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The Psychological Experience of Taking Off Our Masks

cubism inspired illustration of people taking off their masks

Verywell / Theresa Chiechi

Key Takeaways

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced that fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to wear masks or practice social distancing.
  • While this step toward normalcy is a welcome one, it can also induce anxiety.
  • Keeping in mind that an adjustment period is necessary can lessen the stress of socializing without a mask.

The recent CDC announcement that fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to wear masks was met with a mixture of emotional responses. While a step toward normalcy is, overall, a joyous occasion, many people are now feeling confused, anxious and asking themselves: Am I ready for full-face socializing?

It's safe to say we've all been dreaming of the day we can step into a mask-less future, but the thought of discarding them for good has thrown some individuals for a psychological loop. In many social scenarios, masks have become a rule of engagement during the pandemic.

Leaving home without one can keep you from entering stores, restaurants and public transportation, and has sparked controversy across the country since the pandemic's beginning.

So, if you're feeling anxious about removing your mask, keep in mind that this is normal. While the transition back to a naked face won't necessarily be an easy one, we're all allowed a period of adjustment as we get used to mask-less life.

Understanding the New Guidelines

There's been some confusion around the CDC's new guidelines. To clarify, only fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to wear masks or socially distance indoors or outdoors, "except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance."

According to the CDC, about 37% of the U.S. population has been vaccinated, and at least 47% has received one dose. So, more than half the population should continue to wear masks and practice social distancing.

Anthony Fauci, MD

If you are vaccinated, you can feel safe—that you will not get infected either outdoors or indoors. It did not explicitly say that unvaccinated people should abandon their masks.

— Anthony Fauci, MD

In discussing the new guidelines during an interview with Axios, immunologist Anthony Fauci, MD, said, "If you are vaccinated, you can feel safe—that you will not get infected either outdoors or indoors. It did not explicitly say that unvaccinated people should abandon their masks."

Even with that cleared up, countless fully vaccinated individuals don't feel comfortable removing their masks just yet. This is understandable. The psychological hold of more than a year's worth of mask-wearing has staying power.

Psychological Strain

In an informal social media poll for this article, 59% of respondents reported feeling more freaked out than fine when asked about no longer needing to wear a mask, even if they were fully vaccinated.

While some added that the lack of mask felt freeing, others reported having trouble shaking feelings of apprehension:

"I want masks gone, but I'm scared because I was fully vaccinated, got Covid then spread it to unvaccinated clients of mine." - Ciera, Phoenix, Arizona

"I keep thinking if I don't wear (a mask) people will think I'm an anti-masker." - Aditi, New York City

"(I) wish there were a good way to confirm vaccination status." - India, Chicago

"I don't know if people are distrusting of vaccine effectiveness or not trying to look "other" now, but it's all confusing and weird." - Alexandra, Colorado

"I honestly enjoy wearing (a mask) to the grocery store and the gym." - Bridget, Chicago

"I don't know, there were so many documented instances of Covid and people not spreading because of masks. I'm all for masks." - Alex; Columbia, Missouri

Neuropsychologist and associate professor of psychology at Pepperdine University Judy Ho, PhD, says this hesitation makes complete sense. For many individuals, our brains have come to equate face masks with shields of protection against a fatal virus. And in the near year we waited for a vaccine, they were our only line of defense. Of course letting that go is likely to induce anxiety.

“Masks have become such a symbol over time, and we’ve come to associate this object with safety, responsibility, all these different terms," Ho says. "It’s going to be hard to undo that all in one night. Just because the CDC came out with this guideline doesn’t mean your mind is going to adjust immediately."

It's also important to note that the act of wearing a face mask underwent incredible politicization in the past year. Whether you wear a mask or refuse to put one on, either camp been chastised relentlessly for their actions to the point that mask-wearing became an indicator of identity and civic values.

Needless to say, a lack of trust has permeated our society. While some individuals urge the public to trust the science, others protest that their rights are being violated. In some ways, masks have served as a physical indicator of who your allies are. Without them, we move into territory with which we've grown unfamiliar.

But as we make sense of how we interact with the people around us, we must also consider the changes in behavior we might've experienced ourselves.

New Behaviors

One thing humans excel at is adapting to new situations. With the introduction of masks, we've also developed some new behaviors that might be take some to shed.

Whether it's speaking more loudly in conversations, leaning in to better hear, employing exaggerated eye and eyebrow movements or even mouthing lyrics to songs from underneath your mask, we've all adjusted to life with our noses and mouths covered. Understandably, stepping out without a mask can leave us feeling exposed and questioning our socialize.

Judy Ho, PhD

Masks have become such a symbol over time, and we’ve come to associate this object with safety, responsibility, all these different terms. It’s going to be hard to undo that all in one night.

— Judy Ho, PhD

If you're questioning whether you're talking too much or smiling too little, just know that you're in the midst of reconditioning yourself from a year's worth of behavior, Ho says. Be patient with yourself. Most people are in the same boat right now, and the important thing to focus on is that you're making an effort while also keeping in mind that there will be an adjustment period.

“We have to try," Ho says. "We have to work, for the sake of society, on our social skills.”

Entering the Adjustment Period

Because we're living through, you guessed it, unprecedented times, there is no blueprint for getting back to "normal". It's likely no one anticipated that we'd be uneasy without masks, but this is the reality we're living in. It's important to take things one step at a time.

“Isolation for the rest of life is not the answer, eventually we're going to have to go through this," Ho says. "As long as you feel like you're taking proper precautions for yourself and those around you, it’s important to expose yourself a little bit at a time to different scenarios every day.” 

If you're feeling anxious, it's probably not smart to visit an indoor mall right away where no one's wearing a mask. Instead, Ho advises pairing small exposures with things you used to look forward to.

Visit your favorite store or museum, spend a day at the park, opt for small dinner parties and meet friends you've missed for outdoor coffee. Even just saying hello to people you pass on the street can help you ease back into socializing.

It's equally as important to acknowledge that, even when you're feeling anxious, you are still in control. If you want to continue wearing a mask, wear one. If you want to practice social distancing, do so. Voice your concerns if you have them, because, while everyone copes in their own way, there are likely others around your sharing the same experience.

“Assert your own needs and know that everyone’s comfort level is going to be different," Ho says. "You don't have feel like you need to absorb everyone’s level of comfort right away.”

Humans are resilient creatures, and we learn as we go. As we rebuild our trust in each other and cope with our collective trauma, a new version of the world will continue to open up around us. Allowing yourself and others the time to adjust will make the transition from masked to unmasked all the more easier.

What This Means For You

While it's within your rights to continue wearing a mask and social-distancing after you're fully vaccinated, it's healthy to start practicing small-scale social exposures.

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Article Sources
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  1. COVID-19 Vaccination. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/fully-vaccinated-guidance.html. Published 2021.

  2. COVID Data Tracker. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#vaccinations. Published 2021.