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A woman and man with a boy on his lap work from home on a tablet and laptop computer.

Morsa Images

Preet Banerjee is a management consultant to the financial services industry and founder of MoneyGaps.com.

It was somewhere around the third week of March that the passage of time started to blur. For those lucky enough to still be working, Tuesday suddenly felt like a Saturday. Or was it the other way around?

“If life was like a hockey game, COVID is like playing every shift with no intermissions between periods,” says Ajmal Razmy, a psychiatrist and head of service for the mental-health program at Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington. “Transitions between tasks are gone and those transitions helped demarcate the passage of time.” Not to mention, it’s exhausting.

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And when we are exhausted, it’s harder to exercise willpower. Willpower that is needed to ride out investment portfolio volatility without bailing, to avoid using a food delivery app for a single burger combo when we have the ingredients in our fridge to make a meal, or to sit down and get our taxes filed.

Consider the commute home, pre-COVID-19. You had time to decompress. There was a break between work and home. Now everything is smashed together and all routines have gone out the window.

But this isn’t the only change in our lives we’ve had to deal with, and these stressors can all have an impact on our financial decision making, as well as our health.

Some households have found themselves juggling working from home while also having to manage full-time care and schooling of their children. Others are locked down all alone.

Daniel Crosby, chief behavioural officer at Brinker Capital, a privately held investment management firm in the United States, has been turning to his roots as a clinical psychologist to help the firm’s financial adviser partners counsel their clients.

“Trying to understand how even things like getting adequate sleep or poor nutrition have impacted decision making is something that people don’t think a lot about,” Dr. Crosby says.

He cited research into the impact of loneliness and social isolation that has prompted some countries to appoint ministers of loneliness well before COVID-19 was on the radar. “The health risks of social isolation are the equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and are two times as damaging from a health perspective as obesity,” he says.

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Dr. Crosby also says that when people are stressed out, research has found that cognitive processing is reduced by about 13 per cent. Decision fatigue is accelerated by minding children while working or while isolating and by the constant exercising of willpower to adhere to the public-health recommendations.

Dr. Razmy explains the psychological first aid of dealing with a crisis. First, we have the fight or flight response kick in, which we saw manifested in toilet paper and pasta hoarding. We think about survival and our own well-being initially. Then after time, whatever underlying tendencies you had tend to get exacerbated. If you are a comfort-spender, trying to fill a void through purchases, you might be spending more time shopping online now and stretching yourself thinner with big purchases later.

He notes a risk for increased manic spending, which is already commonly seen in the springtime. Conversely, those who tended to hoard before COVID, might hoard to a higher degree.

As to whether we think of this like a sprint or a marathon, Dr. Razmy says it’s not really either. It’s more like interval training, psychologically. There will be periods where we feel the effects and stress more than others.

The amplitude of one’s response will also be related to how much COVID-19 has affected you personally. Some people find the societal changes more of a nuisance because they haven’t experienced illness or death of anyone in their circles. But for those who have been touched in some way by it, the psychological weight in our minds is much greater.

Dr. Crosby notes that we have a finite amount of decisional fortitude, and we need it more than ever right now. The more we can automate and regulate things like children’s schedules, meal planning in advance, automatic savings and bill payments, and anything to give us a new sense of routine right now, the better.

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“The more you can put something on autopilot, the more cognitive reserves you’ll have left over for the most important decisions,” Dr. Crosby says. “You need your decision-making faculties right now. You’re making big decisions about the health and welfare of your family and your economic future.”

And for those wondering about what post-coronavirus life will be like, Dr. Razmy suggests not assuming that day will come any time soon: “It’s living with COVID. There’s COVID-crisis and then there’s COVID-living. We learn how to live with it. HIV has been around for 40 years, are we post-HIV?”

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