How Caution Fatigue Raises COVID-19 Infection Risk, and How to Overcome It

A young white person with chin-length brown hair sits at her laptop and rubs her eyes.
People are making riskier decisions as the pandemic drags on.


Key Takeaways

  • Caution fatigue is affecting an increasing number of people as the pandemic drags on.
  • The fatigue can not only affect mental health but also cause people to make decisions that increase their COVID risk.

The longer the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, and the more trauma and anxiety it causes, the more people start to feel like contracting and spreading COVID-19 is out of their control. More people are starting to experience caution fatigue, or "COVID fatigue," experts say, and it's causing them to make decisions that increase their risk of contracting the virus.

"The inability to plan for the future places individuals in a realm of stagnancy where they ruminate and catastrophize, often in isolation," says Leela Magavi, MD, regional medical director at Community Psychiatry. "COVID fatigue as well as anxiety and depressive symptoms can adversely affect working memory and processing speed; consequently, individuals can make impulsive and risky decisions."

What Is Caution Fatigue, and How Does It Increase Your Risk?

Caution fatigue, or COVID-related fatigue, is both a physical and emotional state that's different from just regular fatigue. It's fatigue from months of safety restrictions and from the various ways the pandemic has drastically affected our lives.

"From an affective or an emotional perspective, what COVID fatigue represents is the wearing effects of chronic stress and anxiety," says Stephen Benning, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "It's no longer an acute concern about what might happen. ... Now we're dealing with this chronic stress and continued anxiety about wondering what's going on."

When people are worn down by stress, it can engage stress systems in the body that impair their immune functioning, Benning says. So COVID-related caution fatigue can increase someone's risk of the virus simply because they've been stressed for so long. It might also affect other lifestyle habits, such as sleep, exercise, and diet, which all affect immune functioning.

Leela Magavi, MD

COVID fatigue as well as anxiety and depressive symptoms can adversely affect working memory and processing speed; consequently, individuals can make impulsive and risky decisions.

— Leela Magavi, MD

COVID fatigue is also evident in people's behaviors, which are becoming increasingly risky despite virus cases rising nationwide. For example, November 29, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, was the busiest day for U.S. air travel since the start of the pandemic, despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urging people not to travel for the holidays.

People have been separated from friends and family for months, and it seems like there's no end in sight, with a widely available vaccine still months away. "Now we're getting into a stage where this may be the longest people have ever gone without seeing certain family members or interacting with certain friends," Benning says. "And so the value of interacting with those loved ones skyrockets in comparison to the incentive value of saying safe."

How to Manage Your Fatigue

If you feel caution fatigue weighing on you, Magavi recommends making a list of the ways you would like to keep yourself and your family safe as well as the reasons safety is important to you. "When COVID fatigue hits full force, it would be helpful to review this list with loved ones to honor these beliefs and values," Magavi says.

She also encourages people to use a solutions-based approach to brainstorm ways they can alleviate their anxiety in the present moment and in the future. "For example, two friends discuss their collective grief related to losing loved ones during the pandemic and then decide to take a mindful walk and listen to calming music to heal together," Magavi explains. "Individuals may worry about COVID-19, and [they] can together tackle this by creating a list of what is in their control and reading this out loud."

Anytime you want to take a risky action, like traveling, Benning recommends making a list of the pros and cons, which he did with his family when they were considering traveling. Ultimately, there were far more cons than there were pros, and some of the cons included potentially endangering other family members.

Benning also suggests making pacts with other friends or family to avoid risky activities. "So even when they see people out in the environment, flouting regulations, they can remind themselves that 'Hey, other people might do this, but we as a group of people have these values or this reason for staying in together,'" he explains.

Magavi also recommends writing down the people and things you're thankful for. "Writing thank you letters to loved ones or simply thanking others could release neurochemicals responsible for happiness, motivation, and the alleviation of stress."

What This Means For You

You're not a bad person for wanting to see friends or visit family for the holidays. But it's important to recognize that your caution fatigue is the result of months of stress, and it's impacting your ability to evaluate risk. You might need to remind yourself that the pandemic is now worse than when it began, so we should be stricter about safety. That doesn't mean it isn't hard, and it's OK to acknowledge and talk about that.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Northwestern Medicine. Do you have COVID-19 caution fatigue?. 2020.

  2. Morey JN, Boggero IA, Scott AB, Segerstrom SC. Current directions in stress and human immune functionCurr Opin Psychol. 2015;5:13-17. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2015.03.007

  3. Campbell JP, Turner JE. Debunking the myth of exercise-induced immune suppression: redefining the impact of exercise on immunological health across the lifespanFront Immunol. 2018;9:648. doi:10.3389/fimmu.2018.00648

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By Jo Yurcaba
 Jo Yurcaba is a freelance writer specializing in mental health.