Handling ‘caution fatigue’

By Becky Comet, AAC Member Benefits Manager

When this pandemic started I, like many people, thought I would work from home for two or three weeks, the virus would die out, and I would go back to life as usual. Fast forward a few months, the virus is still here, and we all are tired of being cooped up, tired of being careful, and tired of being scared. We are experiencing “caution fatigue.” I read a great analogy that describes the way I feel. Doug Misquitta, MD, a psychiatrist with The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center says, “It’s like you prepared to run a 5K, but you got to the start of the race to find out you’d signed up for a 100-mile ultramarathon at night through the woods.”

Even though we have never experienced a situation like this is our lifetime, brain science says caution fatigue is a normal brain response. Here is the simplified version of the brain science: different areas of the brain react to perceived threat, fears, stress, and so on. When we are exposed to that stimuli over a period, our brains adjust our internal alarms to mitigate the constant, prolonged stress. This causes us to take longer to respond to a warning or to ignore it altogether. Also, the brain’s way of processing new details becomes more difficult because the method of gathering those details is mostly digital. With social isolation/distancing we cannot rely on the part of the brain that helps us understand information by processing social cues. That is why learning with people helps us process and reinforces responsible behavior.

Research has been done on communities on the stages of stress from disaster. Early on, communities pull together. People support each other like we did in the first few weeks of the pandemic. Eventually heroic spirit fades as stress builds up. Then disillusionment kicks in. People lose their optimism and start to have negative or angry reactions, according to Kaye Hermanson, a psychologist in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at University of California-Davis.

“That’s about where we stand now as a society. Many people are exhausted by it all. Some are saying they don’t care if they get COVID-19. They’d rather risk getting sick than stay home or be careful. Others have simply stopped listening to health leaders and science,” she says.

Hopefully knowing a little about why we have caution fatigue makes you feel a bit better. At least we know our response is due to the way our brain is wired. It is expected and normal. The next question is, “what can we do about it?” There are strategies to help us cope and get “over the hump.” I am sure you have heard these suggestions before, but they are worth repeating. We have to continually work on developing coping skills. Hermanson recommends:

Exercise: It is the No. 1 best thing we can do for coping. Exercise releases endorphins and gets some of the adrenaline out when the frustration builds up.

Talking: “Just saying it out loud is important,” Hermanson said. Find the right places and times, but do it. Ignoring feelings does not make them go away. It is like trying to hold a beachball underwater — eventually you lose control, and it pops out. You cannot control where it goes or who it hits. Also, avoid talking to people as worried as you are; it may leave you in an echo chamber.

Constructive thinking: “We may think it is the situation that causes our feelings, but actually, our feelings come from our thoughts about the situation,” Hermanson says. We cannot change the situation, but we can adjust our thinking. Be compassionate with yourself and others. Remind yourself, “I’m doing the best I can.”

Mindfulness and gratitude: “The more you do this, the easier it gets,” suggests Hermanson. “Try being in the moment. You are right here, in this chair, breathing and looking around. We put ourselves through a lot of unnecessary misery projecting into the future or ruminating about the past. For now, just take life day by day.”

Health experts have told us numerous times what we need to do to slow the spread of COVID-19: wash your hands often, social distance, and wear a mask. However, caution fatigue has made some people careless or angrily resistant about the guidelines. What can we do to convince people to do their part? It might be helpful to remind them they can help get back to normal by following the guidelines, which will help reduce the number of COVID-19 cases.

Hermanson suggests role modeling and acts of kindness. It helps some people to see others wearing masks, washing their hands and social distancing. When you see people following guidelines, tell them thank you in a genuine way. Positive reinforcement can be powerful. But what can we do about people who are angrily resistant? Hermanson proposes, “I remind myself to control the things I can, and that I can’t control other people. I say to myself, ‘For every person not masking, look at all the people who are.’” Good advice in these difficult times.

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