One day in May the CDC had decided that it was safe for fully vaccinated individuals to remove their masks in public. For many this was a joyous occasion. For some, however, this historic moment appears to come with much confusion, hesitation and fear.
In my practice, many of my fully vaccinated patients still exhibit social hesitancy and find it difficult to take off their masks. The latest research, from the American Psychological Association, suggests my patients are not alone. According to the APA, nearly half of all Americans still feel uneasy about in-person interactions, and expect to exhibit social cautiousness even after the pandemic is declared over.
If the science says it safe, why are so many people hesitant to take off their masks and return to normalcy? I think the answer comes down to the human need for control and basic trust.
It is human nature to want to be in control. When we feel like we are not in control, we tend to become uncomfortable and psychologically distressed. Martin Seligman, a research psychologist, referred to this phenomenon as “learned helplessness.” According to learned helplessness theory, anxiety and depression can result from real or perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation. For example, if you beat a dog every time it comes out of its crate, the dog quickly becomes fearful of leaving the crate and becomes paralyzed with fear. Over time, even if you stop beating the dog, it still remains in the crate, frightened and helpless. In many ways we are like the beaten dog. For the past 15 months, we have been told by the media that leaving our homes can be fatal. Like the dog, we have been conditioned to feel uncomfortable leaving our homes, even if breathing the outdoor air is no longer deemed harmful.
We no longer trust the politicians, the scientists or even the virus itself, which seems to be continuously mutating. Not only was the corona virus unfamiliar to most of us prior to March 2020, even when it was finally known, it’s infectious characteristics appeared to remain a mystery.
We were originally told masks were unnecessary. Then the CDC did a 180 turn about and mask wearing became mandatory. One day the virus was thought to be transmitted via objects and we were bleaching our groceries. In time the “science” changed and the virus was now deemed to be transmitted solely through air particles. Should we wear masks, should we bleach our food, elbow bump, or limit our greetings to a distant wave? Should we listen to the scientists or the politicians? Who can you trust during a time of crisis, when even the president of the United States recommends the unthinkable — inject bleach to kill the virus.
Trust is a basic human need. If you cannot trust either the scientists or the politicians to tell the truth or protect you from the ills of society, how can you possibly feel safe outside your home and around others? Prior to the vaccine, the mask was all we had to protect ourselves and others from the virus. We have all lived through the trauma of the pandemic. In the face of such adversity, aren’t we are all a bit like frightened children holding their teddy bears tight to get themselves through the darkness of the night? Perhaps it will take some time to overcome the trauma of the past 18 months, begin to feel safe again, heal and have the courage to dispose of the mask and all it represents.
Martin H. Klein in a clinical psychologist who practices in Connecticut.