When it comes to adhering to the recommended safety precautions to protect against the novel coronavirus, such as wearing a face mask and practicing social distancing, are you as diligent as you were at the start of the pandemic? If you’ve been feeling a bit fast and loose with the rules lately, you may be experiencing so-called “caution fatigue.”
“In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an influx of media attention on helping people comply with quarantine safety guidelines. I've observed a phenomenon called 'caution fatigue' — caution fatigue is low motivation or energy to observe safety information,” Jacqueline Gollan, the associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine who coined the term, told Fox News.
“It occurs when we become desensitized to stress and warnings, and then outweigh the valid risks of injury for the benefits of a reward such as human connection, exercise, or the outdoors. The burden of cautious behavior, especially if prolonged, can seem unnecessary and thus people become vulnerable to suggestions to bend safety rules,” she continued.
But caution fatigue can be dangerous, especially as COVID-19 still presents a very real risk, with neither a vaccine to protect against it nor an effective treatment at this time. What’s more, cases are surging across the country, with the U.S hitting an all-time high on Wednesday in new daily coronavirus cases. Florida, Texas and California are among the most hard-hit.
In Texas, new COVID-19 infections broke 5,000 for the first time on Tuesday, just a week after they first surpassed 4,000 in a single day. The spike has since prompted Gov. Greg Abbott to pause the Lone Star State’s reopening plans, he announced on Thursday.
Fast-paced reopenings in some states may also give some people a false sense of security and further contribute to caution fatigue. Indeed, as Gollan noted, this phenomenon occurs when “we become desensitized to warnings or experience mental or physical fatigue from observing the safety guidelines."
“We outweigh the risks of our situation for other goals, health benefits of connection, and normal routine. It can make people vulnerable to suggestions to bend COVID-19 safety guidelines,” she said. “We initially may have been fearful, but as we start to gain control we become more confident to confront situations that may have scared us. As a result, as the pandemic continues, some of us have adjusted and started to underestimate the actual threat, ignore situational hazards, and don’t take COVID-19 risks as seriously.”
Speaking to Fox News, Dr. Collin Reiff, a psychiatrist and clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health, likened caution fatigue to swimming in the ocean.
“People go swimming in the ocean, a potentially dangerous place, and don't take flotation devices with them. If you don’t see anyone drown, you feel fine doing it,” he said.
“But if we hear that 100,000 people died [while swimming in the ocean], and 180,000 could drown by October, you would see more people wearing a flotation device,” he said, referring to a recent report that U.S. coronavirus deaths are projected to reach 180,000 by the beginning of October unless the majority of people start wearing face masks.
Reiff also hypothesized that cognitive dissonance might play a part in those who find themselves having a more lax attitude toward recommended safety precautions.
“I think some of it is fatigue, but I think another part of it is that a lot of people haven't been [as directly] impacted” by the novel coronavirus, he said, noting that the virus had a more direct impact on those living in cities that were hit hard at the start of the pandemic, such as New York City and Philadelphia.
“It may not be so much fatigue but their experience with COVID — [the precautions] are not convenient for me any longer," he said, adding that this an instance of cognitive dissonance or a situation in which someone experiences conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors.
“People are tired of COVID. A lot of people at the beginning of this experience had an adjustment disorder because of acute stress. But now that the stressor is being removed, there’s less anxiety around this, which is dangerous in a way because it’s still very much alive and real," he continued. “We all want to believe things are getting better, but that’s not necessarily consistent with reality. People don't want to believe the numbers because it’s an inconvenient truth."
How to offset caution fatigue
If you’re experiencing caution fatigue, is there anything you can do about it? Yes, said Gollan, who offered tips to combat it.
“There are different ways to improve your motivation or energy to comply with safety guidelines,” she said.
First, "Update yourself with credible safety information provided by medical professionals," she advised, adding people should ensure they are reading “credible news sources."
"Change up the source of your news so it continues to catch your attention," she recommended.
Staying physically active is also helpful.
“Take care of your body, exercise regularly, get quality sleep, eat healthily, avoid mood-changing drugs and over-using alcohol, and avoid high-risk behaviors. Call your doctor if you feel unwell, [or] cannot sleep," Gollan said.
Next, “Assume more social responsibility or an altruistic approach,” she advised. “More we-thinking and less me-thinking. Improving social fitness. See if you can find alternative ways of socializing and getting support.”
Seeking emotional outlets could be of benefit as well.
“Set goals of enjoyment and mastery, express gratitude, use positive humor, learn to stabilize your emotions and increase your integrity,” said Gollan. “Call your doctor for consultation if you feel depressed or anxious.”
Gollan also advised trying "short coping statements." (Example: "This is very hard right now, but I will make it through.")
“What can you tell yourself that adds understanding, caring, and nurturance? What actions can you take to protect yourself right now?” she added.
Gollan also suggested that those experiencing caution fatigue seek “positive religious or spiritual coping,” such as "faith-based experts or online resources."
“Rekindle your hope that things will change, try to forgive others and yourself," she said.
Additionally, try to "reduce stress exhaustion and your exposure to other risk situations,” such as overusing alcohol or being in hot weather, she said. “See if you can learn from your stress: How does it help me grow, change, and find new solutions?”
Fox News’s Brie Stimson, Michael Ruiz, and Ann W. Schmidt contributed to this report.