“You can’t just turn off that anxiety; it’s got to power down,” Kenneth Carter, a psychologist at Emory University, told me. The newly vaccinated have been tasked with reclassifying a whole suite of behaviors that were very recently dangerous, breaking months-long habits that were set and solidified during a time of crisis. “Recalibrating around that is tough,” Carter said. Take, for instance, this week’s headliner switcheroo. Per the CDC, vaccinated people can now, under most circumstances, eschew masks outdoors—a massive flip from a year of calls for near-ubiquitous shielding. Some people have already easily, almost intuitively, made the hop; others have been there for months. But plenty are having trouble toggling their brain from masking modesty to face-exhibiting exuberance.
Carter, like me, is taking things slow. He passed his full-vaccination milestone a few weeks ago. He’s not ready to host friends from out of state, but he has dined outdoors at a restaurant and visited his immunized neighbors—CDC-approved, low-risk activities that were fixtures of his life in the Before Times. Yet adding those behaviors back to his repertoire still felt patently weird. Carter’s brain has intellectually squared his change in circumstance, he said, “but knowing something is safe and feeling safe are very different things”—a sentiment my colleague Amanda Mull captured in the fall.
“We’ve conditioned ourselves to behave in a certain way for the past year,” Jennifer Taber, a health psychologist and risk expert at Kent State University, told me. Much of that training involved shattering and reassembling our intuitions about safety; our pandemic behaviors have become deeply ingrained, going past the point of routine and into the realm of dogma. “I’ve had nightmares or dreams where I’m in a crowded place and I realize I’m not wearing a mask and no one else is wearing a mask. For me, it’s been associated with a lot of anxiety,” Taber said. Unlearning those emotional associations requires making some sharp U-turns; each person’s mileage will vary, and plenty of us should expect to feel some whiplash.
Taber is also fully vaccinated, but she keeps having to remind herself what that means. While planning a visit with friends this week, she found herself worrying about the weather—only to realize that everyone invited was at least two weeks past their final dose, allowing them to mingle indoors. “It hadn’t even occurred to me that we could do this inside,” she said.
Pinballing back to regular hobnobbing might be easier for people whose jobs and responsibilities have kept them in close proximity to others. My partner, a health-care worker, is among them. He never swore off people the same way I did; he was unable to. (My work situation has put me in a great position of privilege.) If anything, he’s interacted with more people than usual this past year, and since his shots, which took hold more than two months ago, he has slipped almost seamlessly back into regular hangouts with his vaccinated friends and co-workers. They want me to join them as soon as I feel ready. I don’t know when that will be.