In the early days of the pandemic, it seemed smart to press pause on major decisions; it’s not ideal to make big changes in the midst of a crisis. But now, several months in, many people are facing difficult decisions — involving relationships, careers, children, health and more — that can no longer be ignored.
“The advice of not making decisions when you’re under stress is great for someone who is in a short-term traumatic experience where there’s an end to it,” says Kimberly Diggles, a licensed marriage and family therapist. But with no end to the pandemic in sight, particularly here in the United States where the number of coronavirus cases remains high, Diggles says it may not be possible or healthy to leave big decisions on the back burner. Instead, she and the other experts with whom we spoke recommend a proactive, mindful approach. Here are their tips for decision-making during the pandemic and other stressful circumstances.
Stress can negatively affect our cognitive performance, so try not to rush into a decision during a tense or fearful moment.
“When we perceive a threat in the environment, the amygdala” — often referred to as the fear center of the brain — “becomes overactivated,” says Sunita Sah, an organizational psychologist, expert on decision-making and professor of management studies at the University of Cambridge. “At the same time, the emotional regulation center of the brain is underactivated and the prefrontal cortex — which is required for thinking — is also underactivated, which makes it very difficult to think clearly.”
Taking a beat to bring down your heart rate can help. You need to feel less afraid to make a good decision, Sah says. “If you’re feeling really stressed or traumatized, try not to make an instant decision. The first step is to get some distance.”
For people who work in high-pressure environments — such as Elizabeth Clayborne, an emergency medicine physician at the University of Maryland Prince George’s Hospital Center — swift decisions are often necessary. But equally important, Clayborne says, is the self-awareness to recognize when you need to regroup. “I work in an environment where mistakes cost lives. So I have to be diligent to know that I’m always performing to the best of my abilities,” she says. “In the ER where there isn’t really a time to break, I have to be creative to create the space I need to think.” That may mean something as simple as walking to the cafeteria or getting something to drink, she says. Taking a moment, even briefly, to stop or step away is a small action that can make a massive difference, allowing you to reset and then “re-engage in a more focused manner,” Clayborne adds. Pausing can also prevent you from falling into another effect of stress: binary thinking (limiting yourself to just two options).
You wouldn’t take a road trip without gas in the tank, so try to avoid embarking on a big decision when you’re running on empty. This advice might seem obvious, but Diggles and Clayborne say that it’s common for people — particularly in places with a strong hustle or busy culture — to unintentionally skimp on the basics. Missing out on meals and sleep “shouldn’t be a badge of honor,” Diggles says. “Give your body a chance and give your brain the energy it needs.”
In addition to fueling your physical body, take a proactive approach to your mental health. Diggles suggests finding a grounding activity (her current favorite: yin yoga) that will relax your mind in a way that allows you to “practice being mindful and intentional with your thoughts” so that when you start to feel anxious or you’re faced with a decision, you have the ability to talk yourself through it.
High-impact decisions deserve your undivided attention, says Cassandra Shuck, an entrepreneur who has launched several successful businesses. “A lot of times when we’re making a decision, we’re often multitasking and don’t give it the full stage.” She suggests blocking out time in your schedule for a “one-on-one meeting with yourself.”
Don’t show up to your meeting empty-handed; prepare a list of questions to help you think through options and visualize a variety of outcomes. Here are some prompts to get you started:
Is this a time-sensitive decision? This can help you prioritize according to urgency and determine if something can be put off. “Buying a new car, for example, may not be time-sensitive. There will always be cars on the lot to buy,” Diggles says. “But something like IVF or trying to decide whether you’re going to home-school your kids or go back to work, those may be time-sensitive.”
What type of energy does it require, and do you have the capacity for that right now? Your capacity may fluctuate day-to-day, Diggles says, so what you need to consider is whether, on average, you would have the bandwidth to carry out the decision once it’s made.
Is it something you were thinking about pre-pandemic? Consider whether the decision was already on your radar. Diggles says asking this question can help you determine whether you’re making a choice to ease uncomfortable feelings related to the pandemic or to move something forward that’s important to you. Avoid making “reactive decisions,” she says.
What might the choice look like down the road? Who does it affect? What happens if you succeed or fail? Shuck suggests fast-forwarding mentally to your future and imagining what it’d be like to look back on your life. Allowing yourself to take this view can provide insight into whether and in what ways this decision is important. And, she says, don’t discount your intuition. While all of the experts warn against making impulsive decisions, they acknowledge that your “gut” reaction can alert you to something significant. “Gut reactions give you information,” says Sah, the organizational psychologist, and when it comes to high-impact, personal decisions, “people have to think about different scenarios and their own comfort with risk-taking.” So, she says, we need both an intuitive, emotional response and a slow, deliberative approach to make good decisions.
What are your biggest fears about making this decision? Diggles recommends doing some “reality testing” on your fears to gauge whether they are genuine possibilities or if your brain is serving up overgeneralizations and binary thinking.
Once you’ve had a chance to think through things on your own, seek support and a sounding board.
A friend, therapist or health-care provider can introduce possibilities you may not have considered. Diggles says this is particularly important but also challenging when making decisions during tough times. “When you’re in the middle of a trauma, the last thing that you want to do is go to something unfamiliar. That can be scary … and it takes bravery to consider options you haven’t before.”
If possible, Sah says, in addition to a support system, invite the insight of people who think differently from you to introduce “cognitive diversity” into the mix. But be discerning, she says: Consider the source and their potential biases. She also recommends physically separating yourself from the advice-giver before you make a decision, if possible, to reduce the effects of “insinuation anxiety” — the concern that rejecting advice will signal distrust to the adviser. Invite input but then make the decision in private if possible. “Even just a few minutes [apart from the advice-giver] really helps you to understand what your own preferences are,” Sah says. “If you need time and space, ask for it.”
If you’re hesitant to seek out advice and lean on others, ask yourself why — and try to push past the tendency to withhold. Oftentimes due to social conditioning or expectations, “women especially do a lot of silent suffering,” Clayborne says. “I don’t think we should feel guilty about asking for support.” She knows firsthand the value of a support system in navigating difficult decisions and uncharted territory: Clayborne was seven months pregnant when the coronavirus arrived in the United States and she continued working in the emergency department of one of the hardest-hit hospitals in Maryland. Two other colleagues were pregnant at the same time and, in facing so many unknowns, the three leaned on each other (and have all since delivered healthy baby girls).
Once you’ve laid out your options, you may find none of them are ideal. “Sometimes it might seem like there’s no good solution and anything you choose is going to leave you at a loss of something,” Diggles says. But if a decision must be made, take a moment to acknowledge sadness about the circumstances that have forced you to make this choice, and mourn the loss.
The good news, Sah says, is that once you’ve decided something, you may experience relief. Whereas, if you’re still hung up on making the decision after you’ve done your research, collected insight and weighed your options, that can lead to the added anxiety of being stuck in “analysis paralysis.”
And once you’ve made a decision, says Shuck, the entrepreneur, go all in. “When you make a decision, most of what matters is actually how you carry it out,” she says. If you halfheartedly commit, the outcome will likely reflect that.
Although decision-making can feel exceptionally difficult right now, times of trauma and upheaval can also provide clarity and unanticipated opportunities to pay attention to and accelerate things that are important to us. “Sometimes traumatic events can be a catalyst for moving us forward,” Diggles says. For example, “we’re seeing that with Black Lives Matter.” (After the police killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans, several million people in the United States took part in protests; the New York Times reported Black Lives Matter may be the largest movement in this country’s history.)
Significant change is possible on an individual level as well. A number of Shuck’s businesses have sprouted from times of trauma; two weeks after delivering a stillborn baby, she launched a doula and bereavement business, and two months after giving birth to her daughter and struggling with breastfeeding, she created a lactation cookie company. In both instances, she says her healing process led to helping others on their journey.
“Remember that one of our best human strengths is our ability to bounce back,” Clayborne, the emergency medicine physician, says. “I see it at work — human beings impress me every day, people survive and manage things that I can’t even imagine sometimes. I know people are scared for a number of reasons, but I’ve always felt that I see the true human spirit shine through most brightly when we’re challenged and there are uncertainties like what we’re experiencing right now. We are a resilient species, and I expect great things in the future.”