The Toll of Caution Fatigue Amidst Ongoing Viral Outbreaks

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Key Takeaways

  • Constant worry about a new viral outbreak is leading to fatigue and exhaustion.
  • Taking steps to control your stress levels can help in the battle with caution fatigue.
  • While vigilance is good and necessary, when it interferes with your daily functioning, it is problematic.

The COVID-19 virus is one of the top 10 things people are worried about worldwide. And recent new concerns like monkeypox, polio in wastewater, tomato flu, and even new strains of the coronavirus, are causing more alarm. As the numbers for one virus start decreasing, there always seems to be another viral invasion ready to take its place. It’s hard to know—what should you really worry about, and how should you manage your concern?

“It is important to assess risks and reality as we hear about new threats. While there is plenty of misinformation to muddy the waters, if we only look for data to confirm how we want things to be, we likely won’t fully appreciate the risks and understand how to protect ourselves,” explains Wendi L. Lopez, PsyD, Pediatric Psychologist, Cincinnati Children’s Medical Center. “As with any worry, we need to ask ourselves ‘How likely is it that this bad thing would happen to me or my loved ones?’ and ‘What aspects of this can I control and how?’” she notes. 

We need to be vigilant in the face of true risks that need attention. But with an endless barrage of things to worry about, people are tired of being cautious. So what does healthy worry looks like, and how does constant worry impact your mind and body? What steps can you take to move beyond caution fatigue?

When Worry Goes from Good to Bad

Worrying usually has a negative connotation. However, research shows that worry can be beneficial in some instances. It can serve as a motivator, to help someone take appropriate action.

“Worry, just as all types of anxiety, is normal, natural, and protective. Worry thoughts make us vigilant and help us stay safe. Without worry or anxiety we would engage in unsafe behavior and likely not survive,” says Dr. Lopez. “A balance is necessary: worry enough that it makes us cautious and keeps us and others safe but not so much that we are unable to make decisions and be functional in our lives,” she adds.

Wendy Lopez, PsyD

A balance is necessary: worry enough that it makes us cautious and keeps us and others safe but not so much that we are unable to make decisions and be functional in our lives.

— Wendy Lopez, PsyD

During the initial emergence of COVID-19, a healthy amount of worry may have helped to keep some people safe and reduce viral spread. Taking caution allowed important measures to be put in place.

“Here’s the rub—infectious diseases are a real phenomenon. The illnesses are all too real and there are health consequences, including long-term disability and not an insignificant number of deaths,” notes David A. Merrill, MD, PhD, psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute’s Pacific Brain Health Center, Providence Saint John’s Health Center.

Caution around the spread and treatment of COVID-19 is not only necessary; it’s lifesaving. The problem comes in, however, when worry becomes paralyzing.

“Anything is harmful when it stops you from functioning. Really simple black and white. If you do not function, you can’t sleep, you can’t eat, you can’t get up,” states Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT, licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services, Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center. “If the person is just withdrawing from life, that is not good. You need help right away,” says Dr. Mendez.

The World Health Organization notes that in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, cases of anxiety and depression increased by a whopping 25%. Parents and kids experienced additional stress and worries over security and safety. Close to 20% of Americans are now fearful of getting monkeypox. The unyielding state of alert has physical and mental health implications.

“Once it morphs into a chronic ‘on’ state, you have long-term elevated cortisol, things like changes in blood pressure, you have disrupted sleep, you have irritability, you have fatigue,” notes Dr. Merrill.

Overwhelming stress also interferes with the ability to handle stressors in the future.

“It can increase anxiety; it can increase a sense of powerlessness [or] hopelessness. The emotional capacity is not as receptive, [and] it distorts our thoughts,” Dr. Mendez says. “When we’re so overwhelmed or so over exhausted, we stop being able to differentiate between what [we can and cannot do].”

You can’t control a viral outbreak. But you can control your reaction to the stressful situation that it is creating. That control extends to deciding what amount of caution is needed and determining how to protect yourself from becoming exhausted with being vigilant.

Keeping Worry from Becoming Caution Fatigue

News about the latest viral epidemic come at you from multiple sources. Cable news networks, social media, and even word of mouth can produce a steady stream of potential fears.

Experts say turning off the news for a while can be helpful. But it doesn’t resolve the issue long-term. You have to implement strategies to regulate your stress levels.

“[This] signifies the importance of finding down time, and the importance of being able to hit the reset button both individually and culturally as groups and as a society. It’s important for us to come to a place of collective calmness, so we can reassess new stressors when they come up,” advises Dr. Merrill.

That time of respite can mean returning to basic mental health and self-care practices.

“One of the best ways to protect our mental health is to engage in regular healthy habits: good sleep, good eating, exercise, hydration, and relaxation. This is the foundation that helps our nervous system function well,” Dr. Lopez explains. “Engaging in relaxation skills daily (yoga, meditation, breathing skills, muscle relaxation, etc.) is [also] crucial in down-regulating our nervous system,” she adds.

Seeking help from a mental health professional can also make a significant difference.

Ultimately, admitting you have reached your limit with dealing with worrisome topics, and giving yourself permission to rest your mind and body, is critical. When you’re mentally and physically in a place where you can understand and process what you’re dealing with, it helps you be better prepared for the future.

“It’s important that everybody learn about the importance of lowering stress levels. It’s much better to handle tough topics at rest,” Dr. Merrill concludes. “There’s a lot of complex issues and problems and we can’t get there unless cooler heads prevail.”

What This Means For You

When you hear about a new virus or a new COVID-19 strain, it’s natural to worry. But when that worry continues with no end in sight, it becomes exhausting, unmanageable, and even paralyzing. People either double down in their fear or cast off restraint.

Experts say the key is working to find a healthy balance between staying informed and not being overwhelmed. And above all, continue to take care of your mental and physical health.

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