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What Is Caution Fatigue, and How Can You Combat It?

A woman removing a face mask to take a deep breath.
Mariia Yakovenko/Shutterstock

This long-term quarantine might have you feeling tired in more ways than one. Caution fatigue, though, is very real. It’s also especially dangerous.

The human brain is mostly wired to deal with short-term threats, like the presence of a predator or a storm. However, an invisible threat, like a virus, forces us into months of cautious behavior, which goes against every threat response we know.

Most people get tired of being so careful for so long—even if they’re unaware of it. However, you can combat caution fatigue.

What Is Caution Fatigue?

When faced with a threat, our minds and bodies activate the stress response known as fight-or-flight. We’ve evolved this response because it helped us stay alive in the face of danger. It preps us to either fight or run for our lives.

In our modern world, things that aren’t actually life-threatening can activate this response. You might have felt it kick in during a big interview or argument. Other situations, like a high-pressure job, can keep your stress response activated for long periods of time. This is called chronic stress.

Over the last few months, the drawn-out threat of COVID-19 has thrown nearly everyone into the extremes of chronic stress. And the effects of chronic COVID-19 stress now have their own name: caution fatigue.

The term “caution fatigue” was coined by Jacqueline Gollan, a psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor. Gollan noticed that the long-term COVID-related stress hasn’t just worn people out in the ordinary ways chronic stress usually does. It’s also eroded our motivation to maintain social distancing and stay safe.

When we feel sad, scared, anxious, or lonely, we often aren’t as good at making decisions. These emotions can cloud our judgment and reduce our focus on taking precautions. And with a pandemic going on, most of us are experiencing more of those negative feelings than normal, contributing to caution fatigue.

You might not have consciously decided to make riskier decisions. However, when experiencing caution fatigue, it’s much easier to think, “What’s one little party, after all?” or, “Maybe I don’t need a mask just this once.”

Over time, these thoughts will slide you into a routine of unsafe practices. Or, you might just give up altogether and live your life the way you used to, regardless of the risks.

How to Safely Deal with Caution Fatigue

You can take action against caution fatigue, even though you can’t fully get rid of the COVID-related stress. Here are a few ways to lessen its power over your decision-making process.

Engage in Energy-Boosting Activities

A woman doing yoga.
Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock

Any safe activities that boost your emotional and physical energy during quarantine are helpful. These will be different for everyone.

Maybe 10 minutes of yoga or a long phone conversation with a friend makes you feel energized.

Whatever it is, make time for it in your schedule regularly, since it will help counteract stress and fatigue.

Invest in Your Health

Chronic stress takes a toll on your body, as well as your mind. You’ll be in a better position to deal with caution fatigue if your body is healthy.

The basics of regular sleep, plenty of water, healthy food, and regular exercise are all you need. You don’t have to adopt a trendy diet or do a grueling workout, but maintaining a baseline of healthy habits will make caution fatigue less exhausting.

Make Time for Gratitude

Investing in gratitude can make the effects of long-term stress less painful. For example, a gratitude journal can help reduce feelings of unhappiness. It won’t completely eliminate stress, but it will help.

Maintain a Routine

A lot of our stress and resulting caution fatigue stems from the dramatic ways in which the pandemic has disrupted our routines. Creating a new routine during this time might make things feel more normal, so you can focus on staying safe.

Your new routine might involve a regular bedtime, a weekly meal plan, a morning workout, or whatever works for you. Don’t overschedule yourself, but, rather, try to come up with a simple routine you can easily stick to.

Take a Media Break

Staying informed is important, but constantly following COVID-19 news can actually desensitize you to the threat and raise your stress level even further.

Consider reducing your media consumption if it’s been high. Try catching up on news in batches. Take a bit of time each day to catch up on the headlines, but then spend a few hours (or a full day) away from the news.

Be Realistic About Risks and Rewards

The short-term rewards of something like a mask-free trip to the store might be tempting. However, when you really think about it, the risk of COVID-19 far outweighs the short-term reward of briefly feeling normal.

If you’re having trouble accurately weighing risks and rewards, try writing them down. Draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper, and then jot down the potential risks on one side and potential rewards on the other. This will help you see if that house party, beach trip, or gym workout is really worth it.

Of course, don’t forget, you’re not the only one at risk—there’s also the risk of infecting others. The rewards are social, too. Potentially saving lives by maintaining social distance is definitely a reward.

Work to Minimize Risks

While every activity we do has an inherent risk, and some are riskier than others, don’t forget that you can also minimize the risk of some things.

For example, you can reduce the risk of a beach trip if you go alone to a secluded beach and maintain social distancing.

Again, writing things down can sometimes give you a clearer picture of what’s safe and what isn’t. If you have a written plan to minimize risks, that will also help you stick to it.

Consult a Medical Professional

Most people are likely experiencing caution fatigue on some level. However, if you’re feeling extremely depressed, fatigued, anxious, or otherwise affected, consult your doctor.

He or she can likely recommend treatment options that will help. Virtual therapy and other treatments are available even during quarantine.

Caution fatigue is totally normal, but it can easily become more harmful if you’re unaware of it! Simply knowing it exists might help you make better decisions. Armed with these tips, you’ll be well-prepared to handle its effects and stay safe.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a freelance and creative writer from the Pacific Northwest, and an MFA student at the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop. She specializes in lifestyle writing and creative nonfiction. Read Full Bio »
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