The pandemic is not as top-of-mind these days as it was back in March and April, when the U.S. was first starting to understand how devastating COVID-19 was going to be. But... why isn't it? Cases have been steadily rising over the past month. Some countries have entered another lockdown. Despite that, at more than half a year into this thing, people are frustrated. COVID fatigue has set in.
Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, touched on the phenomenon during a press briefing last month. He described an inner monologue that sounds familiar: "COVID fatigue is — we're doing this a long time. I thought it was a short-term situation, it's going on and on and on and I'm getting tired of it, and I'm tired of wearing the mask, and I'm tired of putting my life on hold," he said, acknowledging that this exasperation can discourage people from following safety regulations.
COVID fatigue is related to burnout. "It comes about from this long period where we've had prolonged and intense stress with no end in sight," explains Kaye Hermanson, PhD, a UC Davis Health psychologist in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. Our brains aren't wired to maintain a high level of anxiety over a prolonged period of time, she says.
To describe how the brain typically deals with stress, she uses the example of a car accident. After being involved in one, you may be afraid of driving for a while. When you first get behind the wheel again, you may feel hyper-alert and anxious. But over days or weeks, you begin to unlearn that anxiety, Hermanson says. One day, you'll realize you're driving along like normal, and not thinking about the accident at all.
Something similar is happening with COVID-19. In the early days, our nerves were tense and we were being ultra-cautious — wiping down all of our groceries with disinfectant, maybe even taking off our clothes in the doorway of our homes so as not to bring germs inside. But over time, we became less stressed. We kept wearing our masks and using hand sanitizer, but maybe we felt more comfortable ducking into grocery stores, or even dining outdoors. "For most people, as they went out again without something bad happening, it made their brain start to question, 'How serious is this?'" Hermanson says.
Feeling less afraid and stressed is not a bad thing. We're adjusting to a new normal — one that involves wearing masks, quarantining and getting tested before social gatherings, and keeping our distance from others when in public. Trouble arises when COVID fatigue pushes us to rationalize actions that are clearly risky. To use the car accident example: If the accident was caused by someone texting while driving, you'd hope that they'd permanently change that behavior, not resume texting from behind the wheel once their stress wears off.
"People use a lot of different kinds of intellectualizations for why it's okay for them to go and do some of the things they want to do, because they're tired of being quarantined at home all the time," Hermanson says. But, she adds, "COVID is still out there. We may know a little bit more about how to help people when they contract it than we did back in March, but nothing has really changed."
The first step to beating COVID fatigue is to acknowledge it's happening. Take an honest look at your actions and your thinking. Are you taking part in activities that are deemed risky by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention? Is it necessary for you to do so? Are you rationalizing your behavior? If you are, you don't have to beat yourself up. But remind yourself that the pandemic is still ongoing, and recommit to the same strategies that helped us earlier this year.
To shift your mindset, tell yourself that this is temporary. The sense that things will never get back to normal is a key driver of COVID fatigue. Yes, today marks eight months to the day from when the CDC classified coronavirus as a pandemic — that's a long time. But the restrictions won't always be as strict as they are today. Hermanson suggests thinking, "This is a moment in time and I will get through it and I will get past it." Avoiding speculating too far ahead to the future, and focus on what's going on for you today.
Hermanson also suggests making time for small, happy moments in your days. When you have pandemic-appropriate activities you actually look forward to, you'll be less likely to find yourself thinking, "screw it" and RSVP-ing yes to that house party. Try ordering in from your favorite restaurant, going for a walk in the park, or FaceTiming a friend you haven't seen in a while.
If your COVID fatigue feels like it's impacting your day-to-day life, however, consider reaching out to your healthcare provider for some extra support or someone to talk to, Hermanson suggests.
Ultimately, we have to confront that the pandemic isn't over. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. We're inching closer to a vaccine and our president-elect has a solid plan for beating the pandemic. So let's keep pushing.