Why Is Decision-Making So Hard During a Pandemic?

Decision-making is often complicated. These techniques can make it easier.

Posted Jul 21, 2020

“My four-year-old simply tears the mask off his face,” said Amanda*. “I have to decide whether or not to let him be around other kids without his mask or to keep him away from them. I know he needs the social time, but I also don’t want to run the risk of him getting sick. I know that kids his age are less vulnerable, but he tends to have major respiratory problems. And then there are the rest of us, who could be really sick if he catches something and gives it to us.”

“My office is opening back up next week,” said Arthur*. “We have a choice about whether or not to go in. I want to support my colleagues, and I also don’t want to look like a wimp. My wife really doesn’t want me to go, but I’m torn. I can’t decide.”

“I need to go see my parents,” Janie* said. I haven’t seen them in four months, and they’re getting on in years. They need some help with things around the house, but I think they—and I—all need the emotional connection of being with each other physically. But I don’t want to take a chance on giving them the virus. They’ve been sheltering in place and they’re healthy, but they’re in the at-risk age group. They really want me to come. I can get tested, but I have to fly to get there, and that’s a whole other set of issues. How safe will I be? What if I contract it from someone on the plane? I don’t want to get it myself, of course, but I really, really don’t want to get them sick. I don’t know what to do.”

In the past four and a half months, since the beginning of COVID-19-related closures and sheltering in place all over the United States, not only clients, but friends, family, colleagues, students—in short, everyone I know—has mentioned at some point how hard it is to make even simple choices these days.

We all make decisions over and over again in daily life, many of which seem pretty straightforward—like choosing what you’re going to watch on Netflix or when you’re going to bed. Some, like deciding to brush your teeth at night or start the coffee in the morning, are so much part of your routine that you don’t even think of them as decisions. 

But even some easy decisions are hard now, as the coronavirus is ramping up again at the same time that regulations about social contact and individual protection are easing.

“I’m usually good at making decisions,” Arthur said. “But this has got me beat. Two weeks ago I got my first Starbucks in months. But with things getting worse, I’m just making coffee at home. That was an easy decision. Work is more complicated. Sometimes I think I'll stay home and keep my wife from worrying. But then I’m back to feeling like a wimp. I can’t figure out how to decide. And that’s really not like me.”

There are several reasons that this pandemic is making it hard to choose what to do and how to act, even in our small, daily routines.

Research tells us that we humans are programmed in ways that make certain kinds of decisions easy but others more difficult. For instance, you probably have several daily habits, or routines, that you don’t even think about. You simply take them for granted and do them almost spontaneously.

Habits are important to our mental health because they keep us feeling stable and steady. The sense of security that comes with habitual behaviors is both a positive factor in feeling comfortable in your own skin and in your life, and also a negative factor when you are trying to stop a behavior that no longer serves you well. You have run into this conundrum, for instance, if you have ever tried to break a habit like smoking or biting your fingernails, since both of those behaviors help soothe you even while they create other difficulties.

The pandemic has upset many of the daily routines that keep us grounded and comfortable, like Arthur's daily trip for coffee. Like many people, after a short period of disorientation in the early weeks of sheltering in place, however, Arthur developed a new grounding routine. He and his wife made coffee and chatted for a few minutes in the morning before they started working from home. This kind of routine leads to a sense of calm and certainty. You know what to expect when you have a routine. Now his comfortable habit was threatened, as was his sense of security and certainty that he was doing the right thing—the thing that would keep him and his family safe. 

Certainty makes it easier to make decisions. But COVID-19 has created lots more uncertainty than certainty. 

The Problem of Uncertainty and Decision-Making 

Decision-making can be stressful, but feelings of certainty about a decision can decrease the stress. For instance, if you know for sure that a new job is a good choice, then you will be less anxious about making the move. But if you are not sure that it is a good idea, if you feel uncertain about your decision, then you will probably feel stressed. And since stress has been shown to lead to psychological, emotional and physical difficulties, taking stress out of our daily lives leads to better emotional and physical health.

We use cognitive biases to remove uncertainty, but they can create additional problems. For example, the status quo bias could be seen as an attempt to maintain a sense of security by maintaining the current state of things.

It makes sense that we would be looking for some kind of security in this time of political, social, and medical confusion and uncertainty. While studies have shown that some stress is healthy and promotes psychological, emotional, and intellectual growth, too much stress can interfere with all of these areas of human functioning. Scientists tell us that stress impacts our bodies, actually changing things like heart rate, breathing, and digestion, among other things.

Uncertainty creates stress. And studies have shown that stress can impact our ability to make decisions. Researchers have also found that a brain that is stressed is less flexible in its decision-making and will turn to habit and cognitive bias instead of creative problem solving.

Two Approaches to Decision-making

So what can you do to help you make some of these difficult decisions?

Clinicians who practice different types of psychotherapy may offer surprisingly similar suggestions to help you answer this question. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), a form of cognitive behavioral therapy created by psychologist Marcia Linehan, suggests tapping into what is called your “wise mind,” which DBT defines as the place where your emotions and your logical reasoning overlap. There are any number of sites where you can download exercises and DBT worksheets that will help you think out some of the conflicts and contradictory emotions and thoughts that are making any decision difficult. The basic idea behind these exercises is to make space in your psyche so that the part of your mind where emotions and logic work together can engage with the decision-making process.

Four-Step Model

The following four steps are drawn from a DBT model for using the combination of feeling and reason to make wise choices:

  1. Step back and make space for your mind to work on the problem.
  2. Make a pro and con list (remembering that emotional and logical reasons can be on either side of the list).
  3. Get advice from someone you believe has a wise mind themselves.
  4. Remind yourself of wise mind decisions you have made in the past.

Mindfulness Practice

It has long fascinated me that Linehan introduced mindfulness into her DBT work from the beginning; but it is not surprising, since DBT is a tool for helping manage emotions, and mindfulness practices have been shown to help in this area.

Although mindfulness is often linked to meditation practice, I have found in my own work that a broader view of the concept is far more useful. To me, a mindfulness practice is any activity or technique that allows you to step back from your immediate emotions and thoughts so that you can quietly and nonjudgmentally pay attention to a larger picture of yourself—one that over time allows you to take into account a wide range of your feelings, thoughts, needs, relationships, values, goals and sense of who you are.

I’m not ruling out meditation. If it works for you, it is a structured, useful way to do this. In an article on mindful decision making, my PT colleague Jeffrey Davis quotes several important business leaders who report that their decision-making improved when they began meditating for 15 minutes a day. Davis says “Taking 15 minutes to separate yourself from the office or the Internet allows you the time and space to reconnect with your purpose.”

But meditation isn’t for everyone. And if you’re one of those people for whom it doesn’t work, there are other ways that you can pay attention and sort through your thoughts and feelings so that you can find a decision that works for you.

Taking a few moments to breathe is one of these ways. If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, you’ve probably practiced some breathing techniques that are intended to help relax your body, slow down your thoughts, and give you some internal space. Dr. Richard Brown has developed a systematic approach to breathing that can also help you calm down, relax, and get in touch with a larger picture—which will ultimately help you make difficult decisions a little more easily.

123rf Stock Image 102278649 Aleksandr Davydov
Source: 123rf Stock Image 102278649 Aleksandr Davydov

Another way to think about being mindful is to think about how you center yourself. You might use exercise, reading, cooking, listening to music, or even cleaning as a way of calming your thoughts and separating yourself from your emotions long enough for your wise mind, that area where reason and emotion overlap, to start to work. The important thing is that you not try to force it into place. Forcing yourself to think about a distressing problem can simply add to the stress level, making it even harder to achieve the goal of integrating reason and emotion.

In the end, your wise mind can find the answer that’s right for you if you can give it some space to work it out. And as you take that space for yourself, remember one more thing.

No decision is perfect. Once you make a choice, you may find that new information comes up, either from within your own mind or from the outside world. It’s perfectly okay to acknowledge that you’ve made a mistake and to change your mind. But it’s also okay to make peace with your choice, even if what you chose isn’t exactly what you wanted it to be. No matter what, give yourself credit for having considered possibilities and made choices that seemed sensible in a time when things are confusing, frightening, and uncertain—and nothing much seems to make a lot of sense.  

*Names and personal info changed for privacy

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