As someone who has struggled with mental health in the past, I’d rate my overall resilience through the pandemic at a C+. Not great, but still a passing grade. A few weeks ago, however, I found myself at somewhat of a low point, and in that state, something strange happened to me, something I had never experienced before.
It was a particularly cold week in mid-February. The confirmed COVID-19 case numbers in my area had remained at peak levels for months, and while vaccinations had begun it felt like things would get worse before they got better. Work was piling up, but I struggled to find the motivation to tackle it.
My fiancée and I needed to work on the fourth or fifth iteration of our wedding plans, but I hardly had the time or energy to dedicate to it. At the same time, it felt like I was losing touch with friends and family, but couldn’t stand the idea of another conversation with my computer screen.
At the end of a difficult day, my fiancée asked if I wanted to watch a movie, and I completely froze. My brain felt like it was spinning out of control in response to a very basic question.
I began calculating how long the movie would take, whether I would enjoy it, what else I needed or wanted to do that night, whether there was a sports game I wanted to watch, a friend I was supposed to catch up with, a wedding-related decision that had to be deliberated. While all of this was happening in my head, I could only offer my fiancée a blank stare that lasted an uncomfortably long time. Eventually my head started to pound, and I felt the weight of this choice the similar to past experiences with truly significant and life-changing decisions, like where to go to school or whether to accept a job offer.
As it turns out, a lot of people have experience similar states of “decision paralysis” over minor and relatively inconsequential decisions this past year.
“My anecdotal sense is that it’s very common, and last March or April I had a very similar experience,” says Daphna Shohamy, a neuroscientist at Columbia University’s Department of Psychology and Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute. Shohamy recounted that experience in a CNN op-ed last April, describing how she similarly froze up when deciding what to make for dinner. “It shouldn’t have been a hard decision—it didn’t feel like a particularly consequential one—but every decision felt fateful and overwhelming and taxing,” she says.
Shohamy emphasizes that decision-making is already an enigmatic process, and while psychologists and neurologists understand some of the ways we make everyday choices, much of that process remains a mystery.
In an uncertain environment, every decision requires additional cognitive resources, and over time, those resources can get depleted.
Shohamy explains that in an uncertain environment, every decision requires additional cognitive resources, and over time, those resources can get depleted to the point where even mundane choices feel complex.
“[The pandemic] brings uncertainty to levels that we’re not used to,” she says. “I would argue we’re exposed to those levels of uncertainty all the time, because our world is uncertain, but now it’s obvious, we feel it in ways we don’t normally feel it.”
What researchers can say about our decision making process with some degree of certainty is that it can be negatively impacted by stress, especially when sustained over prolonged periods.
“Stress decreases our working memory capacity, so we have fewer cognitive resources to wrap our heads around all the different options, even for things that are relatively inconsequential,” explains Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, and regular Fast Company contributor. “Even minor decisions take a certain amount of cognitive effort, and there’s a limited amount of that we’ve got in a day before we’re sort of done.”
Overcoming decision paralysis
Markman recommends a number of strategies for overcoming decision paralysis, even in difficult or stressful circumstances. The first is acknowledging that most decisions are not set in stone, and that choosing is only the first of many steps toward achieving a particular outcome.
“We blow the decision up into being a much more significant part of the outcome than it really is, because a lot of what allows us to succeed at almost everything we do is how we follow up from the decision, rather than the decision itself,” he says. “If you take the perspective that everything is really a process, then it actually removes a lot of the stress around decision-making.”
Markman adds that establishing predictable routines can help reduce the cognitive load of mundane decisions, and leave more mental resources for more important choices. “That predictability creates a sense of comfort, and we find there’s a sense of discomfort and even anxiety when things are unpredictable,” he says.
It’s also important to recognize our own unique stress responses so that we can identify early warning signals and work through them before they spiral out of control, says author and leadership consultant Diana Hendel.
“Some people go silent, some people get edgy or irritable, some people avoid or withdraw, so understanding our individual stress response allows us to recognize when it’s happening so it doesn’t overtake us,” she says.
Hendel recommends conducting regular check-ins to evaluate signs of stress, and taking certain actions when they appear. She says one of the most effective ways to avoid retreating into our own anxieties is to take a moment to acknowledge the reality of the moment.
“It’s about increasing that awareness of your surroundings,” she says. “Some people will identify 20 items in their view and say them out loud, or stretch their neck and relax their shoulders, even stomp their feet.”
Hendel says we also inadvertently hold our breath when we’re stressed, adding that a simple breathing exercise—like box breathing—can reduce stress and ease the cognitive burden of decision making.
I didn’t engage in any of these activities when I was paralyzed by a simple decision a few weeks ago, but was still able to work my way through it. I promised my fiancée we’d watch the movie the next day, and instead took the evening to relax and watch sports on my own. In the days that followed case numbers started dropping, the temperature began rising, work felt more manageable, and our wedding plans finally started coming together. I didn’t understand the decision paralysis that I had experienced until I began researching this article, but I also didn’t dwell on it too much either, which Markman says is key.
“If you do find yourself experiencing some decision paralysis, don’t beat yourself about it,” he says. “You can turn this from a momentary difficulty to something that carries a lot more import by worrying about it, like ‘what’s wrong with me?’ The answer is nothing. Just be kind to yourself, and don’t worry about it too much.”