This kind of fatigue is not unique to pandemic precautions like sticking with social distancing, masking up and keeping your hands washed. With all kinds of health-related behavior changes — including increasing physical activity, eating healthy and decreasing tobacco use — at least half of people relapse within six months.
Think back to the start of April. Much of the United States was under stay-at-home orders. New York City was experiencing close to a thousand Covid-19 deaths a day, and new cases of this previously unknown disease were popping up all over the country.
Coronavirus fears had people either ordering necessities for delivery or rushing through stores as fast as possible, avoiding everyone. When they got home, shoppers wiped down their groceries, vigorously washed hands, maybe even took a shower and changed into clean clothes. People got used to staying home.
Today, there’s still no cure or vaccine for the coronavirus, and infection numbers are on the rise. Almost a quarter of a million Americans have died from Covid-19 and the risk of infection remains. Now is the time to strengthen your resolve and re-devote yourself to prevention measures.
But fewer in the United States are reporting the fear that triggered all those germ-avoiding actions in the spring. Why?
As a public health researcher who investigates health behaviors, I know there are several psychological reasons for why fatigue sets in. Luckily the research also suggests some tactics to help you stay safe as well as protect your mental health and well-being.
How bad is it, really?
One explanation for falling off the prevention bandwagon comes down to two important predictors of health behaviors.
One is perceived susceptibility — how likely do you think you are to get a disease?
The second is perceived severity — if you do get it, how bad do you think it will it be?
There have been millions of Covid-19 cases in the United States. But all those people still add up to less than 3% of the country’s total population. Depending where you live, you may know only a few people who have come down with Covid-19, even though the nationwide numbers are high. This can reduce perceived susceptibility.
People look at trends like these and let themselves be lulled into believing they’re less susceptible to Covid-19 or that the disease’s severity isn’t that bad. After all, one might reason, it’s been eight months and I haven’t gotten sick.
Everybody else is doing it
When state governments decide to open bars, restaurants, gyms and movie theaters, you might read it as a signal that these places are now “safe” to visit. Likewise, when you see people socializing without masks and skipping the physical distancing, it looks “normal” and could make you more likely to forgo them yourself. It’s similar to how peer groups strongly affect both alcohol and food consumption.
Yearning to connect
Staying safe and sane
Case counts are rising. The weather is getting colder in many areas, making outdoor dining and socializing less feasible. People need to double down on a level of precaution that can be sustained for months to come, keeping safe while not adding to their social isolation.
Masks are also important. A study from August showed that 85% of Americans wore masks most of the time in stores. This needs to stay high to help limit the number of new cases.
That leaves physical distancing, which is probably the most difficult. Public health experts often advocate a harm reduction approach for behaviors where abstinence is not feasible — it’s a way to minimize but not eliminate risk. Crowds and large gatherings still need to be avoided.
Pandemic fatigue is real, and it’s draining to stay on high alert month after month after month. Understanding it better might help you strengthen your resolve.