Mask Anxiety: Why some fully-vaccinated people are reluctant to abandon face coverings


INDIANAPOLIS — As restrictions loosen and mask mandates end, some fully-vaccinated Americans are still suffering from “mask anxiety.”

“It’s sort of this emotional experience of thinking that you might be doing something wrong,” said Katie Boucher, a social psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Indianapolis.

Boucher said mask anxiety is very common and completely normal. She said it’s now happening more frequently as fully-vaccinated people enter a business that is no longer requiring masks.

“Whenever there is a big change in a community — when we are asked to start a new behavior or stop a new behavior — there’s always some level of anxiety,” Boucher said.

Boucher said those anxious emotions happen because you are deviating from a habit 18 months in the making, and it comes with some risks.

“We can think about things that we wear each day, like our glasses or our rings, and when we take those off, it feels strange,” said Boucher.

Ed Hirt, a psychologist and professor at Indiana University, said people often look to their immediate environment for guidance and validation. He said while this is human nature, he reminds Hoosiers to make a decision that works best for them.

“If I feel comfortable wearing it, I’m comfortable this way, so I’m not hurting anybody else,” said Hirt. “So I’ll just do what I need to do, and I think people have to feel comfortable that that’s okay.

“One thing that is really important for people to understand is a mask mandate is a mandate. And it’s over, but you can wear a mask anytime you want to if it makes you feel more comfortable.”

Melissa McMasters, administrator of Marion County Health’s Immunization and Infectious Disease Program, said she has noticed increased levels of mask anxiety ever since the county lifted its mask mandate on June 7.

“You get into a scenario where there are folks who really felt most comfortable when everyone was in masks,” said McMasters. “And so when they’re going out and they see no one in masks, there’s a little bit of a panic there.”

McMasters said although the mandate is over in Marion County, the choice to wear a mask will always be there.

“Don’t forget, there are individuals that are immunosuppressed in our community; there are kids under age 12, and there’s no vaccine available to them,” McMasters said. “So there are instances in which you may choose to mask your family members or yourself just as an extra precaution.”

Boucher said if you are hoping to overcome your mask anxiety, it is best to do so in increments.

“You can start with just ditching the mask outdoors and then indoors with a small group of people that you know well,” said Boucher. “Then get to bigger audiences or more diverse spaces where you feel more comfortable not wearing a mask.”

All in all, Boucher recommends talking about those anxious feelings with friends or a licensed professional.

“Just remind yourself that it’s normal. Normalize the experience,” said Boucher. “Because sometimes when we sit in our own anxiety, it can sometimes make it heightened.”

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