguish fear-based thoughts is a first step. Ask yourself, “What does this decision or direction bring up for me emotionally? Is it excitement? Nerves? Terror?” Then you can examine where the fear comes from. Is it fear of failing? Of being judged? Of closing doors on opportunities? Once you can openly recognize and articulate the source of your fear, you can begin to dismantle it. (We’ll cover that in a future article.)

Essentially, fear is healthy when it helps to guide us away from danger and toward safety. The voice that tells you leaving a Good Job without the certainty of adequate financial security is a healthy fear steering you away from financial ruin. It doesn’t mean you don’t take the leap; it just means you need a better plan to protect yourself.

On the other hand, fear becomes unhealthy if it keeps you tethered to a situation that is not beneficial for you. Excessive rumination and a focus on dreary potential outcomes can begin to veer into damaging thought processes and behaviors.

When to seek help

If you find yourself spending more time than usual on negative thoughts and uncontrolled emotions, you may wish to speak with your health care provider. Together, you and a qualified medical professional can identify if your fear has become something more serious and requires intervention.

Anxiety Disorders: The most common manifestation of uncontrolled fear is anxiety, known formally as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5thEdition (DSM-V), “Anxiety disorders include disorders that share features of excessive fear and anxiety and related behavioral disturbances. Fear is the emotional response to real or perceived imminent threat, whereas anxiety is anticipation of future threat.” When a fear becomes overwhelming or impacts your life in a specific, negative way, it may be classified as a phobia. 

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: The hallmark of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, short-handed as OCD, is the experience of recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges, or images that are unwelcomed by the affected individual. According to the DSM-V, the individual may also be impacted by “repetitive behaviors or mental acts (rituals or compulsions) that the person feels compelled to perform to lessen anxiety or discomfort.”

Depressive Disorders: A catchall for a variety of disruptive mood disorders, the DSM-V summarizes, “The common feature of all of these disorders is the presence of sad, empty, or irritable mood, accompanied by somatic and cognitive changes that significantly affect the individual’s capacity to function.”

Helpful Resources

Visit the DSM online for more on the above disorders: https://dsm.psychiatryonline.org/doi/book/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596

For more information on particular signs and symptoms, visit https://www.mentalhealth.gov/what-to-look-for

Mental Health America provides screening tools to help you identify if you are experiencing symptoms. Visit http://screening.mentalhealthamerica.net/screening-tools

If you are in crisis, please contact 911. If you need to talk, call 1‑800‑273‑TALK (8255) or Live Chat Online.