By Tiiu Lutter, Family Therapist and Director of Development
Do you find yourself just staring into space? Feeling a little stuck, or tired or just over this pandemic and all of its inconveniences? Are you shocked when you see friends and neighbors having large gatherings and going into the Wawa without a mask to “grab just a few things?” All of this can be a natural biproduct of habituation.
It is human nature to habituate, or get used to, things; even scary, dangerous, life-threatening things. Think about emergency physicians, Sherpas on mount Everest, funeral directors, pilots, even new drivers. Each of those people faces unusual or dangerous things that become everyday, no nonsense events for them over time. What is strange or intense for us, will not be for those who experience it daily. We are not built to sustain hyper alertness for months at a time, it’s just not biologically how we are programmed.
I am sure all of us can think of a time when we have habituated. It’s a key to human success! Remember when you first started driving and trying to keep the car straight while going 20 miles per hour was so hard and scary? Then, the next thing you know you’re getting pulled over on the Blue Route for going 75 without even realizing it because you were so comfortable with driving. Or, think about a time when you have walked into a space that smelled either delicious or awful. After a few minutes, you don’t really notice the smell (which can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on the odor) because your brain has habituated to it and doesn’t notice it any more. Humans will react to the next novel stimulus, but not the current baseline in the room.
Just because we normalize or habituate to scenarios does not mean that the risks change, even though our experience or feelings about them do. Doctors can still get infected by a virus or make a mistake and a patient dies. Sherpas can fall and die even though they’ve been up the mountain hundreds of times. We have all seen the consequences of inattentive driving.
So how does this apply to this seemingly endless pandemic? Habituation is part of why people are becoming so tired of all the restrictions, rule changes and constant need to monitor physical spaces. There is nothing intrinsically rewarding in not having the virus for another day, because we never can never really SEE if we avoided it, we are just going on with our usual, baseline life and not getting sick. Our brains look for rewards to increase behavior, and without some kind of reward or feedback, behavior tends to diminish. We are not made to keep doing the same thing for such long periods of time, especially without any positive reinforcement to keep us motivated. With the sustained demand for behavior change, and the endless presentation of the data, it is our nature to turn away, because as we habituate, we lose energy and engagement with the virus and health demands.
We are being asked to sustain this change in our behavior without ever seeing a direct benefit to ourselves in real time. It doesn’t mean we aren’t benefitting, it just means we aren’t experiencing a benefit emotionally, so we have to depend on our frontal cortex, our logic part, to keep engaged.
So what do we do with this information? One thing is acknowledge that it’s happening and give yourself a little love. It’s hard to keep going through stress without the fight or flight protective energy. If you have been getting mad at yourself for feeling so burnt, this is probably part of it. How can you keep paying attention to the risks and requirements of the pandemic through burnout and habituation? Maybe we can take a lesson from pilots. The way they stay alive and keep us safe in the air is by using checklists to make sure everything is working and to double check that they didn’t forget anything. For me, that looks like reminding myself to scrub down my door nobs and surfaces twice a week, to stop and think when I am in a place that’s not my house and before I begin or leave an activity about if I touched anything, and make sure I wipe down the things and wash my hands. It’s keeping a mask in my car and another in my purse, because I know I am going to forget one as I rush out the door.
For your kids, maybe come up with a reward system for successful mask wearing and hand and surface cleaning, it could be a whole new couple of lines on your star chart, and a very easy win for them!
Existing in a pandemic is challenging work for everyone. As time goes on, and the risk remains, but life continues as normal, it makes sense to feel burnt out. Give yourself some love and compassion and set up those protective factors so you can always have what you need on hand. Your experiences are normal. Exhaustion makes sense. And we promise – this will pass, one day.