You’d gotten so used to wearing a mask — to the grocery store, at the gas station, maybe even while enjoying the great outdoors. At some point, it became less of a nuisance and more of a security blanket.
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Now, though, the rules have changed. As pandemic restrictions loosen, many places no longer require masks. And if you’re one of the many people who would prefer to stay covered up, you might feel awkward about the whole thing.
“You’re entitled to make choices about your own body,” says psychologist Dawn Potter, PsyD. But because it can feel uncomfortable to be the only masked face in the room, she offers tips for easing your anxiety, responding to nosy inquiries and seeking help if you need it.
The emotional difficulty of unmasking
As the saying goes, “Old habits die hard” — so even if you never wanted to mask up in the first place, you may now feel uncomfortable going without.
“When people get into a habit of doing something, it can be hard to break the habit,” Dr. Potter says. “That even applies to things they didn’t initially want to do, like masking.”
And even if you want to continue masking, it’s natural to feel awkward about it in social settings.
“Humans are a social species, so we have a natural urge to conform,” Dr. Potter explains. “Doing something visibly different from everyone else — like wearing a mask when no one else is — kind of feels like showing up to a fancy wedding in jeans and a T-shirt. It just doesn’t feel right.”
Why some people are remaining masked
There are plenty of reasons you might wish to keep masking up when you go out — and even if you’re comfortable without a mask, try to have empathy for the fact that other people’s lives are different from your own. We all live with varying circumstances, health issues and levels of risk tolerance.
- Health issues: Some people fall into vulnerable groups for whom contracting COVID-19 could pose additional health risks, or they live with people who do. Whether or not these individuals are vaccinated, they may simply feel safer continuing to mask up.
- Concerns about variants: Scientists and doctors aren’t yet sure how coronavirus variants respond to the COVID-19 vaccine. As news of the Delta variant and others continues to make headlines, some people remain on high alert.
- Low risk tolerance: “No vaccine is 100% effective, so there is still some risk of getting ill,” Dr. Potter says. Some people may not yet be comfortable with the lingering risk, though small.
And even if you can’t pinpoint why, exactly, you’re not yet comfortable unmasking, Dr. Potter says that’s normal, too. After more than a year of being told that wearing a mask was a vital health and safety measure, it may just feel too jarring to suddenly go without.
“Masking gave us a sense of security and safety, and we grew so used to them that it may just feel bizarre now to be in a public place without a mask,” Dr. Potter says. “It’s natural to want to avoid discomfort, so many people — even those who believe in the efficacy of vaccines — may just not feel ready.”
Remember: Most people aren’t paying attention to you (in a good way)
When you notice that you’re the only one in the room wearing a mask, you might assume that everyone else has noticed, too — but noticing is not necessarily the same as criticizing.
“People do take note of things that stand out,” Dr. Potter says, “but that doesn’t mean that they’re all judging you.”
Think about it like wearing a brightly colored outfit or having a zit on your chin: While it may feel like everyone is staring at you, the reality is that most people will simply make a mental note and move on.
“Most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what complete strangers are doing,” Dr. Potter says. “If you feel judged by other people, remember that, for the most part, you’re the only one experiencing that discomfort.”
How to respond to inquiring minds
The good news? It’s likely no one will say anything at all. “A lot of times we have this inner monologue of things going way worse than they than they actually turn out,” Dr. Potter says.
But if you’re worried about what people might say, come up with some responses to have on hand. Dr. Potter suggests responses to keep it simple:
- “You might think it’s silly, but it’s what I want to do right now.”
- “This is my choice. I just feel more comfortable this way.”
- “What I choose to do for my own health is not a criticism of you.”
- “This is about my comfort level. You make your own choices, and I’m making mine.”
And remember: You don’t owe anyone your health history or an explanation for your choice to keep wearing a mask.
How to ease yourself into masklessness
You don’t have to suddenly whip off your mask and step bare-faced into a crowd. Instead, take baby steps. “Experiment with or ease yourself into taking it off in places where there aren’t many people,” Dr. Potter suggests.
Start by visiting an uncrowded public place, perhaps at a low-trafficked time of day. Maybe you head to the grocery store on a Friday evening or catch a weekday matinee in a mostly empty movie theater. Whatever you decide, bring a mask with you, even if you’re going to try not to wear it.
“Keep it in your pocket,” Dr. Potter says, “You can practice taking it off if you feel safe and socially distanced. But if you start to feel like there are too many people around, just put it back on.”
Be kind to yourself — and get help if you need it
While it’s normal to expect some nervousness and anxiety as social distancing guidelines change, Dr. Potter says that if you’re not in a vulnerable population (e.g. immunosuppressed or unable to get vaccinated), it’s important to try to return to some semblance of normalcy.
“In the United States, we’re at a point in the pandemic where people without special vulnerabilities should be able to resume most normal activity,” she says.
Signs that you’re having trouble include:
- Anxiety that persists beyond 15 minutes of being in a public place.
- Continued feelings of fear and nervousness around unmasking and/or being around others.
- Ongoing avoidance of public places, long after you’ve been fully vaccinated.
“It’s normal to feel some nervousness,” Dr. Potter says, “but if that nervousness doesn’t dissipate, it may be time to seek help for an anxiety disorder.” A mental health professional can work with you on your discomfort and help prepare you to safely reclaim some of your pre-pandemic life.
And finally, if you start to feel frustrated by your ongoing discomfort, do your best to show yourself compassion and patience, Dr. Potter says. “Change is hard enough without putting too much pressure on yourself.”