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Decision fatigue and chronic illness

A recent article in the New York Times magazine caught my attention and made me think of you.

John Tierney wrote about “decision fatigue.” This is a phenomenon, studied by social psychologists. They are finding that it is hard to make good decisions late in the day, or when you have had to make a series of choices in a compressed period of time. Car buyers were more susceptible to fancy add- ons after they had made a series of choices, or they tended to resist even sensible packages. They demonstrated the two paths that we tend to take when our brain is depleted. Either we act impulsively and choose unwisely or even take unnecessary risks, or we avoid making any decision. We put it off. This can be as detrimental as not making any choice at all.

What the researchers have found is that the decision fatigue that many of us know we have experienced, is a physiological reality of our brain apparatus. It’s not our imagination that after a day at the mall, or in the afternoon we really can’t decide one more thing. It is how our brains work: the brain energy for choices is depleted and any important decision we make runs the risk of being flawed.

What does this have to do with living with chronic illness?

Most of you routinely make scores of decisions every day, from how to spend your energy, to what kind of medications make sense for the day, to how to navigate daily life. Each decision takes a dollop of brain- power. Add in a doctor’s appointment, a flare, or a complicated work situation, and your ability to think clearly and weigh your options wisely declines.

So how can you take care of yourself?

Let’s add in another important finding. When our brains have been making lots of choices, we also run down on glucose. There has been significant work done around how low glucose affects our physical energy. The new finding is that low glucose also affects our brain’s effectiveness. Recent research indicates that a shot of glucose helps the brain overcome decision fatigue and restore some ability to think clearly and well.

How could you apply some of these findings to support you?

First, pay attention to what time of day you are scheduling important appointments. If you can, see your health care people in the morning – and they will make better decisions too!

If you have to do things late in the day, make sure you have something nourishing to eat. Glucose isn’t just in candy bars. Nuts and dried fruit, a cracker with some peanut butter – you know the drill. Just be sure to give your brain some fuel.

Check out the full article at nytimes.org and let me know what you think!

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