The ongoing decrease in COVID-19 cases has led to the rollback of social distancing guidelines in many parts of the country. And while many people are rejoicing, many find themselves with trust issues preventing them from fully embracing this return to normalcy.
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Whether they’re concerned about shifting guidelines or the behavior of others throughout the pandemic, many across the country are experiencing trust issues when it comes to easing distancing rules. And those trust issues are disrupting their ability to adapt to recent changes.
“If you’ve been in a situation where your trust has been broken or people around you have behaved in ways that were not trustworthy, your trust has to be regained,” says clinical psychologist Scott Bea, PsyD.
We spoke with Dr. Bea about how to better understand these emotional situations and how we can prepare ourselves to better handle and process them if it happens to us.
How can we trust others who behaved differently than us?
Throughout the pandemic, despite the calls for social distancing and isolation from organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), many Americans chose to behave as if there was no pandemic at all.
“If you were at odds with someone’s behavioral patterns as the COVID-19 pandemic descended, they have to earn your trust back,” says Dr. Bea. “It’s like any relationship. If your trust is broken, it doesn’t just come back automatically as cases go down. It’s something that happens slowly over time.”
Another aspect of this adjustment involves maintaining boundaries as those who still prefer social distancing measures slowly adapt. “We’ve developed new habits over the last 15 months,” Dr. Bea says. “Wearing a mask and social distancing doesn’t feel unusual right now for many people.”
People who have followed those guidelines more closely might be more reluctant to roll back those practices themselves.
“We have to muster some self-acceptance and self-compassion about this,” he says. “Even as more people end their social distancing practice, there will be a set of people who are more cautious and that’s OK.”
It’s also important, he notes, to be as empathetic as possible. “If we can ask someone what their view is and be empathetic rather than imposing our own, that may be the best we can do right now,” he says. “If we put someone in an uncomfortable spot, that doesn’t work out well. But if we can find some middle ground that’s respectful of everyone’s attitudes, it’s going to feel a lot better.”
Practicing forgiveness with friends and family
The issue of rebuilding trust in a person’s behavior goes beyond just the general public. For many who practiced social distancing, they found their beliefs and behaviors at odds with that of close friends and family.
And when it comes to those closest to you, there can be more anger and hurt than just frustration. But, says Dr. Bea, it’s important to know how to use and channel that anger if it’s still lingering. “Some have used that anger to set boundaries, create limits and create a greater sense of safety,” he says.
Many relationships were injured due to differing views of the pandemic, he says, creating yet another significant challenge during the pandemic.
“Under the best circumstances, we try to forgive people so we don’t grind on anger,” he adds. “In some instances, the limits might be permanent. But if you want to have a relationship again with the person whose actions hurt you, you might have to practice forgiveness.”
But that forgiveness is often internal, not one in which you outwardly tell the person that you forgive them. “It’s a quiet, restful act that we do inside ourselves,” Dr. Bea notes. “It allows us to realize that we might see things differently but we still have common ground. And it gives us peace and a way back to some of these relationships.”
How do we learn to trust our own safety?
With social distancing guidelines rolled back, large-scale events are back on and many are at full capacity again. From Major League Baseball to your neighborhood grocery stores, most public places across the country are open to both those who are vaccinated and those who aren’t.
The COVID-19 vaccines are incredibly effective with the data to prove it. But some vaccinated individuals might still be hesitant to attend events they know will be attended by unvaccinated people. And those who can’t receive the COVID-19 vaccine for health reasons have even more reason to be concerned.
“If you feel there’s risk involved, maintain your safe behaviors,” says Dr. Bea. “It doesn’t hurt to play it a little cautiously.”
It’s going to be impossible to trust that everyone will be vaccinated, even at events that are guided by an honor system. “If you still feel uncertainty, do what you’ve been doing that helps you feel secure,” he continues. “Wear a mask and socially distance. It doesn’t hurt to go the extra mile. Feeling safe is better than feeling vulnerable.”
Trust yourself to do the right thing
On the flip side, some people might eagerly cast away masks and socially distance guidelines after being vaccinated and still feel some sort of guilt, like they’re breaking the rules.
Again, it’s about adaptation. “Guilt is an ordinary human emotion, but it’s not always a rational sentiment,” says Dr. Bea. “That which was familiar is unfamiliar now. So as you maintain these new behavioral patterns, you might feel some guilt. But our brains will adjust over time and that guilt will dissipate.”
It’s OK to feel a little awkward as you transition away from the guidelines you’ve followed for 15 months, he adds. “Ultimately, your emotions are guided by your behaviors, not the other way around. So your emotions will catch up.”
What about those shifting guidelines?
An unusual aspect of the pandemic has been the shifting nature of guidelines. Since the onset of the pandemic, the CDC, World Health Organization (WHO) and other groups have changed and adapted their guidelines to new developments.
This is, in large part, because COVID-19 is a virus we haven’t seen before. Scientists and experts adapted their guidelines as more data and information about the virus became available. Even now the CDC continues to change those guidelines as cases go down and vaccinations go up.
Those shifts, though, have resulted in some people wondering if they can still trust those organizations. The bottom line, says Dr. Bea, is yes, absolutely. “Knowledge and information aren’t static, they evolve,” he says. “More information comes to light as something is studied.”
Those changes, though, still play into uncertainty — something our brains don’t like. “When uncertainty gets on our radar screen, it produces a lot of tension and anxiety,” Dr. Bea adds. “In this case, how someone regards scientific discovery is interacting with things like their reaction to uncertainty and anxiety as well as the flexibility in their behavior and attitudes.”
Deferring to those who have more knowledge and wisdom during times of uncertainty can be helpful and useful, he says. “Change and uncertainty are always occurring and it can be challenging.”