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How Caution Fatigue Raises COVID-19 Infection Risk, and How to Overcome It



Community Psychiatry’s Leela Magavi, MD was featured in Verywell Mind discussing caution fatigue and how to manage it during the pandemic. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has persisted for the majority of 2020, and it’s taking a toll on people.

The longer the pandemic drags on, and the more trauma and anxiety it causes, the more people start to feel like contracting and spreading COVID-19 is out of their control. More people are starting to experience caution fatigue, or “COVID fatigue,” experts say, and it’s causing them to make decisions that increase their risk of contracting the virus.

“The inability to plan for the future places individuals in a realm of stagnancy where they ruminate and catastrophize, often in isolation,” says Dr. Leela Magavi, MD, regional medical director at Community Psychiatry. “COVID fatigue as well as anxiety and depressive symptoms can adversely affect working memory and processing speed; consequently, individuals can make impulsive and risky decisions.”

What Is Caution Fatigue, and How Does It Increase Your Risk?

Caution fatigue, or COVID-related fatigue, is both a physical and emotional state that’s different from just regular fatigue.1 It’s fatigue from months of safety restrictions and from the various ways the pandemic has drastically affected our lives.

“From an affective or an emotional perspective, what COVID fatigue represents is the wearing effects of chronic stress and anxiety,” says Stephen Benning, associate professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “It’s no longer an acute concern about what might happen. … Now we’re dealing with this chronic stress and continued anxiety about wondering what’s going on.”

When people are worn down by stress, it can engage stress systems in the body that impair their immune functioning, Benning says. So COVID-related caution fatigue can increase someone’s risk of the virus simply because they’ve been stressed for so long. It might also affect their other lifestyle habits, such as their sleep, exercise, and diet, which all affect immune functioning.

COVID fatigue is also evident in people’s behaviors, which are becoming increasingly risky despite virus cases rising nationwide. For example, November 29, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, was the busiest day for U.S. air travel since the start of the pandemic, despite the CDC urging people not to travel for the holidays.

People have been separated from friends and family for months, and it seems like there’s no end in sight, with a widely available vaccine still months away. “Now we’re getting into a stage where this may be the longest people have ever gone without seeing certain family members or interacting with certain friends,” Benning says. “And so the value of interacting with those loved ones skyrockets in comparison to the incentive value of saying safe.”

How to Manage Your Fatigue

If you feel caution fatigue weighing on you, Magavi recommends making a list of the ways you would like to keep yourself and your family safe as well as the reasons safety is important to you. “When COVID fatigue hits full force, it would be helpful to review this list with loved ones to honor these beliefs and values,” Magavi says.

She also encourages people to use a solutions-based approach to brainstorm ways they can alleviate their anxiety in the present moment and in the future. “For example, two friends discuss their collective grief related to losing loved ones during the pandemic and then decide to take a mindful walk and listen to calming music to heal together,” Magavi explains. “Individuals may worry about COVID-19, and [they] can together tackle this by creating a list of what is in their control and reading this out loud.”

Anytime you want to take a risky action, like traveling, Benning recommends making a list of the pros and cons, which he did with his family when they were considering traveling. Ultimately, there were far more cons than there were pros, and some of the cons included potentially endangering other family members.

Benning also suggests making pacts with other friends or family to avoid risky activities. “So even when they see people out in the environment, flouting regulations, they can remind themselves that ‘Hey, other people might do this, but we as a group of people have these values or this reason for staying in together,'” he explains.

Magavi also recommends writing down the people and things you’re thankful for. “Writing thank you letters to loved ones or simply thanking others could release neurochemicals responsible for happiness, motivation, and the alleviation of stress.”

Click here to read the entire article on Verywell Mind.