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How to deal with quarantine fatigue and why shaming won't help
The City of Ottawa has painted physical distancing circles at Mooney's Bay.
OTTAWA -- It's been just over three months since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
Lockdowns were issued. We were told at first to stay home and only go out for the essentials, to maintain physical distancing whenever possible, to wash our hands for 20 seconds with soap and water and not to mingle with people outside our households. Later, to wear a mask when we go out.
Now, it's less than a week away from the first day of summer. Ontario has allowed parts of the province, including Ottawa, to enter Stage 2 of reopening. Shopping malls are open again. We can have a meal on a patio. We can get a haircut.
But, at the same time, health officials continue to urge us to be cautious. Emergency orders are still in place.
"Be COVID W.I.S.E." Ottawa's Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches says. "Wear a mask when you can't physically distance. Isolate yourself if you're sick. Stay two metres apart from others. Exercise good hand hygiene."
After three months, a global emergency can start to feel less like an emergency and more like every day life.
Experts call it "quarantine fatigue" or "caution fatigue." Maybe you don't feel like wearing a mask today. Maybe you forget to wash your hands after a trip to the grocery store. The vigilance and urgency of the early days of the pandemic starts to fade and you relax into old habits.
Carolyn Klassen, a therapist at Connexus Counselling, spoke on Newstalk 580 CFRA's The Goods with Dahlia Kurtz and said the fatigue is hitting many people, especially with the nice weather finally here.
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"A couple of months ago, when we were in full lockdown, we didn't have any decisions to make. We just knew to stay home and only go out for the absolute essentials," she said. "We could see the numbers in the ICU going up and we were all really frightened and it wasn't hard to listen to the authorities and do what we needed to do to stay safe."
Now, the curve has mostly flattened and the number of active cases is falling.
"We've kept this up for so long and now we have to figure out how to live in this new reality where we have lots of discernment and decisions to make as we implement what the authorities have told us to do in terms of going out a bit more and still maintaining those cautions," Klassen said. "This is at a time when we're already tired and we're lonely and we're so ready to get out. It's so hard to implement those things when it just feels so normal to be out because we remember what it's like to be out."
The first weekend of stage two in Ottawa isn't even over yet and that means new habits haven't been formed, like remembering to have a mask on hand when going shopping, Klassen said.
On the other hand, we've been inundated with messages in the media and from health authorities and politicians on what to do to stay safe for so long that we naturally start to tune them out.
"As humans, we have so much coming at us all the time. If we paid attention to absolutely everything all the time, our brains would get overloaded," Klassen said. It's like having a clock ticking in your home. You tune it out. Your guests might hear it, but you don't anymore. We have been hearing for months, 'wash your hands, stay physically distant,' and the danger is that we're going to tune those out."
Klassen said thinking about your options and trying to focus on being realistic can help.
"We have to recognize what are more damaging things to do and less damaging things to do?" She asks. "If you need to be together with someone, can you do it outside rather than inside? We find ways to reduce the risk, even if people aren't going to be able to do it exactly right. We have to figure out a way to make it sustainable for people."
Have compassion and don't rush to shame
Klassen said shaming people for not following COVID-19 rules may work in the immediate moment, but it's not a recipe for long-term success.
"Shaming doesn't really change behaviour," she said. "It may change a person's actions for a moment as they are acting to reduce their shame but it doesn't really fundamentally change the issue."
With all of the changes to our every day lifestyles, Klassen said it can be easy to make mistakes when we had been so used to a pre-pandemic world.
She suggests being compassionate and understanding of people's situations.
"We all have our individual reasons why we're doing what we're doing. I think we tend to offload our discomfort and fear and tension on to other people with blame," she said. "When people do what they do, total strangers, we don't understand what their motivations are. We have to understand and have huge compassion toward people. We have had such a time of lockdown and there are so many reasons why people are out doing what they're doing.
"The important thing is to figure out how to be compassionate and invite people to behaviour that's going to keep our curve flat and keep our numbers low."
One thing that can contribute to pandemic fatigue is overloading oneself with information.
It's become known as "doomscrolling", the practice of constantly scrolling social media feeds and taking in too much information, especially bad news.
"I look at this in terms of how our brains process this information," said Klassen. "These are awful things and we need to acknowledge that they've happened and we need to figure out what we're going to do with them, but when we do scroll we allow it to happen over and over again to our brains like it's the first time. That increases the fatigue and then we don't have the energy to be able to go out and deal with the quarantine precautions in a way that's fresh and alive."
Klassen said you should limit your intake of bad news. Be aware, alert and responsible, but don't overwhelm yourself with the same bad news repeatedly.