COVID and Motivation Paralysis

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When U.S. COVID cases spiked in March of 2020, essential workers, non-essential workers, and students alike experienced life-altering changes to their routines. In the beginning, many people felt overwhelmed with fear and panic. But as the initial phase of shock about the "new normal" fades, a link between COVID and motivation emerges. Experts call this phenomenon cognitive dulling or pandemic fatigue.

The Effects of COVID on Mental Health

The CDC highlights stress as one of the most widely experienced consequences of the public health crisis. Whether related to financial worries or health concerns, stress can manifest in many ways. Examples include changes in energy and difficulty concentrating and making decisions. Stress can also worsen pre-existing mental health conditions.

"It is natural to experience worry, fear, agitation, separation anxiety, low mood, loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed, lack of motivation, and reduced energy and drive."

– Tanya J. Peterson, counselor and mental health educator

"The pandemic and the world's reaction happened fairly quickly, and people had no time to prepare mentally, physically, or practically," Tanya J. Peterson, an Oregon-based counselor, mental health educator, and author told Affordable Colleges Online.

"COVID has been like an adjustment disorder on steroids," she said. Adjustment disorders, experienced by both children and adults, appear after a traumatic or stressful event. They usually last about six months. Symptoms include crying, feelings of hopelessness, and depressed mood.

"It is natural to experience worry, fear, agitation, separation anxiety, low mood, loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed, lack of motivation, and reduced energy and drive [because of COVID]," Peterson said.

Studies show COVID has also led to various potentially longer-term mental health problems. These include posttraumatic stress disorder and other trauma- and stress-related disorders.During the pandemic, about 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, up from 1 in 10 who reported these symptoms prior to COVID.

As we emerge from the crisis, experts anticipate a long-term impact on people's mental health.

The Effects of COVID on Productivity

During the pandemic, many workers and students transitioned to working or studying from home. The switch raised concerns about remote productivity levels.

A 2020 Harvard study of 40 people who worked from home during COVID-19 showed mixed results. Some evidence showed that productivity actually increased. But the study also found a negative impact on creativity and personal resilience.

"Routines and habits are vital for mental health, wellbeing, and success at work or school, and these are now suspended, seemingly indefinitely."

– Tanya J. Peterson, counselor and mental health educator

Another study from Microsoft that examined COVID and motivation found that 34% self-reported a decrease in productivity levels while working from home. Thirty-four percent said their productivity increased.

Microsoft noted that employees with prior experience working remotely reported higher rates of productivity and satisfaction. But people with less experience felt overwhelmed and experienced lower productivity rates. So, declines in productivity may have more to do with experiencing a sudden change, rather than the physical environment itself.

"Working professionals and students have seen an almost complete disruption in daily routine," Peterson said. "Routines and habits are vital for mental health, wellbeing, and success at work or school, and these are now suspended, seemingly indefinitely."

The Effects of COVID on Creativity

While stay-at-home orders proved crucial to preventing the spread of the virus, they did not foster creativity. Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom's research has shown a link between in-person interaction and innovation.

"Having difficulty adjusting to COVID can zap energy and motivation, which are important components of creativity."

– Tanya J. Peterson, counselor and mental health educator

"Just as with productivity, creativity is negatively affected by the stress of the pandemic and difficulty adjusting to the continued and unpredictable changes," Peterson said. "While there is a stereotype that people with mental health disorders like depression and anxiety tend to be highly creative, the reasons for that are varied and complex and don’t apply to depression and anxiety linked to stressful and traumatic situations."

Research shows that while some amount of stress may initially encourage creativity, chronic stress stifles it.

"Having difficulty adjusting to COVID can zap energy and motivation, which are important components of creativity," Peterson added. "When someone is focused on trying to adjust to uncertainty and this extreme stressor, using much of their mental and physical energy to try to balance changes and new routines, there is little left over for creativity."

The Effects of COVID on Students

As of late April 2020, 85% of students were sent home from school in 180 countries. This prompted researchers to explore COVID's effect on learning. Parents and teachers tried to ease the transition to online learning, but unfortunately, studies have shown some negative outcomes.

One study on COVID and motivation connected remote learning with a decline in young students' motivation and ability to focus. Researchers blame this on the decrease in their in-person interactions and extracurricular activities. Students themselves also reported sleeping, procrastinating, gaming, and using social media more. Over 75% also experienced increased stress.

"Students have seen an almost complete disruption in daily routine," Peterson said. "Go-to strategies for success may no longer be effective or even apply, which can create an added layer of stress."

College students that transitioned to online learning exhibited similar behaviors and experiences. But it's important to differentiate between programs and courses designed for online instruction versus those made for in-person learning, according to Deb Adair, president of Quality Matters, a nonprofit that ensures quality in online education.

When teachers, students, and workers were unprepared for the transition to remote alternatives, they struggled more. But students and teachers already familiar with and prepared for remote learning experienced more positive results.

Reducing the Effects of Motivation Paralysis

If you find yourself struggling with time management or a tendency to procrastinate, Peterson recommends making four changes to your daily routine.

  • Begin each day with a calming and motivating ritual.

    In the earlier days of human existence, taking risks like eating an unidentified mushroom or venturing into an unfamiliar landscape could be fatal. Our urge to establish routines, rituals, and habits comes from the primitive part of our brains trying to keep us safe.

    Research shows that rituals can give us back a sense of control, reduce stress and anxiety, and improve performance.

    "You might meditate, exercise, or journal, for example. It's important to do something you enjoy and that will help you prepare mentally for the day ahead," Peterson said.

  • Set a small goal for your day.

    Harnessing motivation stems from setting objectives. So if you're having trouble finding determination to take on the day, try writing down a specific short-term goal.

    "Always pair it with your reason for wanting to work toward it. How will it move you forward? What positive purpose does it serve today? Keep it meaningful and small," Peterson said. "Especially right now, in this ongoing stressful situation and period of adjustment, setting goals that are too large or future-oriented can be overwhelming and unmotivating."

    If you don't know where to begin, try using a tried-and-true framework like SMART goals. This framework can help you set specific, achievable goals within a certain time frame.

  • Live each day mindfully.

    "Mindfulness" has become somewhat of a buzzword lately. But the word goes beyond a clichéd life motto. Consistent meditation has been proven to improve compassion, problem-solving, attention span, and resilience to stress.

    "It helps your mind remain centered on actions you can take in the moment, and it balances your nervous system to prevent it from going into fight-or-flight mode and staying there," Peterson said.

    "No matter what you are doing or what is going on — even if it's a huge challenge — pay attention to the moment you're in. Center yourself in your now by using your senses: what do you see, hear, feel, smell, or taste right now?"

    Basic meditation consists of simply closing your eyes, breathing slowly and steadily, and focusing on the present moment. If you need a little more guidance, try a free meditation app.

  • Reflect.

    Peterson's final recommendation involves simply taking the time to process and acknowledge your experiences. For example, think back on your goals and review your process and the outcome. Another example involves remembering a situation, how you handled it, and your mindstate at that time.

    "Step back and reflect on all of the changes you've faced and the new routines of daily living you’ve had to develop. Adjusting actually requires tremendous creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. It's important to acknowledge that and be proud of all you've done and are doing to not just survive but thrive," she said.

    Self-assessment also raises your interest and motivation, increasing your ability to learn and perform better — whether in a school or work environment — and to develop critical analytical skills.

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AffordableCollegesOnline.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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