First and foremost, reluctance may be driven by uncertainty, says licensed psychologist Hayden Finch, PhD. “None of us has ever lived through the end of a pandemic before, so there’s considerable uncertainty about it. There’s uncertainty about how long immunity will last, about who around us is vaccinated, and more,” she says. “At the same time, a year of existing in a pandemic has drained our psychological resources, which makes it even harder to navigate stress and uncertainty.”
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For many of us, the pandemic has engendered a newfound awareness of contagion, of just how vulnerable we are to the “germs” of others. “Those who are fearful of contracting [COVID-19] or other infectious diseases may certainly experience anxiety as mask-wearing is reduced,” says Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of Joy From Fear. “A fear for personal health as well as the fear of unknowingly infecting others may foster ongoing anxiety.”
Some, if not most, of us have been traumatized by this pandemic and the dramatic changes its forced upon us, she adds. “For those who felt more protected by mask-wearing, a sudden shift to an absence of masks can leave a trauma sufferer feeling extremely vulnerable; this increased sense of vulnerability can lead to substantial anxiety and stress,” she says.
We now associate masks with a sense of safety, and that can be difficult to let go, especially given that aforementioned uncertainty around these unprecedented circumstances. “Early in the pandemic, we began wearing masks to keep ourselves safe, and our brains learned that masks equal safety,” says Dr. Finch. “Now that we are vaccinated, we no longer need the masks for safety; however, our brains would rather be overprotective, so they’ll encourage us to continue to wear the masks just in case.”
In certain geographical areas, the number of COVID-19 cases remains high, says Aimee Daramus, Psy.D, licensed clinical psychologist and author of Understanding Bipolar Disorder. While vaccination offers substantial protection, it’s not 100 percent effective. So, some people may feel safest in a mask. “I’ve also heard a lot of people say that they don’t trust people to be honest about their vaccination status,” she says. “They’re still wearing masks in case people around them are claiming to be vaccinated when they aren’t.”
There’s another sociological component to continued mask-wearing, too. Finch points out that some people continue to wear masks so they won’t appear anti-science or anti-mask. For the past year, mask-wearing has symbolized belonging to one group, and suddenly not wearing them can feel like switching teams. You might feel like you’re being viewed by outsiders who aren’t familiar with the CDC’s new guidance as an anti-masker, and worry about getting dirty looks or being negatively judged.
Unfortunately, mask-wearing has become politicized in the U.S. in a way it’s not in other countries such as Japan, notes Timothy Brewer, MD, professor of medicine and epidemiology at UCLA. As such, unmasking can feel like a political statement that doesn’t actually align with your values.
If you’re hesitant to stop wearing masks for any of the above reasons, the good news is that you don’t have to. “There’s really no downside to wearing a mask right now,” says Dr. Brewer. “If you feel better wearing a mask, that’s certainly fine to do.” (He also notes that the CDC recommendations are not mandates, either, and says that in some states, cities, and businesses you may still be required to wear a mask.)
This is a transition period in terms of cultural norms, and in the future Dr. Brewer says some people may choose to wear masks seasonally or whenever they’re sick, so masking may become normalized in non-pandemic times. “It’s likely that we may become more of a mask-wearing society similar to a number of western Pacific countries where mask wearing, particularly in respiratory viral season, is considered a reasonable thing to do and probably does reduce the risk of transmission of influenza, coronaviruses, and other other respiratory viruses,” he says. “So people shouldn’t worry about wearing masks going forward.”
While vaccines are highly effective, the CDC was likely motivated in part to issue this new guidance around masks in order to motivate more people to get vaccinated, says Dr. Brewer. This isn’t to say you aren’t statistically safe enough to remove your mask if you’ve been vaccinated, but it is to say that there is still a small chance (around five percent) of contracting COVID-19 even if you’re fully vaccinated, so continuing to wear a mask isn’t wholly irrational. This is especially true if you are immunocompromised or have family members who are immunocompromised or unable to receive the vaccine. In fact, he says that it may continue to be appropriate for children between the ages of 2 and 12 to wear masks, and some parents might find it makes sense to continue masking up alongside them.
Whatever your specific circumstances might be, Dr. Manly says it’s important to honor your unique timeframe and the unique timeframes of others. “Although some people may rush to be mask-free, others may want to wear their masks for a few weeks or months longer than others in their social circle or general environment,” she says. “It’s important not to compare your mask-wearing needs to others; honor what feels right for you.” In short, wear a mask if you want to or don’t. And reserve judgement no matter your preference.
Otherwise, she notes, you might push yourself to do something that makes you feel unsafe, which will only cause you unnecessary stress. “If you’re having trouble getting to a ‘no mask’ place, simply be patient with yourself until you feel comfortable,” she says. “And, if the issue persists, it can be helpful to journal about your fears, talk with supportive friends, or reach out to a psychotherapist.”