Are you having trouble thinking clearly lately? Have you recently struggled with making up your mind? Are you constantly anxious about what fate the future holds? If so, you’re not alone.
More than one-third of Americans (36 percent) said they sometimes get so stressed out by the coronavirus pandemic that they seem unable to make basic choices, like what to wear and what to eat. Another third (35 percent) say COVID-related stress has impacted their ability to make major life decisions.
These recent widespread cases of decision-making difficulty appear to hit younger adults more than older generations, and are shown to be particularly hard on parents. Almost half of parents (47 percent) reported more stress with both day-to-day decisions and major life decisions compared to pre-pandemic stress levels.
Fear of the future was a common theme. The survey found that nearly two-thirds of adults (63 percent) were stressed over what might happen in the next few months. Around half of respondents (49 percent) felt even more impaired by decision-making fatigue. They said the pandemic makes planning for their future feel impossible.
APA researchers say it’s the overwhelming uncertainty of recent times that has resulted in “decision-making fatigue.” We’re so burned out by all the considerations we’re constantly forced to make in this new normal, we don’t have the mental energy to do much more.
“For many, the pandemic has imposed the need for constant risk assessment, with routines upended and once trivial tasks recast in light of the pandemic. Many people ask, ‘What is the community transmission in my area today and how will this affect my choices? What is the vaccination rate? Is there a mask mandate here?’ When the factors influencing a person’s decisions are constantly changing, no decision is routine. And this is proving to be exhausting,” the APA report states.
Living under the looming threat of a highly contagious and potentially fatal disease has people primarily worried about their physical health, but the pandemic has also taken a significant mental toll. The disease, and the official response to it, has left an undeniable wake of tragically poor decision-making, as demonstrated by rises in suicides, drug abuse, and domestic violence.
The pandemic has contributed to the overwhelming state of decision-making fatigue through ongoing social restrictions, constantly fluctuating mask rules, and fear of losing employment due to vaccine mandates.
In October, researchers concluded that one factor in particular drove our worry and angst: the rise in disease. An article in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s journal, MMWR, found that mental disturbance scores directly reflected changes in COVID-19 cases.
“The relative increases and decreases in frequency of reported symptoms of anxiety and depression at both the national and state levels mirrored the national weekly number of new COVID-19 cases during the same period,” researchers said.
After nearly two years under a state of alert, there are several signs of life returning to normal. But the stress level for many still remains high. According to Dr. Nina Cerfolio, a board-certified psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and assistant clinical professor at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, even after the rollout of the vaccine, the severity of scores for both anxiety and depression remain higher than pre-pandemic levels.
“Similarly, the pandemic has increased my existing psychiatric patients’ symptoms of anxiety and depression and has greatly increased the number of psychiatric referrals that I receive for impaired functioning,” Cerfolio said. “Symptoms to look out for are difficulty coping, irritability, impaired concentration and feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and worthlessness.”
Children also have shown to have suffered mentally and emotionally from the pandemic. Cerfolio points to a 46-country study by Save the Children that found that more than 8 in 10 kids have experienced increased negative feelings, and one-third of families have experienced violence at home.
“As a result of remote learning, children have experienced disruptions in their education, suffer from a lack of developing crucial social learning skills, have higher school dropout rates, and experience feeling alienated,” Cerfolio said.
Fear of the Future/Finding Focus
To cope with all the COVID-related stress and to model better behavior for the children who might be looking to you for guidance, Cerfolio recommends the same time-tested measures that have always been used to promote calm and focus, such as meditation and deep breathing. She also endorses the basic building blocks for creating a healthy mind and body.
“Daily exercise, eating a healthy diet to maintain your physical health, and doing those things that bring joy are vital,” she said. “Reaching out to help others more in need can decrease our sense of isolation and create feelings of being better interconnected.”
But some nagging thoughts may seem too loud to tune out. What if we face a more deadly variant? What if cases rise and health officials impose more lockdowns? What if the pandemic lasts another two years—or longer?
Even if you don’t personally suffer from COVID-induced decision fatigue, just knowing that it exists can help you have compassion for those who do. And if merely hearing about the spread of a disease can tax the mind, consider the stress of those who confront an infection head on.
Charlie Mitchell sits in a hospital room while her 4-year old son sleeps on the bed next to her. The boy has been diagnosed with COVID-19, and Mitchell says he’s become the first child to be treated for the disease in her city’s hospital. Children don’t typically suffer from COVID, but Mitchell’s son has added complications: Down Syndrome, leukemia, and the symptoms of an additional infection.
“To say this is a test of my resilience and mental well-being is an understatement,” Mitchell said. “We successfully self-isolated during 2020 with the support of family and friends. We have done everything we could to avoid getting to this place. However, an outbreak of COVID at my son’s school saw two-thirds of the class absent and it felt like a matter of time. Here we are.”
Mitchell says her son is stable and making progress, but she can’t help but worry and feel her mind start to run away.
“My thoughts were going to some pretty dark places, and I could feel the panic rising in my body,” she said.
Thankfully, Mitchell understands that fear doesn’t help support her son. She has worked as a professional coach for 20 years and now finds herself relying on the same techniques she’s used with her clients.
“I’m grateful that I know the warning signs in my mind and in my body: my thoughts go into the future and usually worst-case scenarios, my heart rate increases, my breath gets short, sharp, and shallow, my mouth gets dry,” Mitchell said.
So how do you get a handle on a worried mind intent on predicting an ugly future? Mitchell starts with calming her body.
“I lower my shoulders and put them back a little. I sit a bit straighter and make sure my feet are flat on the floor. This helps my lungs to expand naturally, so I can breathe more deeply and reassure my body that there is not an emergency right now,” she said.
Next, she shakes off all the what-ifs and worst-case scenarios and focuses on the now.
“What can I see? What can I hear? What can I touch, smell, and taste?” Mitchell said. “I see my son is stable. He is calm and peaceful. He is safe and warm. He is well-fed, and sometimes healing just takes a little time.”
According to Mitchell, being in the future gets her mind lost in tragic thoughts, the vast majority of which will never happen. As a consequence, she misses what’s really going on in the present.
“I am exhausting my mind and my body. I make silly mistakes. I forget simple things, like drinking water to keep myself hydrated and taking a few minutes to sit in silence. I also don’t notice what is actually going on right now with my son,” she said.
Once she’s in the present, Mitchell has the mental capacity to acknowledge her blessings and the real things that can be done to improve the situation in the moment.
“I miss this when I am lost in my own world of future imagined disasters. I miss the gifts that are here in the present,” she said.
A Change in Perspective
How else can we find comfort and stability in an increasingly uncertain world? Dr. Debanjan Banerjee, a consultant geriatric psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, says it’s crucial that we address the fear and decision-making breakdown that characterizes COVID fatigue. He offers a few strategies to protect and preserve your mental health.
First, shift your perspective.
“How you frame things makes a huge difference in your mood,” Banerjee said. “It’s only natural that most people tend to focus on the negative aspects, but you should try to steer your mindset in a different direction. So instead of saying to yourself, ‘I can’t go on anymore,’ try shifting it to something like ‘This won’t last forever and things will get better eventually,’” Banerjee said.
Next, let your worries work to your advantage.
“Worrying is a normal thing to feel, but dwelling on it too much can cause stress and anxiety. Why not let your worries motivate you into making some positive changes in your day-to-day life? If you’re worried about losing your job during the pandemic, you can counter that by updating your resume and checking out job listings. In case the worst happens, you are more prepared and more equipped to handle the situation,” he said.
Banerjee also echoes Mitchell’s advice: Fight the temptation to entertain all the worst what-ifs of the future, and hold your mind firmly in the present.
“It’s understandably hard not to let your mind wander until you worry yourself to exhaustion, but try to stay where you are right now and focus on that,” Banerjee said. “Remind yourself that nobody knows what the future holds and all that worrying will not change things. Instead of worrying about what will happen in the next few months or a year from now, try to focus on what you can do this week.”