Hop onto your Instagram and you might even see people boldly posting about their ventures outside their home: a pool party here with a “close circle” of friends, a smallish birthday party there with people from different homes. (“Don’t worry, we’re keeping 6 feet apart!”)
You see it on a larger scale in the news: In New York last weekend, sunny weather led people to flock to parks. (As of last week, residents of New York City have submitted 14,000 complaints to the police about people violating social distancing rules.)
In Southern California, thousands hit the beaches in Orange County, seeking relief from a heatwave that hit just in time for the weekend. (Gov. Gavin Newsom has ordered all Orange County beaches closed this weekend, calling it a “temporary pause.”)
Clearly, “quarantine fatigue” is starting to kick in.
“I think we’re getting to the stage of this where people are desperate to leave their homes, and desperation rarely makes for good decisions,” said Shane G. Owens, a psychologist and the assistant director of campus mental health at New York’s Farmingdale State College.
“You see it on your social media feed. You see it in your neighborhoods with traffic. I live on a main road, and foot, bike, car and especially motorcycle traffic increase incredibly on nice days,” Owens told HuffPost.
After about six weeks of social distancing, we’re all getting a little stir crazy ― especially those who were wary of the social distancing guidelines from the beginning.
“People were having trouble with physical distancing when the guidelines were strict,” he added. “It’s unlikely that loosening those restrictions in some states will lead to responsible behavior.”
A combination of factors ― warm weather, stay-at-home restrictions that have dragged on longer than anticipated and seeing other states move to reopen ― has led to Americans going outside more frequently and traveling longer distances, according to research out of the University of Maryland.
Using cellphone location data, researchers noted the change in behavior in the past two weeks in all but three states.
And in a Gallup poll conducted the week of April 20, 59% of respondents said they had practiced social distancing in the previous 24 hours. That was down from 65% in the week of April 6.
Interestingly, the research seems to run counter to polls that suggest a majority of Americans — up to 80% — support the restrictions that governors and local officials have put in place to counter the spread of the virus. (Apparently, “support” doesn’t preclude looking for personal loopholes.)
So what happened? How did “safer at home” become “safer at your best friend’s home” or “safer with a nominal 6-feet-apart from others on a crowded beach”? According to Nikole Benders-Hadi, a psychiatrist and medical director of behavioral health at Doctor on Demand, much of our quarantine fatigue can be chalked up to feeling overconfident about our personal sense of safety.
“When people disconnect from the news or are distant from the front lines, it can be easy to think it is not a big deal,” she said. “We’re starting to see a reduction in numbers of hospitalizations and deaths in some parts of the country, but what is important to understand is that this is because of our distancing.”
Fewer new COVID-19 cases being diagnosed doesn’t necessarily mean we should ease up or stop social distancing. If we genuinely want to “flatten the curve” ― a phrase that refers to enacting measures to help prevent a sudden spike in cases that would overwhelm the health care system ― we have to stay home a little longer. Without a COVID-19 vaccine, that’s the only actionable thing we can do to help our health care workers battle the coronavirus.
But a little bit of freedom is a heady thing. The more exposed we are to market trips or outings to our friends’ homes without getting sick, the less anxious we feel about the pandemic as a whole and the more likely we are to go out again.
“This is a natural process that is the basis for a therapy technique called exposure,” Owens said. “This natural process of becoming accustomed to fear and anxiety is enhanced by doing some things — like running or shopping — without getting sick.”
Each consecutive trip outside that doesn’t make you sick “loosens anxiety’s grip on you, even if some amount of fear is good for you, like it is in the case of COVID-19,” he said.
“If we don’t stay home for a few more weeks, we will have to stay home much longer. Better to stay away from the world for a few days than to stay away from the world forever.”
The positive feelings that come with getting out of the house ― that small fix of freedom after days of being housebound ― also strengthens our optimism bias, our faulty belief that bad things like the COVID-19 disease won’t happen to us, Owens said.
Seeing others go out no doubt normalizes the behavior, too. (Celebrities and their “quarantine road trips” with friends, for instance, or people in your own social circle getting together for wine night.)
And obviously, there’s nothing easy about isolation and feeling locked up. It’s unnatural for us to be cooped up in our homes with only the occasional walk as a respite.
“There’s a reason why so many prisoners in American jails have some type of mental health issue,” said Jagdish Khubchandani, an associate chair and professor of health science at Ball State University. “No one is and can be prepared for such lockdowns.”
Khubchandani feels stir crazy, too.
“Despite my own experience with curfews, riots and floods, it’s hard to have any preparation or immunity against the frustration and fatigue that builds up in such lockdowns,” he said.
But remember that the U.S. has the highest number of coronavirus deaths in the world. The number of known cases in the country has surpassed 1 million, with more than 61,000 deaths so far. (Some experts say it’s off by “tens of thousands” because we’ll need to test more of the dead for the coronavirus.)
When you go to public places where it’s clearly not possible to keep 6 feet apart, you give the virus one more opportunity to persist in the population.
“If we don’t stay home for a few more weeks, we will have to stay home much longer,” Khubchandani said. “Better to stay away from the world for a few days than to stay away from the world forever.”
So how do we retrain ourselves to see the immediate good that comes from staying put? First, recognize that your uneasiness around this, especially the longer it stretches out, is wholly human and natural.
“We are wired and driven by the need to connect and interact with others,” said Liz Higgins, a family therapist and founder of Millennial Life Counseling in Dallas. “Couple that with our inherent freedoms as Americans and many of us are itching to get back to normal.”
If you need to convince your family and friends to continue to stay home, we wrote a guide earlier in the pandemic about how to make that argument. As people get more lax in social distancing, the advice is no less relevant.
It also helps to remember that, in spite of how disconnected we all feel, we’ve actually never been more connected. (Not just because you can hop on FaceTime anytime you’d like; the poor people who lived through the devastating 1918 influenza obviously couldn’t do that.)
We’re connected in a much larger way: Your decision to continue to stay home ripples through the community, through the country and the world. Assume you’re an asymptomatic carrier of the virus (which, if you haven’t been tested, you might be): The virus needs a host to keep going. It’s using you as its mode of transportation. When you stay home instead of going to a friend’s “small” get together, you starve it of opportunities to infect other people.
“If you’re feeling fenced it, try to be conscious of how your individual actions and responsibilities can help, and take care of others who are more vulnerable,” Higgins said. “While this situation is far from desirable, we have to remain diligent and push to the end, whenever that is, but we know it will not be forever.”
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Experts are still learning about the novel coronavirus. The information in this story is what was known or available as of press time, but it’s possible guidance around COVID-19 could change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.