The national rollout of vaccines to help immunize individuals against COVID-19 has sparked hope across America and the world. However, medical experts urge people to continue taking recommended safety precautions, i.e., social distancing and avoiding crowds, wearing masks when out in public, and washing your hands frequently. In nearing the end of the second year of this outbreak, Americans are experiencing caution fatigue and are eager to return to pre-pandemic life. But, as COVID-19 case numbers in the United States continue to rise, we all need to do our part to keep each other safe until more of us are immunized.
How can the pandemic affect your mental health?
According to Dr. Melinda Ring, executive director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern University, months of living in a constant state of high alert floods the body with the stress hormone cortisol. This long-term overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can have side effects, like anxiety, depression, sleep problems, and fatigue. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are struggling with a new kind of mental and physical exhaustion, which some are calling “caution fatigue.”
What does “caution fatigue” mean?
The term “caution fatigue” was coined by Jacqueline Gollan, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Gollan compares social distancing motivation to the life of a battery, starting off strong and losing energy over time. When the outbreak first began, people were energized and eager to work hard and flatten the curve, but the combination of prolonged isolation, strict health and safety protocols, and increased stress levels has left us all feeling tired, less motivated, and less careful.
Why is it dangerous?
To put it simply: The less careful we are, the harder it is to stop the virus from spreading. Gollan acknowledges that it’s hard to maintain momentum when you haven’t experienced the virus personally, and it’s easy to assume that if you haven’t gotten sick yet, you won’t in the future. “But if your behavior changes and you have a gradual decline in your safety behaviors, then the risk may increase over time,” Gollan says.
How can we combat “caution fatigue”?
· Reframe risks & benefits: Gollan says to think about how your personal behavior affects your personal risk of getting sick. For example, if you stop wearing a mask in public, your personal risk of contracting or transmitting the virus may increase. Remembering the reality of the situation can help you avoid “thinking traps”—like convincing yourself that you need to go to the grocery store again because you’re feeling bored and restless.
· Avoid information overload: Limit your daily news intake and take frequent breaks from technology and social media throughout the day.
· Prioritize mental health: Practicing meditation and mindfulness can help decrease feelings of stress and anxiety. Virtual talk therapy is also a convenient way to get support when coping with difficult feelings.
· Move a little every day: You’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating—regular physical activity (walking, running, stretching, etc.) can boost your mood, improve your sleep, and strengthen your immune system.