Even Basic Decision-Making Feels Overwhelming in the Pandemic, Study Finds

woman looks wearily at grocery store options

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Key Takeaways

  • A new psychological survey shows Americans are struggling to make everyday decisions.
  • Decision fatigue trickles down from major pandemic-related risk-assessment to deciding what we'll wear or eat for lunch.
  • True rest and recovery will require systemic change that prioritizes mental health and safety.

Picture this: You're standing in front of your closet, scanning the hangers and folded piles, but can't bring yourself to conjure up an outfit. Or this: Your partner or child asks you what's for dinner and your mind goes blank. It's as if making the simplest decisions requires more energy than you can spare. You wish someone would just tell you what to do.

If this feels like you lately, you're not alone. A new survey from the American Psychological Association evaluated stress during the Covid-19 pandemic, and while the results show that 77% of adults in the United States feel they're faring well in the pandemic, the survey also revealed that many are struggling to manage seemingly simple day-to-day decisions.

"High emotion, more complex decision-making and uncertainty all take a mental toll and can lead to individuals feeling mentally exhausted," says APA's Senior Director for Practice Transformation and Quality, Lynn Bufka, PhD. "Couple that with reduced social support... and many people do not have adequate resources to rest and recover."

Stress and Decision-Making

According to the survey, nearly one-third of adults in the U.S. are so stressed during the pandemic that their basic decision-making abilities are being impacted. And more than one-third consider decision-making more difficult than before the pandemic. Seemingly simple decisions, like what to wear or what to eat, have become increasingly overwhelming, especially among younger adults and parents.

With or without stress, we make countless decisions each day. In fact, one study from 2007 estimated we make more than 200 daily decisions based on food alone. With that in mind, widespread decision-making fatigue makes sense when you also consider the level of risk assessment being conducted every day during the pandemic. And for the first time for many people, these decisions really have been a matter of life and death.

Lynn Bufka, PhD

If one feels one must constantly assess for risk, each decision takes more time and energy—and time and energy are finite resources.

— Lynn Bufka, PhD

Risk assessment is a complex cognitive task, Bufka says, and we've been forced into facing decisions around disrupting our daily lives and routines or engaging in behaviors that could potentially endanger ourselves, our families and our neighbors. This induces immense stress on top of the general anxiety and uncertainty of the pandemic itself.

"Knowledge about the coronavirus has changed dramatically and that adds to the complexity of decision making as individuals must re-adjust the basis for judgments," Bufka says. "If one feels one must constantly assess for risk, each decision takes more time and energy—and time and energy are finite resources."

Psychotherapist Ben Medrano, MD, has been helping his clients through these same struggles. As medical director of Field Trip Heath New York, where psychotherapy is paired with psychedelic medicine, Medrano says clients are seeking relief from the painful toll of chronic rumination.

"Similar to the exhaustive effects of studying for a major math exam, worrying is a tiring cognitive activity," Medrano says. "Likewise, wishing things were different and struggling to avoid the unavoidable also drags us down. Decision-making necessitates mental real estate. When we find our mind increasingly occupied or, rather, preoccupied it should be no surprise that even the simplest of tasks begin to feel daunting."

As the stress of risk assessment trickles down to our everyday decisions, we must consider the potentially negative effects this fatigue can have, as research has shown that stress can skew decision-making. A study conducted on mice at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that subjects under chronic stress were more prone to make high-risk decisions.

Stress is ubiquitous for both humans and animals, and its effects on brain and behavior are of central importance to the understanding of both normal function and neuropsychiatric disease,” wrote Amy Arnsten, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Yale University School of Medicine, in a commentary accompanying the study. “Impulsivity is likely to worsen patterns of behavior that produce the stress in the first place, inducing a vicious cycle.”

Rest and Recovery

Worrying might be normal during the pandemic, but agonizing over the things we can't change could make matters worse. If rumination has become an everyday occurrence, Medrano recommends making time for interests that emphasize the present moment. Counter the negative thought loops with simple activities like cooking, meditating, exercising, or taking a hot bath or cold shower

"Let us not forget that we are more than just thoughts," Medrano says. "We have bodies and hearts and people who love us. Disrupt the stuckness."

Moving past the negative thought cycling might recoup some energy that's been depleted, but we're not out of the woods yet in terms of the pandemic. Bufka notes that people need a period of time to truly rest and recover, which requires a feeling of safety and freedom from risk.

Ben Medrano, MD

When we find our mind increasingly occupied or, rather, preoccupied it should be no surprise that even the simplest of tasks begin to feel daunting.

— Ben Medrano, MD

Realistically, however, not everyone has the time, resources or support to get the rest and recovery they need right now, which is not the fault of the individual. Addressing the root cause of pandemic-related stress will require massive societal change. Bufka points toward lack of access to health care, challenges in virtual schooling and erosion of trust in government as systemic factors contributing to stress.

"Society as a whole needs healing," Bufka says. "It will be important for leaders in all sectors to create structures for recovery, whether it is modeling truly making time for rest and recovery or identifying and eliminating factors that contributed to stress."

What This Means For You

If you're feeling overwhelmed by the thought of making even small decisions right now, spend time doing activities that clear your mind and help you focus on the present moment, like yoga, meditation or following a simple recipe.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychological Association. Stress in America 2021: Stress and decision-making during the pandemic.

  2. Wansink B, Sobal J. Mindless Eating: the 200 daily food decisions we overlookEnviron Behav. 2007;39(1):106-123. doi:10.1177/0013916506295573

  3. Friedman A, Homma D, Bloem B et al. Chronic stress alters striosome-circuit dynamics, leading to aberrant decision-makingCell. 2017;171(5):1191-1205.e28. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2017.10.017