This article first appeared in the Vail Daily on November 17, 2020.
We are hearing consistent reports on a local and national level of the increasing number of COVID-19 cases, unprecedented spikes in hospitalization, and increased death. However, right now one of the greatest threats is pandemic fatigue.
COVID-19 can be defined as a traumatic event. The threat to our livelihood (both health and economic) is real and this event impacts all aspects of our functioning — relational, occupational, recreational, etc. When we experience trauma, we often experience a physiological response that is referred to as a “trauma response” and is characterized by certain patterns of behavior that are often simplified into categories of “fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.”
When we experience prolonged or chronic trauma, it is difficult to maintain the trauma response or a level of intense hyper-vigilance for an extended period of time. As such, we often experience varying types of exhaustion, including physical exhaustion; mental exhaustion; decision fatigue, which can impact our ability to make good decisions or execute skills associated with problem-solving; and, what is currently thought to be the most dangerous, compliance fatigue.
When initially faced with the impact of COVID-19, many individuals were in a state of panic, which is a very typical response to trauma. However, with time, we become increasingly exposed to COVID-19 data, no matter how shocking, and as such, we are able to more easily normalize this data and integrate it into our life without experiencing as much anxiety or stress. Similar to a lobster in a pot, we become used to the temperature around us, even when that temperature is causing us harm. Although this normalization can initially help us to psychologically “feel better,” it also places us at great risk.
Pandemic fatigue normalizes the experience of stress and threat in our environment. Compliance fatigue is the resulting decrease in adherence to protective measures. In our community, we are experiencing compliance fatigue. It is significantly contributing to increases in case numbers. Specifically, in our community, we are seeing this in a reduction of mask use, increased multi-family gatherings, especially indoors as the temperatures cool off, and most recently, Halloween parties.
Prior to COVID-19, the cycle of compliance or adherence fatigue’s impact on motivation and behaviors was most consistently linked to diet and exercise. There is usually an event that triggers discomfort or anxiety and leads an individual to commit to a diet. Typically, the individual is very committed to the diet for the first few weeks, and then eventually, the individual becomes tired of the restrictions associated with the diet and quits.
In times of stress and uncertainty, humans are drawn to structure, predictability, and consistency. These rhythmic and dependable events can be our strongest and most effective coping skills. Holidays and traditions fall into this category. Experts across the globe have expressed concern about the impact of the holidays on COVID-19 spread.
It is the human tendency to minimize the risk associated with the reward of celebrating in this tradition. In order to effectively control the spread of COVID-19 and protect our families, it is essential that we continuously combat compliance fatigue and recognize that this will likely impact our ability to rely on holidays and traditions in the same way we have in the past. We must re-imagine the ways we can connect with loved ones and recommit to safety this holiday season. It is not going to be easy.
Visit eaglevalleybh.org for information and support during this time. Also, stay tuned, as Eagle Valley Behavioral Health, an outreach of Vail Health, will be providing “Tips for a new tradition.”
Dr. Casey Wolfington is a licensed psychologist and the community behavioral health director with Eagle Valley Behavioral Health.