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Quarantine fatigue is real, here’s what you can do about it

Megan Holmes



When the COVID-19 pandemic first began to wreak havoc around the world, Americans united in a way that is rarely seen in the modern era. The world shut down, businesses and schools closed, and many Americans went home, while others continued to show up for work deemed essential.

But as the coronavirus wears on, economic reopening moves forward, and a second spike in cases begins, even those who took the pandemic and the social distancing required to mitigate its spread seriously from the start are growing weary. This very real phenomenon has been dubbed quarantine fatigue.

Quarantine fatigue or caution fatigue shows up as low motivation or energy to comply with safety guidelines, according to Jacqueline Gollan, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Activities that have been governed by certain set of new rules/guidance, such as wiping down groceries, disinfecting surfaces, or even wearing masks, begin to feel less rigid. Safety protocols begin to wane.

Gollan describes the effect as something like a battery. What starts out as positively focused energy toward obeying safety guidelines begins to deplete over time, with repeated exposure to anxiety.

Jennifer Hall, Ph.D., licensed psychologist and founder of Tampa Bay-based Mindset Coaching, spoke with the St. Pete Catalyst about quarantine fatigue, the psychological processes behind it and how to combat it.

From crowded bars to bustling beaches, Hall explains that we don’t have to look any further than the news to see the reality of quarantine fatigue. Hall says that outside of the simple influence of media and competing messages from politicians working to reopen the economy, there are various psychological processes involved in quarantine fatigue, processes happening simultaneously, often without our awareness.

The first is the evolution of fear. The fact is, Hall says, we’re not evolutionarily conditioned to fear viruses.

“We’re really scared of the virus, but our brains actually haven’t evolved over the course of human history to see viruses as threats,” Hall explains. “We have a long history of feeling a strong fear response to big animals, like tigers. We’ve evolved to have a fear response to things that look and act like snakes, we’re scared of fire, we’re scared of floods.

“Those are things that are physically obvious that clearly present a threat. Viruses are something we can’t see and they’re something we’ve only known about for a little while in the context of human history,” she says.

The second process is extinction. While we are afraid of COVID-19 and inundated with stories of its victims, Hall explains that the nervous system can only sustain an elevated level of fear or anxiety for so long.

“Even though the threat of the virus is higher now than it was a month or two months ago, we habituate to that threat and become less anxious,” Hall explains.

The third process, she says, is decoupling behavior from outcome. “Every time we engage in a behavior like going to the grocery store, going to a restaurant and eating outside, or meeting up with friends in their back yard, every time we do something that’s perceived as a little bit risky and don’t encounter a negative outcome – that is, we don’t get sick or we don’t see our friends get sick – then we’re decoupling that behavior from the outcome,” Hall explains. “So it feels less and less risky over time.”

Hall explains this as a sort of chart. At first, fear was high and restlessness associated with quarantine was low, she says. Now, as the fear has lessened, more people have lost their jobs or faced financial insecurity, increasing their feelings of restlessness. The point at which the restlessness overtakes the fear is the point when quarantine fatigue gets real. The point, she says, is different for different people.

Another important element is the overwhelming amount of information accessible to us, both from reliable and unreliable sources, Hall explains. Over time, she says, confirmation bias can start to take over, a phenomenon in which we start to look for and overestimate the value of the stories that fit our own narratives.

“We want to believe them because we’re hanging out with people who believe them, or we think something is true because of our political affiliation … We see what we want to see and then we start acting accordingly.”

The good news is, there are strategies to fight quarantine fatigue. Hall recommends a few main courses of action.

The first is to stay connected with people, whether in-person or virtually (though she does acknowledge that Zoom fatigue is another real phenomenon). She recommends reconnecting with out-of-state family or friends from previous life stages or experiences.

The second is to work on mindfulness, or being present in the moment. Meditation apps like Headspace can be helpful for building a mindfulness practice without having to do the cumbersome research associated with it.

The third, Hall says, is to focus on what you can control. Take the time to make healthy behaviors habitual and lean away from unhealthy behaviors. Control your behavior and work to guide the behavior of your immediate family, rather than worrying about what may or may not be happening outside of your scope.

Finally, she explains, take the long view. We’re all liable to feel sad and anxious right now, she says, but this will pass. Give yourself permission to feel what you feel and have grace with yourself and others.

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