Why your brain is having difficulty making plans right now, according to a neuroscientist

With pandemic and election stress at an all-time high, I found myself unable to schedule things past Nov. 3

By Ashlie D. Stevens
October 30, 2020 8:00PM (UTC)
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Busy businessman wearing mask checking his schedule (Getty Images)

For the last month or so, I've desperately struggled with what I've termed as "planning paralysis," this feeling that I can't put anything on the calendar because everything around me feels like one big question mark. While at the beginning of the pandemic, I assuaged my stress by packing my free time with activities — Zoom happy hours and virtual fitness classes — my schedule is now marked in new increments; instead of days and hours, it's project recipe bake times and Netflix releases. 

With election day steadily approaching, my pandemic, personal and political anxiety are due for a high-speed collision, and as a result, my brain balks at putting anything on paper after Nov. 3. And I'm not alone. 

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Lauren Krouse and her partner are both freelance writers, and they moved to Virginia to serve as caregivers for her grandmother right before the novel coronavirus was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization. 

"Since then, [my grandmother] has relocated to South Carolina to live with another family member for a while, and we're now in the middle of a small town in Virginia house-sitting for her," Krouse said. "We've considered saving up and buying a house, but that just seems too risky with the impact of COVID on the economy, real estate, and publishing." 

The couple had also seriously considered an international move, but Krouse said that feels implausible amid the pandemic, so any real planning has turned into daydreaming while looking at long-term Airbnbs in Uruguay. 

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For Chaya Milchtein, a Wisconsin-based writer and automotive educator, "planning paralysis" feels like a special kind of anxiety where "you are terrified that if you make plans, the world will just stomp on them and you'll never see them through to reality." 

"When in mid-summer we decided to have a virtual wedding, I only gave myself four-and-a-half weeks to plan," she said. "One of the reasons for that was because I was worried that COVID cases would rise again, ultimately forcing me to call off the wedding." 

She and her wife still haven't put their honeymoon on the calendar for similar reasons. 

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According to Dr. Emily Mason, an industry neuroscientist based in Minneapolis, to understand "planning paralysis," you first have to understand how our brains make plans and how stress impacts our ability to do so. 

"Planning falls under the cover of what neuroscientists call 'executive functioning,' which is an umbrella term for things like planning, reasoning, making decisions — the things that make us very human," Mason said. "All those functions take place in the frontal lobe and these are things that can be affected by things like dementia."

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Our brains, Mason said, are interested in two main outcomes when forming a plan: increasing the amount of reward and decreasing the amount of loss. Even subconsciously, we spend a lot of time weighing the probability of various rewards and losses. 

For example, let's say your friends want to set you up on blind date at a local restaurant. There are some potential rewards — you have a good time, you enjoy a nice meal, you meet someone with whom you are compatible; but there are also some potential losses, like your date stands you up or the dinner is very uncomfortable. Your brain will weigh the probability of each, which ultimately leads to a decision 

It's worth noting, Mason said, that our brains are naturally wired to put a higher weight on loss or punishment as a kind of self-preservation tool. 

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"But one of the things that stress can do is it can actually make you worse at figuring out probabilities," Mason said. "We as humans think we're good at assessing probabilities, but objectively, we're just not. And if we're under stress, that gets even worse." 

Mason brings up a particular type of stress that has been studied in rodents called "chronic unpredictable stress."

"The mice are stressed out by playing loud noises or flashing lights or being placed in cold rooms," Mason said. "All of those are stressful and can affect a mouse's decision-making abilities, but the worst thing for them is if they don't know when it's coming. It sounds so much like 2020."

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The same concept is applicable for humans, and when stressed, it can be easy for some people to fixate on or overemphasize the potential for loss in the decision-making equation. That may look like putting off a honeymoon, a big purchase or even just flipping to the mid-November section of your calendar because there's the fear that the world will just step on your plans (what's that old truism — man plans, and COVID laughs?) and you'll have to deal with feelings of disappointment and frustration. 

So, how do you break out of pandemic- and election-induced planning paralysis? 

Well, NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci said in a recent panel that the U.S. may not return to "normal" until 2022. On one hand, this is deeply disappointing news (though not unexpected given President Donald Trump's dismal pandemic response). However, knowing that allows us to adjust our expectations to be more in line with current realities. If you can't quite bring yourself to plan a once-in-a-lifetime international trip for late 2021, maybe a socially distanced hiking trip at a state national park next spring? 

And maybe I can bring myself to start putting things on my agenda further out than a week in advance.

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Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is a staff writer at Salon, specializing in culture.

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Decision Making Election Neurology Neuroscience Pandemic Reporting