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Coping with COVID-19 ‘caution fatigue’

Does it feel harder to follow health and safety advice as the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak continues? Then you may be feeling what’s called “caution fatigue.” And, you’re not alone.


Jacqueline Gollan, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, explains “caution fatigue” this way: Think of your efforts at social distancing and sticking to other safety guidelines as similar to the life of a battery, starting off strong and losing energy over time.

When the outbreak 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.

Caution fatigue can be dangerous

To put it simply: The less careful we are, the harder it is to stop the virus from spreading.

Gollan acknowledges it’s hard to maintain momentum when you haven’t experienced the virus personally. It’s also easy to assume that if you haven’t gotten sick yet, you won’t in the future, she says. “But if your behavior changes and you have a gradual decline in your safety behaviors, then the risk may increase over time,” Gollan says.

Stress from the pandemic may also affect your mental health

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that almost half (45%) of U.S. adults feel their mental health has been negatively impacted from the worry and stress around COVID-19.

Dr. Melinda Ring, executive director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern University, says living in a persistent state of high alert floods the body with the stress hormone cortisol. This long-term overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones may have side effects, like anxiety, depression, sleep problems, and fatigue.  

Tips for handling caution fatigue and stress

  • Reframe risks and 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.


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