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Pandemic Fatigue Is Setting In: Here's How to Cope

Group video call during the pandemic.

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study finds that both younger and older adults were more likely to engage in risky behaviors after two months of the pandemic.
  • It's normal to feel pandemic fatigue, but practicing COVID-19 safety precautions is crucial.
  • There are steps you can take to ensure you stick to your preventative measures, despite pandemic fatigue.

COVID-19 restrictions have been a way of life for months now, and the infection shows no sign of slowing down. As we become used to this new normal, pandemic fatigue seems to be setting in. A new study shows that both younger and older adults were more likely to engage in risky behaviors after two months of the pandemic.The November study, published in the journal PLOS One, took data from over 5,000 participants and gauged both personal and social behaviors during the pandemic. Researchers examined how age affected behaviors in response to COVID-19, and how these behaviors changed over the first three months of the pandemic (March, April, May).

The behaviors were categorized as preventative (like wearing a face mask) or risky (like attending social events). The researchers found that several factors contributed to how people responded and whether they engaged in preventative or risky behaviors, including:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Race/ethnicity

They also found that as the pandemic progressed, the way people responded changed.

"It is concerning that people increased risky social behaviors over time, particularly older people, who could have more adverse consequences from meeting with family and friends," lead study author Jung Ki Kim, PhD, research associate professor at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, said in a press release.

How People Have Responded to the Pandemic

Researchers found at the beginning of the quarantine period, older people (ages 65 and older) were no more likely than younger people (ages 18 to 34) to practice preventive behaviors in response to the pandemic.

The study looked at five preventive behaviors. In March, older people behaved no differently from younger people when it came to:

  • Wearing a face mask
  • Washing hands frequently
  • Canceling personal and social activities
  • Avoiding high-risk people, public places
  • Eating at restaurants

However, by May, older people were more likely to implement such behaviors. Except for wearing a mask, overall, adults adopted preventive behaviors in the first month, but then reduced the modification of their behaviors somewhat after April.

The use of face masks, however, continued to increase over time; the percentage in May was about double that of April.

In terms of risky behaviors, older people were less likely than younger people to have close contact with those outside their household and less likely to go to other people’s homes a month after the pandemic started. However, both younger and older people tended to resume these potentially risky social behaviors as the pandemic progressed.

Beyond age, researchers found that other characteristics led people to practice more preventive behaviors in response to COVID-19, including:

  • Being female
  • Being Black, Hispanic, or Asian
  • Having a higher education
  • Having underlying conditions
  • Residing in a state where the COVID-19 outbreak was more prevalent
  • Trusting CNN more than Fox News

What This Means For You

COVID-19 safety protocols are not going away anytime soon, and it's crucial you practice them. Always make sure you are wearing a mask, washing your hands, and social distancing. There are steps you can take to ward off the onset of pandemic fatigue, like making a plan to stick to your safety precautions before meeting friends in person.

How to Ward Off Pandemic Fatigue

“It is certainly understandable that people feel pandemic fatigue," Bethany Teachman, PhD, professor of psychology and director of clinical training at the University of Virginia College, tells Verywell. "This time has not been easy and heading into the winter brings a sense of wariness when we are already so depleted.”

With the virus showing no immediate signs of slowing down, and some tighter indoor gathering guidelines being put in place—managing safety responses can take a mental toll. Still, there are some steps you can take to remain focused on staying safe.

Make a Plan

“We can make it easier to keep our resolve to follow COVID-19 safety precautions by making specific concrete plans,” Teachman says. “For instance, saying 'I’ll try to be careful when I see friends” is not as useful as saying “I will only see a couple of friends and we will meet outside and sit at least 6 feet apart.' This way you have a clear, actionable goal. It also helps to tell our intentions to others – that simple act can increase our sense of accountability and the likelihood that we will follow through.”

“[There is a] lack of control we all feel due to the unpredictability of this virus and also with the vulnerability of engaging in cleaning and wiping down things," Ijeoma Opara, PhD, assistant professor of social work at Stony Brook University in New York, tells Verywell. "It's crucial to remember to eat, drink water, rest, and maintain safety protocols (e.g. washing hands, avoiding large gatherings).”

Think of Others

“We will feel more motivated to do preventative actions if we feel our sacrifices will have an impact and feel we are working toward a collective good," Teachman says. "I try to think about the high-risk friends and family I am helping to protect so I’m not only focused on the losses we are experiencing by social distancing."

Look to Science

Teachman suggests looking to the science behind COVID-19 to understand why we're undertaking these safety precautions.

“Understanding what a positive impact we can make by simply wearing masks and distancing gives me a sense of control that I can do things to make this painful time a little better," Teachman says. "Reminding ourselves that this is temporary is helpful; especially with the encouraging recent news about progress on vaccines, keeping in mind that this is a short-term sacrifice that will have tremendous benefits to save lives can help us stay motivated.”

Currently, there are two potential U.S. vaccine candidates underway—but many stress that safety precautions will remain important throughout 2021.

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  1. Kim JK, Crimmins EM. How does age affect personal and social reactions to COVID-19: Results from the national Understanding America Study. Sykes BL, ed. PLoS ONE. 2020;15(11):e0241950. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0230236

  2. University of Southern California. Researchers find evidence of pandemic fatigue; younger and older adults resumed risky social behaviors as COVID-19 progressed. Updated November 11, 2020.