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Mental Load

Something that has been popping up often in sessions lately is the idea of carrying a “mental load” and what exactly this means for clients. Many individuals have been discussing the stress associated with being the one in the family that tends to take on the task of organizing schedules, remembering significant events, creating to-do lists, and making sure important tasks are completed on time each day. There is a never-ending list of responsibilities to attend to running in the background for those who take on the mental load of the family. This work is often invisible, yet crucial when it comes to running a household.

Allison Daminger, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology and social policy at Harvard University recently published a paper in the American Sociological Review that breaks down the mental load, or “cognitive labor” into four parts: anticipate, identify, decide, and monitor.

Anticipate is the step that involves anticipating the needs of the family ahead of time. For example, searching for a pediatric dentist for your children ahead of time. Or creating a list of meals you want to prep for the week.

Identify involves taking that next step and identifying which avenues will be explored. For example, making a list of local pediatric dentists that will take your insurance. Or identifying which ingredients you will need to purchase from the store for dinners.

Decide involves making a decision to pursue a specific avenue. For example, choosing the best dentist for your child. Or deciding on what grocery store to shop at for items needed for the week.

Monitor is the step that includes completing all required or on-going tasks needed for the decision to come to fruition. For example, filling out paperwork at the dentist and scheduling appointments. Or completing the grocery shopping for the week and monitoring what ingredients you are low on so that the meals can be prepared.

Research typically reports that women tend to be the ones who most often carry the mental load, but this is not always the case. As we have entered post-COVID lockdown, there has been an increase in men reporting to be the individuals in the family responsible for this cognitive labor. This can be especially difficult, for example, if the family is also adjusting to role changes including changes in who now works outside of the home. COVID brought many changes to the work-dynamic, such as working from home vs. in the office. These changes may have also led to changes of who is the primary care taker for the children, and who is carrying the mental load for the family.

If you feel like you are the one in your family unit responsible for the cognitive labor, here are some suggestions that may be helpful:

1) Keep lists. Write things down, especially when you have a million tasks running in the background in your mind. Make a list and set it aside, knowing you can come back to it throughout the day and check things off as needed.

2) Ask for help. Is your partner able to take on some of the tasks? Do you have a friend or family member you can lean on for support? Are your children old enough to start taking on more of the household chores? Create a routine that will be sustainable and reliable where you are able to delegate some of these tasks. There may be more mental work up front as you delegate these tasks, but in the long-run could be helpful if this routine is maintained.

3) Take time for self-care. What recharges you? What activity do you like to engage in to unwind? As you start to find a routine where others are able to consistently help out, you will have more time for yourself. Even if your default is to fill this time up with other tasks, make it a habit to say “No” to other responsibilities. Take this time to do the things you enjoy—guilt-free!

If you are struggling with carrying this mental load, and you are noticing it has become difficult to manage your stress levels, or if you are starting to suffer from increased anxiety or depression, it may be time to reach out to a licensed therapist. Here at 253 Therapy and Consult, we are here to help! Things may feel really heavy right now, so let us help you lighten your load. We can help you find time for self-care, learn to delegate tasks, and learn coping skills to manage stress, anxiety, and depression. Unload some of the stress today by calling and scheduling an appointment.

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