Why Our Brains Become Numb To COVID-19 Dangers, And How To Avoid It

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
Why Our Brains Become Numb To COVID-19 Dangers, And How To Avoid It
Scary Mommy and Chris Clor/FPG/Getty

The other day, I sold a table via Facebook Marketplace and realized midway through the interaction that I had completely forgotten to wear a mask. The transaction took place outside, at least, but by the time I noticed I’d forgotten my mask, it was pointless to run back inside to get one. The interaction was already over.

How could I forget what I’d thought had become a norm? I’d been so vigilant about social distancing from the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. I remember scribbling out the math on a sheet of notebook paper and realizing we were doubling every few days and that shit was about to get very real. I didn’t panic, but I did enter a state of heightened vigilance that lasted for months. I checked the infection stats on the Johns Hopkins website several times per day, as well as the numbers in Florida where I live. I cleared my social calendar and began teaching my violin students via Zoom. Grocery store trips were my only allowed outing, and those were every 10 days, plotted with careful lists to ensure we had enough food to get through the 10 days.

Again, my vigilance wasn’t panic. I was paying attention to the science and doing my part to reduce the spread and to avoid getting sick myself. As the only working adult in my household, I literally cannot afford to get sick. If I were to miss two months of work, my bank accounts would run dry. I am already making less money due to the contraction in the economy. My vigilance was never panic. It was, and is, practical.

And I wasn’t alone. Those of us who listen to experts and science, when we learned about the virus, were highly vigilant—aware of everything we touched and who we came into contact with. We were in a constant state of red alert. I don’t personally know anyone who has died of COVID, but I am one degree of separation away from many who have died. Several of my friends have lost parents who were otherwise healthy prior to contracting COVID-19, with their only health risk having been that they were old. However, a number of my friends have gotten sick, recovered, and now, several months later, still can’t breathe the way they used to.

Still, six months into dealing with this virus, our vigilance appears to have waned. Kids are returning to school, people are socializing, going out to restaurants, congregating at the beach. It is clear that we are less careful than before, and it’s not because the virus isn’t still floating around or people have stopped dying. We are still losing almost 1,000 Americans per day to COVID-19. So why does it seem that we are less afraid of the virus?

Giulio Fornasar/Getty

It’s not that we are no longer afraid of COVID-19: It’s that our nervous systems are exhausted. We aren’t meant to remain in a constant state of hyper-vigilance—our brains won’t allow it. There’s even a name for the waning alertness that happens with any given task we try to remain hyperfocused on for any length of time: vigilance decrement.

We can recognize that there is a tiger trailing us in the jungle, and that can arouse our fear and trigger our fight or flight response, but if we walk long enough and the tiger never attacks (or maybe it only attacks people walking on other trails), after a while our brains decide it’s a waste of energy to keep worrying about that tiger. We experience vigilance decrement, or, in layman’s terms: complacency. The threat hasn’t gone away, but since it hasn’t directly impacted us, this appears to be solid evidence that it will continue not to directly impact us.

This is not solid evidence, though. If you haven’t yet been directly impacted by COVID-19, it’s for one of only two reasons: Either you’ve been diligent about social distancing, or you are lucky. That’s it. Those are the only two reasons.

Even those of us not at risk for severe illness still have the ability to pass it to others who are at great risk. COVID-19 hasn’t stopped being a numbers game. The more humans we come into contact with, the higher our chances of contracting COVID-19 and spreading it. COVID-19 has a long incubation period compared to other transmissible viruses, so those infected can spread it to others before they realize they are infected and contagious. Everything that was true in March is still true today, but even more so. The virus is more present in the population, our risks are higher, not lower.

And flu season is coming. Early on, hospitals in COVID-19 hotspots were overrun with patients and running low on beds and ventilators. Ordinary flu is not nearly so dangerous as COVID-19, but combine the two and there is a risk our hospitals will be overrun. Now, with kids back in school, there’s a strong likelihood that they will act as vectors, asymptomatically transferring the disease to the adults in their lives, many of whom have higher risk of becoming severely ill in the event of a COVID-19 infection.

It’s impossible to maintain a constant high level of watchfulness. Based on my Facebook Marketplace experience, I am obviously susceptible to lapses in vigilance despite being clear on the risk.

But it is possible to create good habits. It must be a habit to wear a mask, to avoid large gatherings, to wash hands frequently, to stay home when possible. Until the virus is truly eradicated or a vaccine is available, we need to make sure we remind ourselves of the damage this virus can do. We don’t have to be scared all the time, nor would it be healthy to be, but we can at least be smart. Continuing to take measures to avoid becoming infected or infected others isn’t fear or hyper-vigilance. It’s compassion and intelligence.

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