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This story originally appeared on The Conversation
As the pandemic drags on, following COVID-19 prevention guidelines may seem like an increasing challenge.
This type of fatigue is not unique to pandemic precautions, such as maintaining social distancing, wearing face masks, and washing hands. With all kinds of health-related behavior changes, including increased physical activity , healthy eating, and decreased tobacco use , at least half of people relapse within six months.
Think early April. Much of the United States was under stay-at-home orders . New York City was experiencing close to 1,000 deaths from COVID-19 a day , with new cases of this previously unknown disease emerging across the country.
Fears of the coronavirus caused people to ask for quarantine supplies or rush through stores as quickly as possible, avoiding everyone. When they got home, shoppers cleaned up their groceries, washed their hands vigorously, maybe even took a shower and put on clean clothes. People got used to staying home.
Today, there is still no cure or vaccine for the coronavirus, and the numbers of infections are increasing. Nearly a quarter of a million Americans have died from COVID-19, and the risk of infection persists. Now is the time to strengthen your resolve and rededicate yourself to prevention measures.
But few report the fear that triggered all those actions to avoid germs. Why?
As a public health researcher investigating health- related behaviors, I know that there are several psychological reasons for fatigue. Fortunately, research also suggests some tactics to help you stay safe and protect your mental health and well-being.
How bad is it really?
One explanation for getting off the prevention bandwagon boils down to two important predictors of health behaviors.
One is perceived susceptibility: how likely do you think you are to contract a disease?
The second is the perceived severity: if you catch the disease, how bad do you think it will be?
There have been millions of COVID-19 cases in the United States, but all of those people make up less than 3 percent of the country’s total population . Depending on where you live, you may only know a few people who have contracted COVID-19, although the numbers nationwide are high. This can reduce perceived susceptibility.
As doctors learned more about the coronavirus and improved treatment methods , the death rate in has also decreased. In May, 6 percent of diagnosed cases were fatal, while less than 3 percent are today . This enhancement can reduce perceived severity.
People see trends like these and are fooled into believing that they are less susceptible to COVID-19 or that the severity of the disease is not as severe. After all, one could reason, eight months have passed and I have not gotten sick.
Everybody else is doing it
Social norms are unwritten rules about how you are supposed to behave in society. While social norms can be communicated in many ways, one of the main avenues is through observational learning. How do others like you behave in similar situations? Seeing that provides you with a roadmap for your own behavior.
When state governments decide to open bars, restaurants, gyms, and movie theaters, you can read it as a sign that these places are now “safe” to visit. Similarly, when you see people socializing without masks and skipping social distancing, it seems “normal” and could make it more likely that you will forget them too. It’s similar to how peer groups strongly affect both food and alcohol consumption.
Longing to connect
Distancing efforts have increased feelings of social isolation and loneliness for many people, especially among older adults and people who live alone.
Human beings are naturally social animals. Therefore, social isolation can be especially unpleasant. And it can lead to a variety of poor health outcomes, including hypertension and poor sleep. People might stop meeting friends in the spring and avoid reunions, but it can be really difficult to maintain long- term behavior that can seem like everything is negative rather than positive.
The trick is to balance physical distancing with social connection. Researchers know that remembering or feeling nostalgic for drinking or smoking is one of the main risk factors for relapse.
In the pandemic scenario, this is like thinking about what the world was like before COVID-19. An after-work drink with a group of friends, a basketball game, or a live concert are things people miss in today’s world, and it’s hard not to think about the things you can’t do. But while thinking about them can bring back fond memories, it can also encourage you to engage in risky behavior.
Stay safe and sound
The number of cases is increasing. The weather is getting colder in many areas, making outdoor dining and socializing less feasible. People need to redouble a level of caution that can be maintained for the next several months, staying safe without increasing their social isolation.
Some recommendations must be strictly followed . Hand washing increased dramatically after the start of the pandemic. Hopefully this will remain high as it is a basic way to protect yourself from many infectious diseases and one that you can sustain without any negative effects on mental health.
Face shields are also important. An August study showed that 85 percent of Americans wore masks most of the time in stores. This should be kept high to help limit the number of new cases.
That leaves the 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 is a way to minimize but not eliminate risk. You still need to avoid crowds and large gatherings. If Zoom and other video chats have become obsolete, it is possible to organize your own small meetings. However, keep in mind that while there are ways to minimize dangers , socializing in a group carries risks. Remember, your meeting is only as safe as your most dangerous friend.
Pandemic fatigue is real, and it’s exhausting to stay on high alert month after month after month. Understanding it better could help you strengthen your resolve.