3 Tips for Managing COVID-19 Decision Fatigue

The COVID-19 pandemic is definitely not over, but it is changing, and so is our experience of it. More Americans become fully vaccinated each day, but community spread of the virus is still high, and we have a long way to go to reach herd immunity.

As vaccinated people return to some activities and cities and states reopen partially or fully, we’re entering a time where we need to navigate risk constantly. There are decisions about what to do, where to go, how to socialize and how our unvaccinated children fit into all this. Perhaps the hardest part: We’ll never know for certain if we’re doing the “right” thing.

“While this past year has absolutely been challenging, in some ways quarantine is relatively simple. The rules are relatively straightforward in terms of what you can and can’t do,” says UNC Health psychiatrist Bill Scheidler, MD. “As the country opens back up, it adds a lot more variables to approaching decisions in your life. Even the most mundane topics—going to the grocery store or getting together with family or friends—now is a lot more complicated than it’s been in the recent past.”

Navigating these variables and risks can lead to decision fatigue, which is the result of spending a lot of mental energy on making decisions.

“We are—not surprisingly—getting a lot more fatigued both physically and mentally with all the gymnastics that we find ourselves having to do on topics and tasks that before we didn’t have to give much energy,” Dr. Scheidler says.

Here are three tips for navigating decision fatigue as the world begins to open up.

1. Acknowledge the struggle.

The first step is simply to acknowledge that it’s both hard and exhausting to make all of these decisions, Dr. Scheidler says. Know that you’re not alone in how you feel.

“It’s been hard for folks across the world and especially here in America. The prevalence of anxiety disorders has tripled and depressive disorders have quadrupled,” Dr. Scheidler says. “Acknowledge that this is a really hard time for many of us, be patient with yourself, and understand that this may not come easily or readily.”

Give yourself permission to feel what you’re feeling, rather than trying to push it away. Take note of your emotions and be kind to yourself if you’re feeling anxious or worried about making the “wrong” decision—that’s normal, Dr. Scheidler says.

2. Determine your risk tolerance.

Take some time to think through your personal level of risk tolerance. Are you someone who tends to be more risk-averse or more risk-tolerant? Think specifically about COVID-19.

“Some folks don’t have the option to be as tolerant or are able to take on as much risk due to underlying physical or mental health concerns, living with folks with those concerns or being caretakers for them,” Dr. Scheidler says.

Once you figure out where you are on that spectrum, it can help you make decisions.

“Many of us are re-creating the wheel with every decision we make, and that’s just exhausting. Try to create a framework in which to approach these problems based on where you are on that spectrum,” Dr. Scheidler says. “Getting a better understanding of what your philosophy is, what your needs are, and where you stand can help you get a better sense of how you approach these decisions moving forward.”

For example, if you decide you will follow CDC recommendations for the fully vaccinated, you can say “yes” to invitations to visit with other vaccinated people indoors, without masks, but you’ll say “no” to a house party.

And remember, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You can ease into life after lockdown, Dr. Scheidler says.

“I think for many of us it feels like, ‘I’ve got to stay in quarantine completely, or I’ve got to jump out there and be out in the world in a way I haven’t this past year.’ And it doesn’t have to be that way,” Dr. Scheidler says.

Maybe you hang out with friends or family but decide to stay outside.

“There is that opportunity to get together in a different forum and test it out, see how you’re feeling and whether you want to pull back, stay where you are, or keep progressing in terms of the level of risk or level of exposure you want to take on,” Dr. Scheidler says.

If there are bigger decisions coming up, such as whether to travel to see loved ones, set aside time to think about the decision. Then allow yourself to stop thinking about it when that time is up, Dr. Scheidler says. Endless rumination will increase stress and won’t help you find solutions.

3. Be gentle with yourself.

Don’t beat yourself up and try not to worry excessively about the decisions you make or how you’re feeling. This, of course, is easier said than done, especially for anxious people.

Self-care has never been more important,” Dr. Scheidler says. “Build in time for yourself. I think that’s especially important for folks who are caring for others, whether they’re older adults or children.”

Practice the basics of self-care, which include:

  • Fit exercise into your day
  • Get a good night’s sleep
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet
  • Do things purely for fun or enjoyment

“By doing that, you can chip away some of that fatigue, stress and anxiety,” Dr. Scheidler says, “and put yourself in a better position to be able to approach these really complicated questions.”

When needed, seek help.

“Whether it is reaching out to friends, family, support groups, faith communities or mental health providers, it is important to recognize what your stress level is, how you are coping, and how to get help when you need it,” Dr. Scheidler says.

For the latest information on COVID-19, visit the CDC website and the UNC Health COVID-19 Resources page, and follow UNC Health on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. Also, visit yourshot.org for the latest information on the COVID-19 vaccines.