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Survey: Stresses of COVID Can Cloud Judgment For Decision-Making

November 05, 2021

“Adulting” means making a variety of decisions, something that has been complicated for many by the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic.

An American Psychological Association’s (APA) survey revealed that the last 18 months makes even the most basic decisions challenging. Another survey by The Harris Poll indicated nearly one third of adults are struggling to make basic and major life decisions.

The cause lies in human brain function, explained David Tolin, PhD, ABPP, director of the Anxiety Disorders Center at The Institute of Living, part of Hartford HealthCare’s Behavioral Health Network, and president of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.

“Healthy, effective decision-making uses the frontal lobes of the brain. Part of their role is to inhibit signals from the more ‘emotional’ parts of the brain. When we’re under severe or chronic stress, those frontal lobes don’t function properly, causing greater emotional disturbance and more negative emotion,” he explained, adding that the brain has a “sweet spot” balancing manageable stress versus excessive.

“A little bit of stress can actually make you more motivated. But, if the stress level gets too high, such as in the pandemic, performance can suffer, causing significant psychological and physical problems,” Dr. Tolin said.

Stress can cause such psychological issues as anxiety, depression and substance abuse, as well as physical issues like headaches, insomnia, cardiac disease and high blood sugar.

“The cumulative effect of these problems can cause everyday decision-making processes to break down, making seemingly simple decisions difficult,” Dr. Tolin said.

According to the APA study, the percentage of people affected by the pandemic varies by generation. Those affected include:

  • More than half of millennnials (born 1981-1995)
  • 37 percent of Gen Z (1996-2012)
  • 32 percent of Gen X (1965-1980)
  • 14 percent of Baby Boomers (1946-1964)
  • 3 percent of older adults

This discrepancy didn’t surprise Dr. Tolin, who said younger adults are more vulnerable to stress.

“Research tells us that older adults often are better at managing emotions than younger adults. They have more life experience and, hence, may have better perspective on things,” he noted.

To combat the effects of long-term stress, Dr. Tolin suggested focusing on perspective and determining what is in your control and what is not.

“You can’t control the global spread of COVID, but you can control whether you follow safe practices such as masking, vaccinations and physical distancing,” Dr. Tolin said.

Anyone finding that stress, anxiety, depression or related problems are impacting their life should talk to someone, whether a family member, friend, clergy member or a mental health professional, he suggested.

For help with anxiety, go to https://instituteofliving.org/programs-services/anxiety-disorders-center.