Young Adult Mental Health & Substance Abuse Treatment Centers

How to Deal with Change Fatigue and Decision Fatigue During COVID-19

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As we approach nearly a year of living with the COVID pandemic, the stress of ongoing uncertainty is creating what’s known as change fatigue. And this frustration and exhaustion is complicated by a related issue called decision fatigue.

In some ways, we have fewer choices than ever before. Yet at the same time, every choice we make seems more fraught. Decisions that used to be simple must now be carefully weighed and considered. Not knowing what will come next makes it even more difficult to move confidently in any direction—whether that’s accepting a job offer or just going to the supermarket.

For a young adult, decisions can be especially hard to make. Emerging adulthood is a stage of life when every choice we make feels important, because it’s part of forming an identity and creating a life path. During the pandemic, young adults are struggling to navigate change and build independence and a sense of purpose while living in limbo. As a result, rates of anxiety and depression among this demographic have risen steeply since March 2020.

What Is Decision Fatigue?

Decision fatigue is defined as a mental overload resulting from constantly having to make stressful choices. Decision fatigue examples during COVID include trying to decide whether to go out to eat, take a trip, or visit relatives or friends. When even the most mundane activities are potentially life threatening, and must be considered and reconsidered on a daily basis, the stress associated with each choice can overcome our ability to make wise decisions.

Based in research on the concept of ego depletion by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, decision fatigue is closely related to change fatigue. That’s because a frequently changing environment demands that we must make a higher number of choices in response.

Making decisions that are based on rapidly shifting data sets, information that keeps changing, and the unpredictability of the nature of the pandemic has most certainly exacerbated people’s difficulty in making fluent and confident decisions.

Michael Wetter, PsyD, director of psychology at UCLA Medical Center’s division of adolescent and young adult medicine

Symptoms of Decision Fatigue

Dealing with multiple choices throughout the day depletes mental and emotional energy. Therefore, researchers say, the brain tends to look for “shortcuts”—either avoiding making a choice altogether, or acting on impulse without thinking through the possible consequences. Therefore, some of the signs of decision fatigue include:

  • Frequent procrastination
  • Impulsivity
  • Avoiding choices
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Diminished executive functioning
  • Physical symptoms such as tension headaches and digestive issues.

The constant change and decision fatigue created by the pandemic has increased the prevalence of a mental health condition known as Adjustment Disorder. With symptoms that are similar to those of anxiety and depression, adjustment disorder is caused by the stress of dealing with change.

Also known as situational depression, stress response syndrome, or transitional disorder, adjustment disorder is typically triggered by external circumstances—either major life events or chronic, ongoing stress. For most young adults, the pandemic encompasses both of these types of triggers, as it has changed everything from schooling to the workplace to social connection. In addition, many young adults are grieving personal losses, both large and small. 

Furthermore, adjustment disorder is sometimes described as a less severe form of PTSD caused by difficult or traumatic events. One of the dangers of adjustment disorder is that it can lead to major depression if left untreated.

Know the Facts

Adjustment disorder is associated with a higher risk of suicidal thoughts and suicidal behavior.

How to Avoid Decision Fatigue

The best way to counteract change fatigue and decision fatigue is by learning how to cope with change and develop a tolerance of uncertainty. Because stress is the biggest factor in both decision and change fatigue, building change resilience and stress resilience is key.

Here are five strategies to reduce decision fatigue:

  • Recognize the signs of fatigue. Find yourself doing online shopping or scrolling through your social media feeds to distract you from completing a task or making a decision? Replenish your energy before tackling decisions to avoid making an impulsive choice.
  • Practice self-care. Support your mental energy and ability to cope with stress by eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep, and connecting with trusted friends and family. Practices like yoga and meditation can also help with decision fatigue by giving the “thinking brain” a rest.
  • Simplify and reduce your choices. That might mean committing to a set of COVID safety guidelines about social contact, traveling, etc., and not varying from those parameters. Or it might be as simple as making a weekly meal plan, so you don’t have to make daily decisions about food shopping and cooking.
  • Consider tough decisions when you have the most energy. For many people, this might be first thing in the morning; for others, after restful activities. A study that’s often referenced in the context of decision fatigue tracked a parole board’s rulings and found they ruled more favorably early in the morning and after their breaks, and less favorably at the end of the workday.
  • Shift your mindset. How we see ourselves, specifically our ability to handle change and choices, affects our capacity for decision-making. Researcher Carol Dweck and her team found that people who believed that their willpower was not limited continued to do well on a series of tasks, even when they had been doing lots of “brain work” earlier.

In summary, young adult decisions are often challenging even when they’re not complicated by a pandemic. Therefore, structuring daily life to reduce decision fatigue and nourish mental energy will help young people make choices that support their well-being.


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Affect Disord. 2015 Mar 15;174:441–6. 

PNAS. 2013 Sept;110 (37):14837–14842.

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Mental Health / February 10, 2021

Newport Institute

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