Pandemic-Related Stress Can Cause Decision Fatigue: What to Know

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Feeling overwhelmed or frustrated when making decisions is a common effect of extreme stress. Kike Arnaiz/Offset Images
  • COVID-19-related stress has led many Americans to feel decision fatigue, a phenomenon in which the ability to make decisions deteriorates.
  • People experiencing decision fatigue may have difficulty making even the most basic decisions, such as what to eat or what to wear.
  • Fatigue, frustration, anger, depression, and anxiety, when faced with decisions are all signs of decision fatigue.

For the past two years, the world has been in a near-constant state of being on the edge. To stay safe from COVID-19, we’ve been faced with a number of complex decisions that have had repercussions not only for ourselves but for loved ones and society at large.

Experts say needing to make so many decisions at once, especially under stressful circumstances, can lead to decision fatigue, a phenomenon in which the ability to make decisions deteriorates.

“On average we will make more than 35,000 decisions a day,” said Ken Yeager, PhD, director of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience (STAR) Program in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Some require little attention like what will I wear today or what will I have for lunch. Others are much more complex and have greater weight in their impact.”

Yet, throughout the pandemic, even some of the smallest decisions often carried tremendous weight.

“In the beginning of the pandemic everyday decisions seemed overwhelming,” Yeager said. “Do I go to the store? Should we take the kids out in public, do we wear masks and gloves? Is it safe to go to the grocery store?”

As the pandemic progressed, most people became more comfortable with some decisions but less comfortable with others.

“For example do I get the vaccine or booster? Is it safe to fly? Should we cancel our vacation or our wedding or graduation party? For many, these decisions have felt like giving away bits and pieces of their life,” Yeager said.

For many, the result of so much stressful decision-making was exhaustion. One of the ways this extreme fatigue can manifest is having trouble making even simple decisions.

According to a survey from the American Psychological Association published in October 2021, 32 percent of Americans had trouble with even basic decision-making, such as what to wear or what to eat due to COVID-19-induced stress.

Younger age groups, parents of children 18 years or younger, and BIPOC individuals were more likely to report difficulty making decisions and higher pandemic-related stress.

Feeling tired or even exhausted at the thought of making decisions are the primary signs of decision fatigue.

“When your brain and body is taxed from making multiple significant decisions in a short span of time, it sometimes needs time to decompress,” said Paraskevi Noulas, PsyD, a psychologist at NYU Langone Health. “So we reach a point where we don’t want to decide anything anymore. It’s as though the frontal lobe shuts down and our executive functioning skills are tapped out for the moment.”

Some people may experience decision fatigue as frustration, anger, anxiety, or depression. Individuals who are feeling burnt out emotionally may also experience changes in their behavior.

“They might disconnect from social events and perhaps be less productive or engaged at school or work,” Noulas said. “They might let little and big tasks slide which can be concerning as the tasks pile up.”

Psychosomatic symptoms such as nausea, headaches, chest tightness, a sense of lethargy may also come up.

Two years of collective upheaval is bound to take its toll on all aspects of society. Returning to a semblance of normal life will be different for each individual and family.

“If someone has significantly changed their life during the pandemic, such as moving to a new state or country, new job, newly married or separated/divorced, they’ll have to redefine what their new normal looks like,” Noulas said. “It might be harder naturally to make certain decisions that impact their life and their loved ones. Do I move back home? Do I place my child back in their prior school district?”

She encourages anyone struggling with complex decisions to take their time and feel out their options.

“There’s no clear right or wrong here and each person will travel their own path. Take the time you need to sort out next steps,” she said. “There’s no pressure to set an artificial deadline for yourself.”

If you’re feeling exhausted or living with decision fatigue from the pandemic, it’s important to know that it’s a completely normal reaction and that you are not alone.

“Be kind to yourself and recognize that we’ve all been through the wringer these past few years and the world stressors don’t abate,” Noulas said.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your daily decisions, Yeager recommends starting out with concentrating on the smallest ones first, like what you will have for breakfast or what you will wear for the day.

“Seek input from trusted loved ones in making more complex decisions,” he said. “And talk with others and understand you are not alone. There are many others experiencing exactly the same thing.”

Finally, don’t forget to take a break from life’s daily stresses and care for yourself.

“Carve out time for yourself, be it quiet alone time, socializing with a friend, taking a yoga class whatever works for you to slowly re-energize yourself and replenish your well again,” Noulas said.

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