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Caution Fatigue: How to Avoid It

Originally published September 24 2020.

Features Editor, Olivia Bybel, takes a look at the causes of caution fatigue, and how to combat it.

Fright is usually not a pleasant feeling, but it serves a purpose. Evolution has equipped us with a fight-or-flight response that our minds and bodies activate when faced with a danger or a threat. During this response, hormones and neurotransmitters are released, and our bodies prepare us to run or fight for our lives. Of course, it is a more common experience to experience a fight-or-flight response when one is not actually in mortal peril, such as taking a test, performing in front of a crowd, or arguing with someone. This can be annoying, when something simple and non-life threatening makes our heart beat faster, our palms sweat, and a feeling of peril wash over us. High stress situations that produce this response can also be continuous, like a stressful job, degree, or say, a worldwide pandemic? Chronic stress is the term for long- term stress. I think “continuously stressful” is probably an apt descriptor of the last six months or so, for our community in St Andrews, as well as the world. COVID-19 is certainly something to fear, for ourselves, and for others around us. Almost the entire world population has suffered from chronic stress due to the pandemic. However, prolonged fear and stress about the same thing can lead to something else entirely: caution fatigue. “Caution Fatigue” is a term popularized by psychology and behavioral science professor, Jacqueline Gollan, of Northwestern University in the state of Illinois. Gollan had observed the unique effects of chronic stress related to COVID-19 compared to ordinary chronic stress. Caution fatigue is the breakdown of the stress and fear reaction, and demotivates us from social distancing and taking restrictions seriously. As the brain adjusts to constant threat, our stress levels normalise, which is why we may find ourselves letting our guard down. Many of us, a few months into lockdown, began to lose the feelings of fear and worry surrounding COVID-19. I know I was very confused as to why, the risk was still there, and yet I found myself feeling less afraid, and more annoyed at lockdown restrictions. As the months went on, and the lockdown in my state continued to be extended, while still I knew nobody who had it, I became increasingly frustrated. I watched other people vacation and party, hanging out in large groups and not getting sick, and my annoyance only grew. This is, apparently, a common occurrence, but ignoring regulations would have the opposite effect of relieving isolation and frustration, as it can lead to further outbreaks, and thus stricter lockdowns put in place. Gollan herself compares the motivation to maintain social distancing to a battery which has drained as lockdowns continued for months. As isolation, anxiety, and fear continue to be a factor in our everyday lives, people lose the energy to remain concerned about social distancing and preventative measures. Naturally, slacking on following social distancing guidelines means more danger for yourself and those around you, and more reason for the same stress that is wearing you out. It is easy to slip into the mindset that because something is not affecting you personally, that warnings are unwarranted and do not need to be heeded. Fortunately, there are a few ways to fight caution fatigue. Take care of your mental health The causes for caution fatigue boil down to anxious feelings, and the body’s response to those feelings over time. Sleeping enough, and on a regular schedule, eating a healthy and balanced diet, exercising, and keeping up social connections with friends and family are all ways we can take care of our own wellbeing, and ward off chronic stress and caution fatigue before it can endanger us. Gollan herself said, “if people can address the reasons for the caution fatigue, the caution fatigue itself will improve.” Chronic stress can also lead to feelings of depression. If you are struggling this way, reach out to professionals who can help. Change your thinking While it is important to recognise community and national goals, such as flattening the curve, protecting vulnerable people, and relieving strain on the NHS, a good way to ward off caution fatigue is to consider the personal risks the virus poses to yourself. How do certain behaviours affect your own chances of getting sick, and of getting your loved ones sick? Remember that just because you haven’t been infected yet, or that maybe your age group is not at high risk, does not mean that you will not get it in the future, especially if lack of motivation leads to a decline in safety. Create a new normal Yes, I know we are all sick and tired of hearing the phrase “new normal” and probably “unprecedented times” as well. However, especially with those of us doing our university modules and work online, it can be hard to set a routine. Do I have to get dressed, put on jeans? Do I even have to get out of bed? The answer is no, but doing any of the above won’t help with feelings of loneliness, isolation, and stress. Setting some sort of a daily routine helps to create a sense of stability. Shifting focus from the future to the present to put anxieties about the future, and the seemingly never ending restrictions, and changes due to the virus. Creating a schedule for the day, and then following it can also help to regulate sleep. Make hygiene practices a part of your regular routine as well, such as washing your hands regularly, and whenever you get home after being out, and before eating. Change what you see The more we read the same headlines about the same place, usually where we live, we become desensitized to them. This is part of our brain’s natural process to adjust to stimulation. To counter this, try checking out different reputable news sources than you usually do, or read up on some events besides the COVID-19 pandemic so your brain can refresh itself for information. When headlines about the dangers of COVID-19 turn into background noise, our other daily concerns can take precedence over our concern for the virus. Support each other Caution fatigue is something many people all around the world have experienced during this pandemic. Dwindling motivation is nothing to be ashamed of, but it is important that we continue to be safe, and keep those around us safe as well. Help to encourage your friends, and household when they catch themselves slipping. Be receptive when your own friends and family hold you accountable. It’s been a long six months, and it’s understandable to be tired of constant vigilance, it’s even scientific. However, the virus has not gone anywhere yet, and our future stretches before us, dependent on our actions now. Remember the all-too-true, but important, cliche: we are all in this together.

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