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Ask Dr. Halverson: Quarantine fatigue: A common condition with healthy treatments

web 4 17 Halverson photo
By Dr. Jim Halverson
Have you noticed that you no longer wash your hands as often or for at least 20 seconds each time? Are you making more trips out of the Ojai Valley?  Are you getting together more often with others and not attempting to stay 6 or more feet apart?  Are you wearing a mask less often than you used to?
This phenomenon is known as caution fatigue and, specifically during the pandemic, is called coronavirus quarantine fatigue. It’s the same situation that can occur in many prolonged stress situations such as  battle fatigue during wartime for our soldiers. We may also experience it in common situations such as no longer responding to a fire alarm that has been tested many times. If you have heard it before, there is a good chance you will not take the alarm as seriously when it is signaling an actual fire.
According to the highly regarded Cleveland Clinic, some of the tell-tale signs of coronavirus quarantine fatigue are increasing irritability, feelings of stress or constant anxiety, eating more, sleeping less, lack of motivation or productivity or racing thoughts. 
At the pandemic’s onset in March, you were likely consistently keeping up with ways to ensure you did not get infected with the coronavirus or infect others. The threat was new and urgent to your brain. Driven by the human instinct for self-preservation, fresh fear motivated you to eagerly adhere to recommended safety precautions.

 

Fast forward three months and that sense of immediacy may have faded. Coronavirus quarantine fatigue “occurs when people show low motivation or energy to comply with safety guidelines,” says Dr. Jacqueline Gollan, a professor of psychiatry at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.  “It’s reflected when we become impatient with warnings, or we don’t believe the warnings to be real or relevant, or we de-emphasize the actual risk. And in doing that, we then bend rules or stop safety behaviors like washing hands, wearing masks and social distancing.
Coronavirus quarantine fatigue has been a concern in the Unites States since at least April. As we now reopen, it is increasing. Many of us are becoming less concerned about the danger of the highly contagious virus. We have not yet had family or friends get sick. Reopening gives us more opportunity not to follow guidelines. Many of us want to believe that the danger is passing. It is not.
In addition, many people see the coronavirus as abstract. It is an invisible threat and it targets specific vulnerable populations. Younger people, for example, may not feel particularly threatened. Wearing masks or the energy and effort it requires to comply with safety guidelines gets old for them very quickly.
Unfortunately, coronavirus quarantine fatigue is not beneficial for anyone. The danger of the virus is not lessening. The less we adhere to guidelines, the greater the chance we will become infected or unknowingly infect others with potentially deadly consequences.
Coping with quarantine fatigue
Fortunately, behavioral health experts have vast amounts of expertise and experience in helping people cope with this fatigue. Practically speaking, these are proven techniques, mind-sets and behaviors that help us make “lemonade out of lemons.”
DECREASE INFORMATION OVERLOAD
Only read or watch relevant, credible information from a few sources to come up with a balanced viewpoint about what to do. My trusted sources are the Ventura County Public Health website where I follow links to www.vcemergency.com and www.vcrecovers.org  for local updates, the California Department of Public Health for state updates, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for national updates. In addition, asking trusted family and friends about what they think and what makes sense, is invaluable. I do not follow any suggestions or opinions that I see on Facebook or other social media outlets and I limit watching television news to no more than 30 minutes daily.

 

MAKE SAFE PRACTICES HABITS
Keep a mask and hand sanitizer in your car. Develop a greeting routine with others. My favorites are virtual hugs, air high fives and ankle taps.
TAKE GOOD CARE OF YOURSELF
This advice will never change whether there is a crisis or not. Eat well, be physically active, get adequate sleep, set daily goals, establish daily routines, avoid unsafe drugs or excess alcohol, stay in touch with others and work every day on feeling good about yourself.
TAKE GOOD CARE OF OTHERS
Your adherence to safety guidelines helps protect others. You wear a mask when inside stores or when social distancing is not possible to lessen the risk of passing the virus to others. Your safety routines demonstrate to others that you care for them. Encourage them to do the same and thank them when they do.
This is a marathon, not a sprint. The rewards of daily training and following the guidelines are extraordinary. You have maintained, and possibly improved, your health. In addition, you have helped maintain the health of your family, friends and neighbors. You have demonstrated good health habits for others to follow. Ultimately, you have improved your ability to take care of yourself and others for many years to come. This pandemic will eventually end. Our healthy living should not.
Stay hopeful, stay safe and stay well.

 

— Dr. Jim Halverson of Ojai is a longtime Ojai physician who is writing a weekly column on COVID-19 for the Ojai Valley News.