Did you wear gloves to the grocery store, count to 20 while washing your hands and self-quarantine for two weeks after coughing, once?

If that was you a couple months ago, and today, you’re sliding on hand hygiene and physical distancing, you may be experiencing caution fatigue.

How fear works

The amygdala, or body’s fear system, responds to threats in our environment.

Caution fatigue occurs when the body's response to that perceived threat starts to fade or diminish; or our response loses its urgency, said Dr. Steven Sutherland at Essentia Health.

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It’s alarming when you hear about the threat of coronavirus. You take it seriously. With repeated exposure, it becomes normalized, less sensationalized, and you don’t respond to it as strongly with safety behaviors.

Physiologically, it's incredibly normal to experience caution fatigue because our physiology doesn't keep up that full-alarm response forever. Adrenaline decreases in our system, and “the body starts to grow, you could say, 'calloused,' to the threat and develops chronic stress versus acute stress,” Sutherland said.

Dr. Steven Sutherland (Essentia)
Dr. Steven Sutherland (Essentia)

We also perform a type of a cost-benefit analysis, weighing the benefits of following guidelines with the costs of our actions.

The benefits are safety for yourself and others; the cost is the effort and constraints placed on activities. Over time, the benefit of the safety behavior is devalued or reduced, said Shmuel Lissek, associate professor at the University of Minnesota.

Touching groceries was associated with contracting COVID-19, so it became a conditioned stimulus. If you’re repeatedly exposed to groceries, and you don’t contract COVID-19, the fear of groceries declines, Lissek said.

Shmuel Lissek (University of Minnesota)
Shmuel Lissek (University of Minnesota)

Lissek shared another example:

Say, I don’t social distance with friends, and I never develop symptoms or contract COVID-19. On a cognitive level, I may understand there’s a probability I may get the virus, but that experience says it’s not dangerous to meet with friends closer than 6 feet.

“You might say we gain false confidence in the safety of not social distancing,” Lissek added.

We’re equipped to avoid and respond to acute danger, such as natural disasters, but we haven’t evolved a logical system to respond to prolonged, chronic stress, such as COVID-19, said Sutherland.

‘It’s worrisome’

No one is immune from caution fatigue, but in the case of COVID-19, this can be problematic.

There were 194 new cases reported in the Northland the week of July 27-Aug. 2.

In Minnesota, there are 54,463 total positive cases and counting, according to the Minnesota Department of Health; and across the U.S., the number of cases surpassed 4 million, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s worrisome, Sutherland said, because our efforts to keep our community safe and to not overwhelm our health resources depend on us doing our best to follow these precautionary measures. In every situation where we don’t do our best, we are technically increasing the risk in our community.

It’s hard to force physical distancing onto an environment that wasn’t designed to accommodate it.

Our lives are arranged around social closeness — school, public transportation, concerts, sporting events.

“We have really strong needs for survival, but also, really strong needs to meet our needs, which we’ve been socialized to involve lots of things that we’re not able to do right now,” Lissek said.

Couple that with feelings of hopelessness and no clear end-date, and “It’s overwhelming to think about doing this for the next two years.”

“I think we’ve all become a little more lax,” Sutherlannd said.

“I’m definitely experiencing some caution fatigue myself,” Lissek added.

We cannot compare this ongoing threat with an unknown end-date to anything else we've experienced. For most of us, this is case No. 1 of ‘How do we respond to chronic stress of this nature?’” Lissek said.

What to do

Give yourself permission to have caution fatigue. It’s normal human physiology. You shouldn’t be ashamed of it, but then act accordingly, Sutherland said.

Any new form of discipline requires psychological resources and self-control.

Avoid loosening safety measures for impulsive reasons.

Stay up-to-date with the threat of COVID-19, and stay abreast of what's working or not working in neighboring communities, states and across the world. “We have a responsibility to follow the statistics and science,” Sutherland said.

List easy ways to stay safe, and consider products or tools that make social distancing and sanitation more convenient.

Humans tend to gravitate toward the actions around them, so check your surroundings.

If we work in a setting where caution is the culture, we adapt to that. But if a workplace is hands-off or dismissive, we’re at risk of falling into that response, Sutherland said.

Talk with friends, neighbors, family and co-workers. Keep a dialogue open, by asking, “Are we doing this the right way?”

Each individual or family can best address this in a way that matches their circumstances.

Approaching this as a group doesn't cure caution fatigue, but it makes it less likely for us to make foolish decisions if we have those conversations, Lissek said.