Are we ready to break up with our masks? Or is it hard to let go? Washington is open again (except for indoor events of 10,000-plus people) and mask restrictions have been relaxed, but with coronavirus variants still out there, people are confronting a new set of social and emotional challenges. The pandemic has been a roiling, emotional journey, and while the current outlook is very positive, our stress response may be slow to loosen its grip. 

For many, things are looking more normal externally, but internally, some might be dealing with anxiety about reentering public society that can color and confuse our interactions with strangers and friends alike as we try to decide how safe we are with our fellow humans. 

Jane Simoni, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Washington, says she encountered a surprising confrontation while walking maskless in Redmond’s Marymoor Park recently. 

“Early on [in the pandemic], I wore a mask to set an example, and now I’m not wearing one to set an example, because I want things to get back to normal,” Simoni said. “Suddenly a woman began screaming at me in another language for not wearing a mask, and I’m pantomiming that I’ve been vaccinated, like, ‘two — two shots!’ in my arm.”  

These encounters are unfortunately not uncommon because it has proved difficult for many to dismiss the air of tension and suspicion of other humans that we’ve all lived with for the past year and a half. 

“It’s all been this side of bizarre since the pandemic,” sums up Candice Chorzelewski, a freelance hairstylist in Seattle.

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She has seen front-line hospital workers since the beginning of the pandemic, while other clients are just returning. Chorzelewski senses some relief in her clients and co-workers as well as anxiety. In one salon meeting a few weeks ago, she says a colleague burst into tears at the suggestion they retract the mask policy.

But slowly, people are warming back up to one another.

At Arthur Murray Dance Studios in Uptown, ballroom dancing students have gone from virtual to no-touch classes, then gloves and masks, to just masks, but “they are in dance holds, definitely within 6 feet,” says manager Tina Marie.

“We are obviously in a close-contact industry. We didn’t realize how used to that we were,” Marie says. She saw a teacher spontaneously hug a student for graduating to the next level. Shocked, the student said, “I don’t think I’ve hugged anyone in six months except my husband!” Marie apologized, and the student said, “No, it’s good! It was an emotional realization.”

Iain Mangum, of Capitol Hill, looks forward to normalizing hugs again. After contracting COVID-19 — despite taking stringent precautions — and spreading it to friends, and possibly his father, his anxiety around the pandemic skyrocketed. He still has a “visceral reaction” to maskless faces, and he’s gone from being an inveterate hugger to finding distances shy of 6 feet mortifying.  

He thinks the way back is to “slowly expose yourself to more normality.” 

“Make a conscious effort just to shake someone’s hand,” Mangum said. “The anxiety is reinforced by your behaviors, and so the only way to stop the cycle is to throw a wrench in it. And that wrench is a hug.”  

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Joelle Williams, who works at Ravenna Gardens in University Village, went to lunch at Bacco Cafe at Pike Place Market, where she says, “They were not enforcing masks at all. It was jarring. I just have to remind myself, ‘It’s’ OK, I’m vaccinated.’ It’s certainly nice to see people’s smiles and faces again. It’s just a relaxation of the hypervigilance we got used to. Overall, I’m happy it’s happening.”

Maybe you’re ready to rip that acne-causing, ear-pinching, sweat magnet off your face, yet you still wince when that first naked face slides by you in the grocery aisle? Maybe sitting across from your good friend over brunch makes you queasy.  What about reunions? Let’s say you can’t wait to finally see relatives again — until you learn some are not vaccinated. 

Or, perhaps, like Kaiersta Flowers English, mother of three, you’re protective of your unvaccinated children. 

“I am on board with vaccinated adults having less restrictions, [but] at a practical level it introduces complications for my kids interacting with society, especially our Type 1 diabetic 9-year-old who is at greater risk for complications,” she wrote in a Facebook post.  

Just thinking about these situations fires up the fight-or-flight mechanism. Our body’s survival instinct, programmed to protect us, is to panic, revving from zero to 60 miles per hour as we imagine the worst-case scenario. 

Our primary self-care tool in this crisis, says Kira Mauseth, Seattle University psychology professor and co-lead of the state Department of Health’s Behavioral Health Strike Team, is awareness. To calm your anxiety, you have to notice it. Your senses, she says, are the ticket both in and out of anxiety. The first signs are usually a faster pulse or breath rate, or a rise in temperature. Once you’ve noticed what’s happening, you can find a way to reset and calm your senses. This could be deep breathing, taking a walk or a shower, or listening to music.

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“The No. 1 thing to do is regulate your breathing. It’s physically impossible to have a panic attack when you are regulating your breathing. Once you’ve calmed down, the logical part of your brain can come on board,” says Mauseth, who also co-hosts a DOH podcast, “Coping with COVID.”

Next, you want to frame these unexpected changes as challenges rather than threats. Threats demand three choices — fight, flight or freeze — putting the body’s limbic system on red alert. Living in that state chronically — as many have for over a year — contributes to anxiety, depression and even disease. Challenges, on the other hand, ask for lists of resources, strategies and action — and can grow resiliency and hope.

Suddenly becoming more social again also offers its own challenges.

“People are more than ready to connect again. I think there’s a pent-up energy around that,” says Simoni.

Mauseth agrees, envisioning potential for greater risk-taking: “You have a neurological desire to get more dopamine and serotonin, to feel good again. You have really strongly held beliefs on sensitive topics. The limbic system is exhausted, which means we are emotionally dysregulated, and we now have more opportunity for social contact than we’ve had in a year.”

She recommends taking social steps at your own pace, being ready to go home if you feel uneasy. If you’re drinking, plan ahead for designated drivers.

If you find yourself in a tricky social situation, both Simoni and Mauseth say the key ingredient is to take a pause before reacting, and try to assume the best of the other person. “My clinic director likes to say, ‘When you act with grace, you receive graciousness,’” Simoni says.

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In times of stress, we react out of fear before logic or compassion. Don’t make any life-changing comments or decisions before taking a breath or a walk. When you are calm, Mauseth recommends “active listening” — listening to understand the other’s point of view with empathy. This boosts connection, unlike trying to “solve” the problem, which can feel dismissive and break connection. “Trying to force someone to see things your way is hard anyway, but especially hard under these conditions,” she says. 

Letting someone else tell their side, and compassionately listening, makes them feel heard, and you both feel connected to a fellow human, which is what we all really need right now. Win-win. 

Resources

For help coping with feelings of depression and anxiety, see the state Department of Health’s list of emergency resources for COVID-19 behavioral health.

If you need immediate help, call 866-427-4747.