Before the FedEx driver made it to the bottom of my driveway, I was bounding out the door to grab the package he’d just left. It wasn’t until I’d plopped it onto the counter and sliced it open that I realized I hadn’t thought to disinfect it, or been patient enough to let it sit for 20 minutes, let alone 24 hours (the length of time studies show the coronavirus can survive on cardboard).
That’s not the only way I’m slipping; I’m still washing my produce, but I’ve stopped thoroughly disinfecting all of my groceries. I’m still washing my hands, of course, but it seems like the current bottle of soap is lasting much longer than the ones before it. And honestly, I couldn’t tell you the last time I disinfected my laptop keyboard, or wiped down the backs of my kitchen chairs.
In the grand scheme of things, those lapses are pretty minor, but I’m certainly not alone in cutting corners. As we near the fourth month of social distancing and stay-at-home measures, plenty of people are finding themselves being much less vigilant than they were at the pandemic’s outset. Jackie Gollan, PhD, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, calls it “caution fatigue.”
“People begin to show low motivation or energy to comply with safety guidelines. We become impatient with warnings, don’t believe them to be entirely real or relevant, and start to interpret risk incorrectly.” If you’ve found yourself playing fast and loose with hand-washing or mask-wearing, despite being a rational person who knows the virus is still spreading, blame it on your brain’s incredible ability to adapt.
“The act of washing the groceries was designed to turn off the fear. Now we don’t have as much fear, so we don’t need it.”
“What’s really happening, underneath all of it, is we’re becoming desensitized,” Gollan says. “Initially, we’re fearful and we take action. But the brain is wired to adjust, and it gets tired of being on high alert all the time because that’s a taxing thing for the brain to be doing.”
When reports of Covid-19 cases began in the United States, Eileen Flanagan, who has experienced serious illness in the past, says the threat of the coronavirus triggered crippling anxiety.
“I was so freaked out, I mean, I was crazy,” she says. Flanagan lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with two roommates — a health care professional and a FedEx employee. “They’d leave for work in the morning and I would go through the house and Clorox wipe every doorknob, every handle, every light switch,” she says. She was laid off from her job at a local hotel, and was too afraid to work her other gig, at a farmer’s market where, in the early days, not everyone was wearing a mask.
For three straight weeks, Flanagan says, she just repeated her cleaning routines over and over. “It was the only thing that calmed my nerves. I was totally motivated by fear—fear of reliving [serious illness], fear that got worse every time I heard people talking about how bad it is, about not being able to breathe.”
That’s true for many people right now, Gollan says. The disinfecting and sanitizing procedures we started weeks ago were all about taming the terror. “You clean the groceries, and nothing happens — meaning you don’t get sick — and you think, ‘Oh, great, that’s a working solution.’ But it requires a lot of effort to keep that routine going.”
At the same time, the fear, now our constant companion, is losing its edge. “The act of washing the groceries was designed to turn off the fear. Now we don’t have as much fear, so we don’t need it,” says Gollan. The grocery-disinfecting, specifically, was always just about making ourselves feel better anyway: The FDA says there’s “no evidence of… food or food packaging being associated with transmission of the coronavirus.”
That tendency to adapt to — and stop appreciating the risks of — an ongoing threat may seem like a neurological design flaw, but it’s just your brain continuing to protect you, albeit from a different kind of harm.
An extended period of stressed-out hypervigilance can wreak havoc, physically and psychologically. Constant surges of the stress hormone cortisol can cause cardiovascular and gastrointestinal issues, inflammation, and depression, says Gollan, none of which do your immune system any favors. In short: Yes, sanitizing and following social distancing guidelines are an important part of staying well. But if taking a few shortcuts (the kind that don’t put other people’s lives in jeopardy) makes you feel a little less keyed-up, then that’s healthy too.
“See success in your routines. The reward is that nothing happens to you.”
Flanagan’s panic-driven response has dulled; and not a moment too soon. “I think the fear would have driven me to madness,” she says. She’s still doing some Clorox wiping at home, but it’s a few times a week rather than multiple times a day. And she’s gone back to work. “That’s another way I had to let my guard down a bit,” she says. “I had to — I needed an income. But I also started to feel, as time went on, that if you’re smart about it, you can keep yourself safe.”
“As fear drops, caution drops,” Gollan says. It’s just the way the brain is hardwired. The good news is that it can be hacked. The coronavirus concerns may not be going anywhere anytime soon, so we need to develop sustainable habits that aren’t a response to fear. She suggests taking advantage of another of the brain’s systems — one that’s just as strong as the threat response: “We’re also hardwired to seek reward.”
You can adjust your mental calculus, Gollan says, to see health as its own prize. “See success in your routines. The reward is that nothing happens to you. I think if you can redefine the meaning of the safety behavior, it helps people shift their motivation to wanting to do it.”
I’m trying not to beat myself up for forgetting to disinfect the mail or the cereal boxes. No one in my house is high risk, and those kinds of behaviors probably aren’t seriously raising my odds of getting sick. The CDC recently updated its guidelines to say the virus “does not spread easily” through surfaces or objects.
And in some ways, I’m still vigilant, trying to protect myself and the people around me by keeping my distance and wearing a mask in public. While it may have been an inconvenience at first, covering my face now helps me feel comfortable in the post office or grocery store.
That’s a reflection, Gollan points out, of my brain making an important shift. “It’s not a defense mechanism,” she explains. Not anymore. “It’s behavior that brings a rewarding outcome: a sense of mastery and control. A sense of hope.”