How to Manage Anxiety as Mask Mandates End

The rollback of coronavirus safety precautions may be exciting news for some, but the new normal is also causing stress for those who took comfort in social distancing and wearing masks.

solemn shadow of a person on a wall with a coat rack of masks hanging
Photo: Getty / Design by Jo Imperio

Two years after the World Health Organization first declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, the regulations aimed at preventing the spread of the disease—including mask mandates and social distancing protocols—have been loosened or are being eliminated across the United States.

While that may be welcome news for some people, for others the changes feel sudden or disconcerting, particularly following the surge of the highly contagious omicron variant that peaked in January. Many people took comfort in following recommended guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but with the elimination of many of those safety measures, a layer of comfort has essentially been removed.

Here's a closer look at why these changes are taking place and how to cope with feelings of uncertainty or anxiety.

What's Changed and Why?

The loosening of state and local COVID-19 protocols throughout the country comes after the CDC announced changes in February to the way it assesses COVID-19 risk in communities. The agency said that moving forward it will focus on hospital capacity and risk of severe disease rather than case counts to determine a community's risk level. In making the announcement, CDC officials said the country has turned a corner in the pandemic.

"We're in a stronger place today as a nation with more tools to protect ourselves and our communities from COVID 19," Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, director of the CDC, said during a briefing. "With widespread population immunity, the overall risk of severe disease is now generally lower."

The new CDC parameters are being used to determine whether communities around the country are at low, medium, or high COVID-19 risk, and those living in counties at a low or medium risk levels can wear masks at their own discretion. The exception, under the new CDC guidelines, would be for those who are immunocompromised or live with someone who is at high risk for severe disease—those people should continue masking.

The new guidelines also eased social distancing recommendations, pointing out that 70% of Americans no longer need to stay six feet apart or avoid crowded indoor spaces.

In the weeks after the CDC announcement, even cities and states that had been adhering to the strictest coronavirus precautions announced rollbacks of safety measures.

Why Are the Safety Protocol Changes Anxiety Inducing for Some People?

For years now, people have been advised that wearing a mask is an important safety measure, and one that also shows responsibility and respect for others. Now those advisories are changing.

"Now we're being asked to remove it, and if people have been wearing them these past two years, it can feel uncomfortable," Greta Hirsch, PhD, PMH-C, psychologist and clinical director at The Ross Center, told Health.

Indeed, not wearing a mask has signaled danger for two years, so it should not be entirely unexpected that there may be an emotional reaction to the evolving landscape of safety recommendations.

For those who may be feeling uncertainty or anxiety as daily life returns to something closer to normal there are a number of steps you can take and actions that may help reduce the stress.

Identify Your Personal Comfort Level

Begin by assessing your own feelings surrounding the changes taking place and deciding whether or not you're truly ready to remove your mask or re-enter crowded spaces.

"It's really important for each individual to decide their comfort level," Neysa Ernst, DNP, MSN, RN, nurse manager, Johns Hopkins Medicine, told Health.com "And if [you are] not comfortable taking [your] mask off, that's OK."

You also need to give yourself time to adjust to the new normal.

"Everyone will have to determine their own acceptable risk," Khalilah Gates, MD, an associate professor of medicine in pulmonary and critical care at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said in a press release. "This should not be a one size fits all scenario. If a person is more comfortable in a mask, then please continue to mask…We must all remain flexible and remain dedicated to the greater good."

Take it Step by Step

Hirsch also suggested taking a step-by-step approach to adapting to relaxed protocols, rather than an all-or-nothing strategy.

"Create a list of increasing difficulty and anxiety based on your experiences," she said. "So if someone hasn't had anyone over at their home or gone out and met up with friends, I would say maybe start with meeting a friend in the park and taking a walk, or invite friends over for dinner before you're ready to go to a crowded concert."

Finding a partner—be that a friend, relative, or spouse—to help you take those steps can make the process easier, added Hirsch. "Try doing it with someone who is understanding and will support you and help you take it one step at a time," she said.

Focus On the Present Moment and Challenge Anxious Thoughts

Recognizing anxious thoughts and dismissing them to focus on the moment at hand—a common technique used during meditation exercises—can also help mitigate anxiety related to loosened COVID-19 regulations.

"As much as possible, catch your what-if thoughts," Hirsch said. "Because most of the time, if you're not very present to what's actually going on, but you're worried about some future event in a negative, catastrophic way, that can increase your anxiety."

Once you identify those anxious thoughts, evaluate the evidence for or against that fear. For example, if you're afraid of shopping without a mask, look at the latest numbers for your area to assess your risk. The CDC offers up-to-date case information by county.

"Try to challenge your anxious thoughts and don't just accept them," said Hirsch.

Whatever you do, try not to let yourself worry too much. There's a fine line between an appropriate level of anxiety and one that's excessive, Michael Ziffra, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, said in a press release.

"Some people's level of worry might be higher than it needs to be," Dr. Ziffra said. "Be reassured by the fact that public health officials are giving us the guidance. They are looking at the science and giving us solid recommendations based on the evidence. These changes in the mandates are not coming from out of the blue. Hopefully people will feel some ability to relax their anxiety a little bit."

Identify Trusted Sources of Information

Information overload can contribute to pandemic anxiety, as well, so it's important to identify trusted sources and tune out less reliable outlets.

"A lot of times people get anxiety because they get a lot of information coming at them, and they don't know what to to trust," Ernst said. "Turn to reputable medical sources like the CDC, Johns Hopkins, the Mayo Clinic, Harvard—those are sites that will offer factual, science-based information."

Engage in Self Care

Taking care of yourself in general—eating healthy foods, getting plenty of sleep and practicing gentle exercise, among other acts—can also help minimize anxious feelings and contribute to a greater sense of overall wellness.

"Good self-care always helps lessen anxiety," Hirsch said. "Exercising and yoga can help get rid of stress, as does calming music and progressive muscle relaxation. Also, making sure you're getting good rest and avoiding excessive intake of alcohol—that can make your anxiety worse, even if at first it feels like it's numbing you."

Additional Resources

If anxiety about reduced COVID safety regulations begins to feel too overwhelming to handle on your own, then seeking help from a therapist or other mental health professional may be necessary to move past the fear and live a more normal life.

"If someone is paralyzed by this fear, then you're talking about someone who may need clinical intervention," Hirsch said. "If it's truly interfering with your day-to-day functioning, you're in the range of a clinical level versus just being uncomfortable. If you're afraid to come out of the house, take public transportation, fly or go back to work, it's really important to seek professional help."

If you're unsure how to find a mental health professional, sites like the American Psychological Association and the Association of LBGTQ+ Psychiatrists offer searchable databases of therapists.

Above all, being gentle with yourself through this process and accepting that you may not have the same comfort level as others will make adapting to loosened rules easier.

"Anxiety often comes with a person's need to control things," Hirsch said. "And one of the important lessons for us all is to tolerate living with some uncertainty like we did at the beginning of the pandemic. The key is to start engaging at your own pace and don't compare yourself to anyone else—it's a different process for different people."

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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