COVID-19: Are you suffering from 'caution fatigue'?

By HUB SmartCoverage Team on June 25th, 2020

Tired of washing your hands and wearing a mask? Are your efforts to social distance flagging?

You’re not alone.

This phenomenon – often referred to as quarantine fatigue – is only getting worse now that we’re months into the pandemic.

Jacqueline Gollan, a professor at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine calls it a different name – ‘caution fatigue.’ And how your brain works is to blame. Caution fatigue "occurs when people show low motivation or energy to comply with safety guidelines," Gollan said recently in an interview with CNN.

In a university article on the detrimental impact caution fatigue has on efforts to stay safe during the pandemic, Gollan likened it to an AA battery.

“Initially you may have been energized and positively focused on following pandemic-safety behaviour,” she wrote. “But as the virus has continued on, you may start to focus on the negative and feel physically or mentally depleted.”

This isn’t unique to the coronavirus. It’s the same principle someone might apply to some kind of alarm that’s been tested multiple times. If you’ve heard it before, there’s a chance you won’t take the alarm seriously when the threat is real, according to CNN.

“This mental state happens for a few reasons, including chronic stress, decreased sensitivity to warnings and the inability to process new information with others,” the media outlet reported.

Caution fatigue during the pandemic has been a concern since at least April, when TIME magazine reported “the prolonged cocktail of stress, anxiety, isolation and disrupted routines has left many feeling drained.”

"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 added. "And in doing that, we then bend rules or stop safety behaviors like washing hands, wearing masks and social distancing."

But, according to the Charlotte Observer, people aren’t just numb to the danger of the highly contagious virus, said Eric Kilmer, a professor of neuropsychology at Drexel University. Kilmer told Medical XPress — they see the coronavirus as “abstract.”

“It is an invisible enemy and it targets specific vulnerable populations more than others,” Zillmer said. “So, some younger populations for example, may not feel particularly threatened. Wearing masks or the energy it takes to comply with safety guidelines gets old very quickly.”

According to the Cleveland Clinic, a medical centre in Ohio, some signs of quarantine fatigue are:

  • Irritability
  • Feelings of stress or anxiousness
  • Eating more
  • Sleeping less or being unable to sleep
  • Lack of motivation or productivity
  • Racing thoughts or being on edge

Information overload can also be a contributing factor, CNN reported.


As some jurisdictions begin the process of reopening, it’s still crucial people continue to follow social-distancing guidelines to combat the spread of the virus. To help, use Gollan’s tips for fighting caution fatigue.

  1. Reframe risks and benefits - Make decisions by weighing the risk of exposure against their own health. “Consider the value of being a good member of collective society, preserving health for yourself and family,” Gollan said in the Northwestern University press release. “It’s value-driven behavior and has an ultimate reward in caring for others and yourself.”
  2. Take care of your physical and mental health - If you suffer from anxiety, stress, exhaustion or depression, Gollan said they should remember to do things that give them “physical, emotional and spiritual energy.” In other words, get enough sleep, follow a balanced diet, exercise, don’t drink too much, stay socially connected with loved ones and find ways to reduce stress including cooking a warm meal for yourself or meditating.
  3. Rebuilding a routine- Make safety practices into habits by setting up visual cues — for example, set your face mask on a table by the door to remind yourself to put it on before you leave.
  4. Make altruism a habit- When fear is no longer the motivating factor, CNN reported individuals’ health or the health of others — an altruistic goal — can take its place. “There’s something powerful about hope, compassion, caring for others, altruism,” Gollan told TIME. “Those values can help people battle caution fatigue.

RELATED READING: What will the office look like post COVID-19?

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