Last week the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, seemingly out of nowhere, announced that vaccinated individuals in the United States no longer need to wear a mask indoors or outdoors in most settings.
Just like that.
The briefing actually added the caveat that if someone is fully vaccinated, with no other conditions that compromise their community, and the rates of Covid are relatively low where they live, along with high vaccination coverage, then it should be safe to go maskless.
OK, so don’t throw them out just yet. But, in Bermuda, we may well be shortly in a position where this is feasible or even recommended.
I was in shock when I heard; it actually didn’t seem real. Most of us have been wearing a mask regularly for more than a year now. They have become such a fundamental part of our lives that we don’t leave home without one. Some people even own so many that they colour co-ordinate with their outfit!
Inevitably, it is going to feel strange to go maskless; it is unfamiliar to us now after all. Data shows that it takes 21 days to build a habit, and so most of us are certainly in the habit. But will it be more than simply breaking a familiar habit? Wearing a mask has become synonymous with managing a threat to our wellbeing. Just like hand-washing and maintaining social distance, mask wearing has been sold to us as something that reduces the risk of the deadly, invisible virus.
How do we turn off this risk information? How do we start to feel safe?
For most of us, we have trained our brain to be wired for threat — that actually helps us to be diligent with protective behaviours such as mask wearing — but when we are wired for threat, it is not easy to turn it off. Similarly, like any message or script that we tell ourselves repeatedly over time, we believe it!
The thought of risk and harm has been embedded in our thought framework. That will, at least in the short term, create a cognitive dissonance between our thoughts — “mask wearing keeps us safe” — and the seemingly now incongruent behaviour of not wearing a mask. Those that have been most anxious during the pandemic are likely to find this transition even more difficult.
Understandably, some of us are going to feel very uncomfortable ditching our masks overnight. In fact, there may be many of us who find it difficult to adjust to a general loosening of the rules. Again, either owing to a sense of feeling at risk and unsafe, or just feeling totally unfamiliar.
How are we going to feel being in crowds, being in closer physical proximity to others or having more physical touch? My prediction is that people who never experienced these things as a problem previously, may feel, at the least, a little weird about it. We are also being asked to trust the science, but we know that the medical knowledge of the virus and the impact of the vaccine have been evolving in real time during the pandemic, and as a result of this we have been bombarded with complex information that is often difficult to understand.
As precautions become relaxed, there may well be an increase in anxiety in some and, conversely, complacency in others. This divided response can be a challenge at a policy level, but for those individuals remaining anxious, the good news is, you can adjust at your own pace. It may be that continuing to apply safety precautions is the right thing to do for now. In fact, making slow, steady alterations may be the best way to manage these changes. For example, removing masks occasionally in less populated settings, or around those with whom we are familiar.
It will take time for the cognitive dissonance to reset. Approaching this like you would any other anxiety-provoking situation may be useful: prepare for some discomfort, understand that the discomfort can be tolerated, know that the anxiety levels will reduce over time, offer yourself words of reassurance and validation, and praise yourself for your accomplishment. This will get easier as you get more feedback that taking these risks is safe.
If you find that you are feeling very frightened of change, consider talking it through with friends and family, and give yourself some extra time to adjust. If you still feel stuck, and you continue to experience anxiety, do reach out for professional help.
• Gemma Harris, ClinPsyD, is Director of Corporate Wellness at Solstice, and writes on Instagram as @theexdoctor