On Thursday, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced fully vaccinated people didn’t have to wear masks “in any setting” except in specific circumstances, the response was predictably mixed.
For some, the updated guidelines were long-awaited and long overdue. Others tweeted that they weren’t yet comfortable going without a mask and that the policy ignored the most vulnerable. Some said they wanted to keep wearing a mask to be respectful to others who might not know whether people without masks had really been vaccinated yet.
This CDC update is one on a laundry list of revised regulations, now that at least 155 million Americans have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. Each has been met with debate. In April, after the CDC eased guidelines on wearing masks outdoors, the hot takes came almost immediately, an example being the Atlantic article “The Liberals Who Can’t Quit Lockdown.” In a tweet promoting the story, the author wrote, “Awhile ago, I started noticing something strange: Very progressive people, who love to talk about "believing in science," were adopting COVID restrictions *over and above* CDC guidelines.”
There is no question that the risk of being infected with SARS-CoV-2 outdoors is extremely rare. This was true before vaccination and is even more true now that more people are vaccinated.
But epidemiology isn’t the only science in question here. There’s also the science of psychology, and experts in that field say changing a year’s worth of ingrained behavior takes more than a new set of guidelines. And with still-changing Covid-19 rules, anxiety about what’s safe is likely to spike even higher.
What you should know first — For over a year, we’ve been encouraged to wear masks to protect ourselves and others from a potentially lethal virus. In most places in the country, they were required to go into grocery stores and other establishments. Psychologically, that’s a powerful recipe: fear plus habit.
David Reiss, a psychiatrist and trauma expert, tells Inverse that expecting everyone to immediately feel comfortable in situations they’ve previously been told were dangerous is antithetical to how our brains work.
“We’re simply not wired that way,” Reiss says. “Normal physiological functioning leads us to generalize experiences of danger so that we can be ‘better prepared’ for future recurrences of the same or similar risks.”
Even if there’s an intellectual knowledge that a certain danger has passed, it’s typical (though not universal) to remain wary of the same or similar circumstances, Reiss says.
“If a snake crosses your path while walking through the woods, it is natural, normal, and healthy to be wary of any twig that might resemble the snake,” he explains.
That wariness likely isn’t going to last forever. It’s also an appropriate human response based on a potential threat.
Managing anxiety after the worst of Covid-19
After dealing with the very real danger of a pandemic for over a year, Reiss says there are going to be two general responses.
- Lingering concerns or fears because we’ve spent a year coping with very real risk, and managing that risk has become a habit.
- Quickly repressing the sense of danger. This usually involves a degree of denial, and then rapidly turns into somewhat of a cavalier underestimation of risk (in the service of taking pride in quickly “moving on”).
For the first group, he says, “Habits do not just ‘break’ or end cleanly.” This is especially true when the habit is the result of some kind of emotional response, like fear and/or protecting oneself and loved ones.
“For most people,” Reiss says, “there is a transitional period during which risk is somewhat overestimated on an emotional basis, which can lead to the continuation of protective measures that may no longer be necessary.”
People in the second group may underestimate risk. “Truly ‘understanding the science’ means truly appreciating that a reduced risk – even an ‘acceptable’ risk – is not equivalent to the absence of risk,” Reiss says.
“It’s messy and looks messy.”
Another psychological factor that may be complicating people’s responses to the new CDC guidelines is that the CDC has, in many cases appropriately, changed its recommendations several times over the course of the pandemic. While such changes are inevitable with a novel virus, Lori Garrott, a certified trauma therapist, says it’s not the kind of thing that makes people comfortable.
“People like concrete guidance that doesn’t change,” Garrott tells Inverse. “That makes them feel safe.”
She believes that reluctance to stop masking outdoors is the result of a combination of factors.
“[People] know that masking definitely works and feeling mistrustful of institutions at the same time,” Garrott explains. “Also, most people alive have never experienced a pandemic of a novel disease where experts learn in real-time. It’s never ‘clean’ to learn in real-time. It’s messy and looks messy.”
Expert tips for the post-pandemic return
Ultimately, this conversation is bigger than outdoor masking.
Maybe you’re comfortable with not wearing a mask outdoors but despite being fully vaccinated, you’re not comfortable with indoor dining in a restaurant yet. Or flying. Or any number of things that we used to do without thinking twice, but have become risky or even frightening over the last year. The same psychology applies. Many people are going to have a period of adjustment as we start daring to do things we may not have done in over a year because of safety concerns.
Reiss says it’s important to “be patient with yourself. Be kind to yourself. Give yourself space to go through a reasonable period of transition, even if it’s sometimes annoying and inconsistent.”
“Ask yourself, ‘Objectively, what are the dangers?’”
He adds that sharing your experience with friends or others who will empathize and share their own experiences can also be really helpful.
When specific fear or anxiety arises, Reiss suggests: “Ask yourself, ‘Objectively, what are the dangers? Objectively, what is the level of risk? Objectively, what is a reasonable precaution?’”
Anxiety is a valuable warning sign, he says, likening it to an “early alert system.” We should respond to anxiety the way we would to a flashing yellow light.
“It’s a warning to slow down, check out the situation, and if it is objectively safe, proceed with appropriate caution,” Reiss explains. “Most of the time, the objective analysis will find that, just like at most flashing yellows, just a little bit of thought and reasonable precaution is all that is necessary.”
Removing all anxiety would be akin to uprooting all flashing yellows – not a good idea, but neither would be slamming on the breaks and refusing to proceed until it turns into a flashing green.
When to seek help for anxiety and stress
Reiss says professional help might be warranted in the following scenarios:
- If the anxiety, depression, or obsessionality significantly disrupt normal behaviors for more than a brief period of time (a few days to a few weeks)
- If they’re disrupting “neuro-vegetative functioning” like appetite, sleep, and concentration
Most importantly, if any of the above is ever accompanied by any violent or dangerous impulses toward self or others (including involvement in substance abuse) it is necessary to obtain professional help.
The “new normal”— We should also give ourselves some space and compassion around the idea of returning to normal, Garrot says.
“My personal opinion is that there is no post-pandemic ‘normal’ because this was a collective traumatic event that was sustained and caused immeasurable loss of life,” she says.
“Those kinds of events have shifted communities and societies throughout history. This one will too. The way we live on the other side of it will never be exactly like it was before.”
Instead of worrying about getting back to “normal,” focus on what makes you comfortable and happy. It doesn’t have to be at the same pace or schedule as anyone else. But if you’re finding that your anxieties are getting in the way of doing the things that make you comfortable and happy, then it might be time to talk to a professional.