Do you find it tough to make decisions these days? What used to be no-brainers, stopping at the grocery for bread and milk, making a pit stop at the gas station or meeting friends for dinner and drinks are now fraught with dangers.
Are people wearing masks at the grocery and keeping their carts at a proper distance of 6 feet? Did you bring gloves or hand sanitizer for the gas pump? Will the restaurant have outdoor socially distant seating and just how does one eat with a mask?
And now we’re fighting back tears and struggling with rage over the killing of George Floyd, the unarmed and handcuffed black man in Minneapolis who died after gasping “I can’t breathe” as a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck.
“It’s crazy times, with protests and a pandemic and things at every level appearing untrustworthy,” said biochemist Bita Moghaddam, who chairs the behavioral neuroscience department in the school of medicine at Oregon Health and Science University.
Moghaddam, who studies how anxiety affects the brain, said it’s no wonder our stressed, overworked brains can’t spit out a decision. We have become victims of “analysis paralysis.”
“We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month,” Daphna Shohamy, who is a professor of psychology at Columbia University, told CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta in a recent podcast.
And we’re all forced to make decisions in that state of uncertainty and to just rely on what we do know, which is not good enough,” said Shohamy, who studies the cognitive neuroscience of learning, memory and decision-making.
“I notice it myself all the time,” Gupta said in the podcast. “As simple as choosing a tie in the morning, what I’m going to have for lunch, whether I’m going to go for a run or a bike ride.
“Those were decisions that usually took me just a few seconds, and now sometimes I just find myself struggling,” he said.
How the brain makes decisions
The headquarters for our decision-making capabilities is the prefrontal cortex, which controls our higher-level executive functions. Those include focusing our attention, creating and organizing thoughts, setting goals, planning actions and putting a stop to impulsive thoughts and behaviors.
Under normal or mild stress conditions, the brain uses “working memory” to regulate our mood and actions from the top down. Working memory marries recent events with memories from long-term storage about what we learned from any experience, and it uses this to make decisions about how we should act, think and feel based on our experiences. And, of course, it helps us anticipate and predict possible consequences from our actions.
“The brain is constantly estimating risk,” Moghaddam said.
“I’m hungry. I’m going to get up and drive to a pizzeria to grab some pizza. But driving involves risk because you could get into an accident,” she said. “If you’re suffering from anxiety disorders, you may say, ‘No, I’m not going to even risk getting in the car because I couldn’t relax.’ If you’re drunk, then the risk is even higher. And it becomes a computation game.”
It takes the first quarter of life for the decision-making area of the brain to fully mature in humans. Car rental companies recognize that fact and won’t rent to anyone under 25.
Other key milestones, such as a driver’s license at age 16, voting at 18 and drinking at 21 occur when the brain’s ability to make good decisions isn’t fully baked.
The prefrontal cortex is also the area of the brain that is most sensitive to stress. Even mild stress can cause “rapid and dramatic loss of prefrontal cognitive abilities,” while prolonged stress can actually change the brain, according to Amy Arnsten, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Yale School of Medicine.
When we are stressed all the time, certain neurotransmitters go awry, flooding the brain with chemicals that change the structure and functioning of the prefrontal cortex and the fight-or-flight emotion and memory centers of the brain. Working memory suffers, and our ability to make quick — or well-thought-out decisions — declines.
“in general, decision-making slows down,” Moghaddam said. “You could argue it’s better for our survival. You learned driving when it’s icy is dangerous, you shouldn’t be drinking and driving, and you’ve learned that this virus could kill you.”
The combo of stress with increased risk is making it much harder to make decisions during the pandemic.
“If you think about going to the grocery store right now, there’s a fair amount of planning consciously or subconsciously — what times will be less crowded, do I really need to go, and should I go,” Moghaddam said. “Most of us didn’t think of going to a grocery store as a dangerous thing before, yet now it has become an anxiety-provoking process.”
What to do next?
Give your brain a break from its constant risk calculations.
Try to take 10 to 15 minutes to close your eyes and meditate, pushing all of your worries — and decisions — to the side during that time.
You can see physical changes in the brain in a short time, said psychology and psychiatry professor Richard Davidson, founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
Davidson did a randomized controlled trial of people who’ve never meditated before. Using direct measures of brain function and structure, he found it only took 30 minutes a day of meditation practice over the course of two weeks to produce a measurable change in the brain.
There are other anxiety-busting activities that can help. Practice good sleep hygiene to improve your sleep quality, one of the best things you can do to ease stress and boost your mood.
Studies show exercising at a moderate — but not high — intensity for 15 to 30 minutes at least three times a week does wonders for stress. Try rhythmic exercises, such as running, swimming, cycling and walking, to get your blood pumping in major muscle groups.
Something as simple as taking deep, slow breaths can do amazing things to our brain and therefore our stress and anxiety, said Dr. Cynthia Ackrill, an editor for Contentment magazine, produced by the American Institute of Stress.
Get CNN Health's weekly newsletter
Sign up here to get The Results Are In with Dr. Sanjay Gupta every Tuesday from the CNN Health team.
“When you physiologically calm yourself, you actually change your brainwaves,” Ackrill said.
Yoga, tai chi and qi gong are spiritual disciplines, designed to meld body and mind. A yoga lifestyle incorporates physical postures, breath regulation and mindfulness through the practice of meditation. Brain scans of people using tai chi and qi gong find increased alpha, beta and theta brain wave activity, suggesting increased relaxation and attentiveness.
And finally, stop criticizing your brain for its indecisiveness.
“Why are we so worried about being paralyzed?” Moghaddam asked. “It’s normal for a brain to take its time to make a decision. The brain is actually doing its job.”