On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a major step toward a post-pandemic world. According to the CDC, fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks in small groups outdoors, nor do they need to wear a mask outdoors while walking, running, hiking, or biking alone. But after spending more than a year in some level of quarantine or lockdown, many have grown accustomed to wearing masks whenever they leave the house. So much so that some are already experiencing anxiety at the thought of circumstantially not wearing one.
Despite what Tucker Carlson and Ben Shapiro might now imply regarding wearing masks in public, it is still important to follow the CDC mask guidelines. But for those who now have a mix of masked and maskless social situations, experts say that feeling a heightened sense of anxiety is very real.
“I have experienced so much discussion around anxiety, both personally and professionally,” Meaghan Rice, PsyD, LPC, told Refinery29. “We have been living in an extraordinary way for over a year at this point, and a lot of us have completely forgotten what our life was like before the pandemic hit. If we can't remember what life was like, we can also expect that the quantity of unknowns and/or items beyond our control is overwhelming. Add an extra layer of our safety feeling threatened and it is really just too much.”
On Twitter, people are sharing a myriad of relatable feelings they have experienced in their attempts to safely return to new levels of normalcy. Some share feelings of trepidation at the thought of going out in public maskless even after weeks of being fully vaccinated. The feeling that — even though you’re following recommended guidelines — you’re somehow still breaking the rules, that you forgot something, or that something just feels off are among the most frequently mentioned.
“It makes a lot of sense that people are feeling anxious and unsettled right now,” Shannon O’Neill, PhD, a licensed psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, said in a Q&A on the subject. “Just when we were finally adjusting to a new normal and some predictability and flow, the world is preparing to change all over again. Future uncertainty and a sense of not knowing what to expect can fuel anticipatory anxiety. There is even a diagnosis for this feeling: adjustment disorder.”
In August 2020, the CDC published results of a large web-based survey that polled more than 5,000 adults in the United States about their state of mind in the pandemic. The survey showed that 40.9% said they experienced at least one adverse mental or behavioral health problem because of the pandemic. Symptoms of trauma and stress-related disorders were reported by 26.3% of participants, while symptoms of anxiety and depression by 30.9%. While there hasn’t been a pandemic transition survey published — a downside of going through things real-time — if discussions on social media are any indication, coming out of the pandemic, even if it's just sussing out situations in which you don't have to wear a mask, is bringing its own set of challenges.
Not much more than a year ago, casual mask-wearing was not the norm in the U.S. But we've adjusted, and now, they've become a safety blanket of sorts. Masks have come to represent a sense of protection (and they still do!) whereas not wearing one represented an open disregard for CDC safety guidelines and our understanding of how the virus spreads. Now, our normal is changing yet again, and that can be stressful.
To ease the transition, some experts recommend adjusting to the new guidelines at your own pace. "The advice I give my clients who are experiencing post-mask anxiety is to take things slowly, and to make small, gradual changes. Gradually work up to keeping your mask off for long periods of time," Kate Rosenblatt, LPC, LMHC, told Refinery29. "By taking these small, incremental steps towards safely exposing ourselves to experiences that trigger feelings of anxiety, can help us develop resilience to facing, and ultimately overcoming this post-mask anxiety." It may also be helpful to expect to feel some level of weirdness or even anxiety after doing something that had previously been against recommendations, like hanging out maskless with (fully vaccinated) friends from outside your pod.
But if the thought of ditching the mask in some situations causes anxiety or stress to the point of interfering with your life, Rosenblatt says, it might be worth speaking to a trusted mental health care professional. For example, if the level of worry you're experiencing interferes with sleep, work, or you find yourself withdrawing from friends and family even if you can see them safely.
Currently, there are only a few situations in which the CDC says fully vaccinated people may go maskless. At large gatherings like crowded outdoor environments, it is still necessary to cover your face. But just like we had to learn going into the pandemic, changes like this take time and it will go smoother if we can be kind and patient with ourselves in the process. This is something we’ve never experienced and we will likely all go through waves of thoughts and emotions before it’s over.