Sarah is stressed. So much so that the 30-something professional, who lives in the New York City area and has been working strictly remotely for the past two years, is reorganizing her whole life so she can avoid making the most routine decisions, like what to eat or what to wear.
She’s taken to scheduling an exercise class first thing in the morning, so she’s forced to have breakfast and put on what she calls “real clothes.”
As she put it, “I’ve figured out how to force myself to do basic things that were second nature in pre-pandemic times.” When asked why she thought she was having so much trouble, she shrugged, then offered: “I suspect it has something to do with spending the past two years thinking my family and I could die if we went to the grocery store. I am glad we were very cautious and came through safely and no one in my family got Covid, but I wonder what the psychological toll has been.”
Sarah is not alone. A Harris poll conducted for the American Psychological Association found that nearly one-third of adults (32%) said they are sometimes so consumed by the pandemic that they struggle to make basic choices. Millennials were especially vulnerable, with nearly half (48%) of the demographic admitting they’re stressed over decisions, versus 37% of Gen Z, 32% of Xers and 14% of Boomers.
As the APA explained in its report “Stress in America,” the pandemic has ushered in a need for constant risk assessment, as individuals must constantly ask themselves questions like “What’s the transmission rate in my community today?” and “What are the rules here about masks?” The APA suggested that “when the factors influencing a person’s decisions are constantly changing, no decision is routine. And this is proving to be exhausting.”
The study “proves what many of us have already experienced firsthand: the pandemic has taken a toll on our mental health and well-being, which makes it exponentially more difficult for many to complete simple tasks and make seemingly normal decisions,” said Benjamin Miller, president of Well Being Trust, a California-based foundation dedicated to advancing mental health in the U.S. “In times of stress or danger, our biological response is to prioritize basic needs such as health and safety, which is why we see more materialistic decisions, such as what to wear, getting moved to the back burner.”
Miller proposes that so many are experiencing this type of stress because they’ve been separated from their support systems, which we typically use to help us process information and make decisions. “Without those consistent contacts, decision making may be a bit more difficult for some,” he explained. “Millennials have been particularly impacted by decision fatigue as they navigate caregiving duties for both younger children and older parents, on top of their regular responsibilities at work and at home.”
He urged patience with colleagues or loved ones dealing with stress — and with oneself. If you are working overtime to make even the simplest decisions, it could be a sign you have too much on your plate, suggested Miller, adding that one might consider asking friends and family to help lighten the load. He also recommending saying “no” to new responsibilities. “If there is a new work project that’s going to be more of a burden than it’s worth, give yourself permission to pass on the opportunity,” he said. “Or if it’s going to overwhelm you to chaperone yet another playdate, ask another parent to host.”
Miller stressed that decision fatigue could be a sign of a more serious issue, however, noting that rates of depression and anxiety have skyrocketed during the pandemic. He advised talking to a primary care doctor or mental health professional.
Sarah, our millennial subject, sought to minimize her stress over daily choices by taking a morning exercise class. Establishing such routines, especially having to do with exercise, is one of the best ways to develop skills around making decisions, according to Katie Ziskind, a Connecticut-based therapist.
She also advised simplifying choices.
“Ask yourself, what is the one thing you need to decide?” she said. “Sometimes anxiety and insecure feelings develop, which cause someone to feel paralyzed in the decision-making process. Each decision is a big step, so be proud of yourself for making your decisions no matter how small. Tell your friends when you have made a positive decision for yourself, so they can support and congratulate you, too. Make a decision journal, [and] every time you make a positive decision write it down. Then, you can look back and remember all the big decisions you’ve made and be proud of your growth.”