COVID decision fatigue – It’s exhausting when small decisions are critical

December 2021 Posted in Your Health

By Melissa Wagoner

Decision fatigue is a relatively unknown mental health term that has, during the past 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, begun getting more attention.

“Decision fatigue describes the challenges in making decisions large or small, typically occurring after a period of time of frequent or complex decision making,” Audry Van Houweling, the owner of She Soars Psychiatry in Silverton, said. She added the psychological phenomenon presents with symptoms like brain fog, slowed thinking, decreased mental stamina, anxiety and the feeling of being trapped or paralyzed when faced with decisions.

It could happen to anyone, regardless of age, stage, or socio-economic status because it’s not the decisions themselves that are the challenge – not their size or complexity – but rather the repetitive nature and the increased sense that there isn’t one right answer.

“It’s when it’s hard to know what the best answer is – or maybe there is no best answer,” Jennifer Ungarwulff, a Licensed Professional Counselor and owner of Mother Heart Counseling in Silverton, confirmed.

Why now?

“This past 18 months has demanded many of us to perform mental acrobatics as the world and our local communities have shifted – again, and again and again,” Van Houweling said of the reason decision fatigue is suddenly becoming so widespread amongst her clients. 

“The pandemic has meant complex decision making that often is enmeshed or sometimes in opposition to our beliefs, morality, and lifestyle preferences.”

In other words, many previously straightforward issues – sending kids to school, going out to eat or even shopping at a store – have suddenly become far more nuanced and even heated. Making one feel like even small decisions are critical. And that pressure can be exhausting. 

“It’s the background in more people’s minds,” Ungarwulff confirmed. She mainly works with women in the early stages of motherhood. “It’s questions like, should I take them to the store? It’s that feeling that COVID is in the air.”

It’s also the sense that any conclusion might be the wrong one. 

“Many of us have felt in a state of ‘damned if I do, damned if I don’t’,” Van Houweling said. She theorized that this feeling often stems from the reality that many of today’s decisions – especially those having to do with aspects of the pandemic – are presented with very little context.

“It has been difficult to gauge potential risks or rewards as our unprecedented times leave us with minimal historical comparison and multiple unknowns,” she said. “We do not have a clear roadmap and our perceptions of safety and freedom can differ greatly.”

So much so, in fact, that those two topics – safety and freedom – have become more conflict-ridden than ever before. They separate families and community members and make political figures – even those at the local level – the subject of widespread backlash.

“Distrust and disillusionment with our governing bodies and policymakers is not too spectacular,” Van Houweling said. There is always a certain level of criticism around how the government is run. 

But in the last 18 months blame and the critique of others’ decisions has reached an all-time high. It’s a trend both Ungarwulff and Van Houweling see as damaging. 

“[T]heir job is remarkably difficult right now,” Van Houweling said, referencing the fact that even politicians can suffer from decision fatigue. 

“Perhaps before we are so quick to judge, we ought to think about what might be on their plate.”

What are the consequences?

One of the challenges in diagnosing decision fatigue is that it presents differently in everyone. Sometimes it can look like impulsivity or a disregard for discernment and consequences. Like a kind of, “It doesn’t matter what I choose, so why put a ton of thought into it?” That can look like giving up.

“There’s definitely more fatalism, less hope,” Ungarwulff said. She speculated that, in many cases, the recent emotional whiplash caused by rising and falling in infection numbers is to blame. 

“I think there was an upswing of hope when the vaccine first came out and when things got better,” she recalled. “And then things got bad again when schools started reopening. Now, there’s powerlessness and anger, too, and
more fear.”

And fear can lead to another manifestation of decision fatigue: procrastination – or the reluctance to make an important decision. It’s a kind of sticking one’s head in the sand.

What are some coping strategies?

Thankfully there are numerous ways to combat decision fatigue, starting with engaging in self-care by prioritizing sleep and committing to some leisure activity every day. Then, by setting boundaries.

“Prioritize your non-negotiables – habits or routines that keep you in a better head space,” Van Houweling urged. 

“Don’t feel compelled to fill your plate just because there’s a little space left.”

Next, simplify.

“Simplifying to-do lists, simplifying wardrobes, simplifying social engagements, simplify your home environment,” Van Houweling described. 

And once all of that is done, “Take an inventory of the tasks on your radar that require a decision.” 

Prioritize them and tackle the most important ones first.

Finally, ask yourself, “What do you know for sure?”

This last can be the most challenging. 

“We will never be able to predict the future,” Van Houweling admitted. “…you only know what you know now…but trusting yourself to handle potential outcomes is perhaps most important.”

Suggestions for combatting decision fatigue and burnout

• Inventory the tasks that require a decision, prioritize them and tackle the most consequential first.

• Minimize distractions.

• Simplify – to-do lists, wardrobes, social engagements and your home environment.

• Set boundaries – prioritize habits and routines that keep you clear-headed.

• Practice self-care.

• When making a difficult decision ask yourself – What do I know for sure? 

• Trusting yourself to handle potential outcomes.

• Move and fuel your body.

• Rest – work towards eight hours of sleep at night and engage in some leisure time during the day.

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