Covid caution fatigue? Or is it simply complacency?
As I write this, we are in yet another wave of outbreak, with the numbers of those with Covid diagnoses once again rising, and a raft of restrictions and closures on the horizon.
We often say that grief comes in waves; symbolising that healing and recovery are neither linear nor straightforward. I think we can agree that pretty much captures this whole fiasco.
But what does this mean for us when we are riding the rollercoaster of the pandemic trajectory? The feeling from those I have spoken to is disappointment, frustration, helplessness and even anger. We might consider both the length of disruption to life, and the unreliable trajectory of recovery to be important factors in people becoming fatigued and burnt out.
Research on post-disaster stress tells us that after an initial burst of rallying community spirit, a long phase of disillusionment is to be expected, and that might include anger, frustration and lack of optimism. With the pandemic, we are not just dealing with one crisis and repair; we are dealing with many.
Those researching the fatigue that comes with the pandemic are interested in both the human impact in terms of mood, adjustment and disillusionment, but also the idea that fatigue might mean burnout or complacency in regard to caution and adherence to safety advice; a pattern named “caution fatigue”.
How might Covid caution fatigue manifest? Well, certainly for some it is likely to be a more gentle, passive response; perhaps loosening up on precautions, steadily becoming more comfortable with taking risks and feeling that the benefits of freedom offset the risks posed. For others, their behaviour might actually reflect an angry rebellion or oppositional stance to restrictions. This could reflect a genuine concern about how the governing powers manage the situation, but more than likely for many it will reflect a defence against fear, helplessness and loss of control.
One explanation for complacency is that when we take more risks, without harm ensuing, we also become habituated to risk and it reduces our anxiety and makes us feel safe with that risk. Many psychological interventions, such as cognitive behavioural therapy in particular, are actually based on this premise. A second explanation is that it is really quite hard for us to stay vigilant and alert to risk over a protracted period — we get exhausted. A third explanation for complacency is that, as humans, we are wired for connection — staying apart from people, restricting touch, and limiting our contact is simply not the way we are programmed.
So how do we try to resist complacency? Psychological theory has a few ideas:
• To sustain our attention on safety measures, research suggests that we may need more tangible and immediate rewards to motivate us. Sadly, the pandemic isn’t providing any of those reliably, so the next best option is to create our own short-term goals and rewards based on what is in our control
• Abstract concepts are less helpful than personalised ones, so be sure to focus on the immediate harm to yourself and those close to you. Even if you don’t think they are susceptible to the virus, consider how long-term restrictions might impact their social wellness, career, hobbies and education
• Manage stress and wellbeing: the better we are at managing our wellbeing, the more resource and resilience we will have to offer when fighting caution fatigue
• Foster a compassionate, community spirit: we are in this together, and caring for each other and acting in ways to be protective are still vital
• Try to be aware of “in the moment” bias, which may have you underestimating the risks because you are not considering the potential longer term impact of your decision.
• Be wary of thinking distortions, such as minimising the risk because you haven’t been sick
• Disappointment and frustration may be key elements of caution fatigue, so be sure to work on ways to express these safely. Talking these feelings out or journalling may be a helpful way to acknowledge their presence but not act on them by reducing your attention to safety measures
• Remember, it is not for ever. While there is a considerable amount of sacrifice for now, we anticipate that life will get better in the future
The abnormal is the new normal, for now at least, and it is completely understandable if you are feeling fed up, hopeless, angry or disappointed. All these feelings and more are to be expected, and it is important to check in with where you are at. Take a temperature check of your fatigue and consider drawing up a plan for how to reboot.
• Gemma Harris, ClinPsyD, is Director of Corporate Wellness at Solstice, and writes on Instagram as @theexdoctor