This phenomenon could lead to an increase in COVID-19 cases

As coronavirus case numbers rise around the country, some doctors are saying “caution fatigue” could be responsible for the sudden increase. 

“Caution fatigue” is a term coined by Jacqueline Gollan, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. This phenomenon takes place when people become so desensitized to warnings and regulations that they are more lenient when it comes to following safety protocols. 

According to Gollan, the constant stream of information and warnings about COVID may be making it difficult for people to perceive the threat accurately.  

“It’s reflected when we become impatient with warnings, or we don’t believe the warnings to be real or relevant, or we de-emphasize the actual risk,” Gollan said. “And in doing that, we then bend rules or stop safety behaviors like washing hands, wearing masks and social distancing.”

Gollan compared social distance motivation to a battery. When lockdowns first went into effect, people were charged with energy to help flatten the curve. However, after several months inside, facing unemployment, loneliness, anxiety and depression, that energy is draining. And people are choosing to devote the energy they have left to their mental and financial stability. 

“If I have to go out and survive, I may pay less attention to my health and those safety precautions, because I’m not focused on that,” Gollan said.

As a result, we’re seeing more dangerous behaviors and an increase in cases around the country.  

Dr. Collin Reiff, a psychiatrist and clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health, said the problem could also lie in a lack of direct awareness of the virus. He compared it to swimming in an 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.”

This is the reality of COVID, but a lot of people just haven’t been [as directly] impacted, Reiff said. 

“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.”

The good news is, there are ways to combat caution fatigue and make it easier to follow safety regulations without it feeling so draining. Gollan said practicing self care is essential. Meditate, journal, exercise, get enough sleep, etc. She also suggests reframing your mind when it comes to the risks and benefits. 

For many people, the initial benefits to wearing a mask and hand-washing seem irrelevant several months later. If you haven’t gotten sick yet, it’s assumed you won’t, but that’s not reality. Gollan said to take into account how your behavior will increase your chances of getting sick and infecting the people around you. In this way, your motivation becomes helping and caring for others. 

“There’s something powerful about hope, compassion, caring for others, altruism,” Gollan says. “Those values can help people battle caution fatigue.”

And, of course, don’t be afraid to ask for help if you’re having a hard time. 

“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.”