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Home » Your Health » Be on guard against “caution…

Be on guard against “caution fatigue”

By Dr. Andrea Piotrowski
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Monday, June 22, 2020

If you're feeling less motivated to follow expert advice about COVID-19 and are tempted to relax your approach to physical distancing, hand hygiene, and other health care directives, you may be in danger of contracting the newest pandemic-related "bug" making the rounds.

It's called "caution fatigue," and it's on the rise.

Results of an Angus Reid Institute poll released on June 15 tell the tale:

  • Just 36 per cent of Canadians now say they are staying away from public spaces as much as they were in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • Only 56 per cent are continuing to keep extra space from others as much as they were earlier this spring, despite it being one of the key aspects in preventing community transmission of the virus.
  • A majority of Canadians (59%) feel that the country has made it through the most difficult time in terms of illness.

These results are a far cry from the early days of the pandemic when news from hard-hit areas such as China and Italy instilled fear in people, resulting in strict adherence to the advice of public health officials.

What a difference a few weeks make.

These days, we see more people touching their faces, not washing their hands, and even ignoring simple directives such as following directional arrows at the supermarket. The question is; why the sudden change?

Much of it boils down to the science of human behaviour. Here in Manitoba, we've done an admirable job of limiting the spread of COVID-19. The number of cases is low, leading people to believe they are safe and that the warnings and directives of health care experts are not, perhaps, as relevant as they once were. After months of caution - and with an urge to enjoy the warm weather - people are; understandably, weary of keeping up their guard against a virus that, in all likelihood, they or their family and friends have not contracted.

This period of prolonged hyper-vigilance is beginning to manifest itself in the form of caution fatigue.

The problem is, of course, that the COVID-19 virus is not on summer vacation. To the contrary, most experts agree there is a risk of a second wave, and media reports a significant surge in cases in several American states and other countries.

With or without a second wave, it's clear that in the absence of a COVID-19 vaccine, our risk is not at zero, no matter how good our current numbers may be.

With that being the case, it's important to take a look at our behaviours and to guard against the creeping complacency that comes with caution fatigue.

First, we need to accept that caution fatigue is a normal reaction to a prolonged period of stress. As we grow tired of trying to adapt to change, we feel an urge to reassert a sense of personal control. We can use this to our advantage by taking an altruistic approach to continued application of safety precautions - that is, basing our actions on an unselfish concern for the welfare of others, especially those whose health might be compromised.

Second, we can all practice self-care. This can include exercise, eating right, getting the sleep we and practicing self-compassion. Fortunately, each of those practices can be done at home and with members of your household allowing us to enjoy those practices largely without the need for additional precautions – except where we are getting active outside the home or in group settings. Taking that time for ourselves, while also giving ourselves some credit for a job well done thus far, goes a long way to reinforce our energies to maintain our efforts.

Practicing gratitude and thinking differently about our situation are other ways to combat caution fatigue. The added time spent at home has given many of us a chance to connect with our children, to hone our skills in the kitchen, or to acquire new skills and hobbies. These kinds of achievements give us an opportunity to say, "Hey, I'm doing okay. I've got this."

Finally, it is helpful to take a moment and remind yourself that the pandemic is temporary. Though it may not be as quickly as we would like, or hope, we know that "this too, shall pass." We've got our brightest minds around the world working on a vaccine and life will, inevitably, return to normal.

The temporary nature of this disruption is particularly important for those hit harder by the pandemic; those experiencing job loss, relationship conflicts, disappointments, or a decrease in mental wellness are disproportionately impacted at this time. If you fall into one of those categories, or know someone who does, be sure to take the time to seek out the many supports available. A quick review of the supports listed at  manitoba.ca/covid19/bewell/managestress.html is a great place to start.

We've come too far to let caution fatigue spoil our progress. So keep listening to the experts and continue to use good judgment as restrictions are relaxed. But most importantly; be hopeful. We're going to get through this.

Dr. Andrea Piotrowski is a Clinical Psychologist with the Clinical Health Psychology Program at Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg. This column was published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Monday, June 22, 2020.

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