Originally posted on: https://commonmedicalquestions.com/how-covid-19-has-increased-stress-levels-in-society/

Stress is pretty much a part of everyone’s daily lives. Whether you ran out of eggs for breakfast, locked yourself out of your car, or have an upcoming call with your boss to discuss your performance, stress will most likely affect you. According to a survey conducted in 2021 by the American Psychological Association (APA), almost half of U.S. adults have said that the uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic has made planning for the future seem impossible and about a third say their stress levels have become so high that they struggle with the most basic of decisions. In addition to the stress caused by the pandemic, the ongoing war in Ukraine is stressing out the majority of U.S. adults, which also includes worries about inflation and continued global uncertainty.

Studies have shown that the stress that comes with decision-making, both big and small, has been especially difficult for young adults, parents, and people of color. In today’s society, people have the same, or even more, decisions to make with fewer resources at their disposal. Some of these diminished resources come in the form of financial hardship. The APA survey revealed that housing costs and the economy were two of the biggest stressors for American adults. For other respondents, discrimination and personal safety were big concerns. A common theme among many adults was the perpetual decision-making engendered by social gatherings, which is a mood-boosting activity that could also potentially be harmful to physical health due to the risk of contracting COVID-19. Stress negatively affects psychological resources, such as willpower, which is needed for decision-making.

How does stress alter the decision-making process?

Stress causes mental resources to dissipate, which negatively impacts decision-making, self-control, and willpower. This idea comes from the ego depletion theory that refers to the phenomenon that exertion of self-control for one task impairs subsequent self-control performance. When someone uses up their available willpower on one task, they become unable to exert the same level of self-control for the next task as willpower is a finite resource.

When tasked with making a decision, people who are already experiencing stress are more likely to delay choices or stick with the most common choice, are less likely to plan in advance, and are more susceptible to being distracted by irrelevant information. In a calmer state, people tend to make compromises very effectively. When resources become low, these compromises come to a screeching halt. Compromising requires weighing the pros and cons of a variety of options and finding a nice middle ground, which is a very mentally taxing process.

Studies have shown that when participants are in an ego-depleted state are tasked with choosing from a group of items varying in quality and price, they are more inclined to by the highest-quality or lowest-cost option rather than searching for which item has the overall best value. When applied to the real world, ego depletion may help predict less thoughtful choices when it comes to parenting, spending, and much more. The survey conducted by the APA highlighted the phenomenon known as “decision fatigue,” which has been more common in adults, particularly millennials, and parents with children under the age of 18. Decision fatigue refers to the idea that when making a series of small choices, the choices made later on are approached with less care.

The way the brain responds to stress helps explain this phenomenon in terms of cognitive changes. Research conducted by Dr. Mauricio Delgado, a professor and chair of the Psychology Department at Rutgers University-Newark, has exposed how stress has an inhibitory effect on the brain’s prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is essential to tasks like evaluation, planning, and emotion regulation, which are all integral aspects of clear decision-making. Stress has been found to inhibit goal-oriented thinking and leads to more impulsive or habitual behaviors.

How does race play a role in stress?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it was clear that it has more of an effect on minorities. Understandably, the disproportionate number of minorities that were getting severely ill or even dying caused a lot of fear and stress for that population of individuals. Surveys have found that Hispanic, Black, and Asian American adults faced more COVID-related stress than non-Hispanic White adults. Hispanic adults were especially affected, reporting that they struggled with the pandemic’s ups and downs and felt that they were unable to manage the overwhelming feelings of stress they were experiencing as a result.

Dr. Donte Bernard, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, says that “Race-related stress is a cognitively taxing experience. It depletes cognitive resources, making adaptive decision-making more difficult.” On top of the cognitive costs of racism, race-related stressors such as discrimination and microaggressions can make it more difficult for one to regulate their emotions. In addition, the experience of racism can also cause low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and even PTSD. These stressors heavily influence the decision-making process, both in the short term and the long term.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, people of color have encountered various inequalities, including less protection and flexibility from their employers and worse health outcomes if they become infected with COVID-19. A survey called “The Stress in America” found that 42% of Hispanic adults knew someone that had died of COVID-19, versus only 25% of non-Hispanic White adults. Long-standing disparities in mental health care have also meant that fewer minorities will receive help from mental health professionals to deal with these issues.

Why are young adults and families experiencing more stress?

When compared to other generations, millennial and Generation Z adults have reported the highest stress levels and the lowest ability to manage said stress. These adults face the most difficulty when it comes to both minor and major decisions. Young adulthood is a time for making important decisions that can shape your future, so it causes decision-making to feel even more stressful. Research has shown that young adults were more likely to report physical symptoms of stress, such as fatigue, headaches, sleep issues, and behavioral changes.

Studies have also found that adults with children have more stress when it comes to decision-making compared to adults without children, most likely because they have more responsibility than the latter. When comparing 2022 to 2020, parents were more likely to report that they were having trouble when it comes to family responsibilities, mental health, and relationships, which suggests that there has been a cumulative burden as the COVID-19 pandemic drudges onward. The level of stress that these challenges cause varies greatly from one family to the other, as it depends on the access to resources and solutions they have to combat these problems.

How can you better manage your stress?

There are many strategies one can employ to reduce stress levels, and there is psychological research to prove it. One way to manage stress is through social support. Research has revealed that when people feel positive emotions by thinking back on past memories, their stress response decreases. This can be seen through both the lowering of cortisol levels and the increase in brain activity in areas that are responsible for emotion regulation and reward processing. The effects of these past memories are even better if the memories involve relational connectedness, which shows how important social support is when dealing with stress.

Another way to deal with stress is to regain your sense of control. Feeling in control can help shield you from feelings of stress and can improve your decision-making skills. Research has shown that those performing a task where they felt that the setbacks were controllable were more resilient in the wake of stress than those who felt that the setbacks were uncontrollable. To apply these findings in real life, one can try and break overwhelming decisions into smaller chunks and beginning with the parts of the decision that feel the easiest.

Even though stress levels have been persistent throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, surveys revealed that most U.S. adults were feeling optimistic about the future. 70% of adults surveys felt confident that once the pandemic ends, things would work themselves out. In the meantime, we can all work on managing our stress, as it is an important skill to have regardless if we are in a pandemic or not.

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