Now that I’m fully vaccinated against COVID-19, I’ve started socializing again. While from the outside I’m sure these interactions seem pleasant enough, my mind is often seething with questions and anxieties:
- Oh my God, who is this? I feel like I know her, but I can’t remember her name.
- Should we hug? Did we hug before the pandemic?
- How do you hug people, anyway? Should I pat their backs?
- Oh, this feels nice. Am I holding them too long? Not long enough?
- There’s an awkward silence. What should I do?
As more and more Americans get their jabs, the CDC is changing its guidelines so that we can start hanging out again—and for a lot of people, that feels weird. Like, really weird: overwhelming, disorientating, wrong.
This isn’t surprising, of course. After a year and a half of living in a state of isolation and vigilance, some of us are nervous about changing our pandemic-time ways. A new study by the American Psychological Association reported that half of Americans are still uncomfortable with in-person interactions, even when they’re vaccinated.
“I find myself involuntarily flinching when someone I don’t know well comes in for a hug,” says Auey Santos, a writer in Oakland, California.
Psychology has a name for this effect: “cave syndrome.” During the pandemic, we had to learn new habits, mainly mask-wearing, physical distancing, and pathological hand-washing. We’re more aware than ever of the dangers of communicable diseases, and many of us lost friends and relatives to COVID-19. This means we’ve developed strong negative associations with encountering other people, even those we love. Moreover, many of our social connections simply atrophied as we stayed inside our caves, and it might seem awkward to be around someone you haven’t spoken to in over a year.
Finally, the politicization of the pandemic by former President Trump and other politicians has led many people to feel tribally invested in their pandemic practices. Almost half of Republicans are now saying they don’t want to be vaccinated, which sows even greater social distrust and presents a serious obstacle to achieving herd immunity. This tribalism goes both ways. Ericka Lutz manages a farmers’ market in predominantly Republican Amador County in California. During the pandemic, she had faced weekly confrontations and harassment from anti-maskers, in real life and online.
As a result of the protracted conflict in her community, she feels strongly invested in pandemic-time policies and habits. Though she rigorously followed CDC guidelines through the pandemic, she feels “blindsided” by the new ones saying that vaccinated people don’t have to wear masks in many situations. “It feels premature, and I don’t trust it,” she says. “If I wear a mask now, will people think it’s because I’m not vaccinated? If I don’t wear a mask, will people think it’s because I’m vaccinated, or because I’m a ‘facial nudist’?”
For Republicans and Democrats alike, it seems, masks and vaccines aren’t only public-health measures; they’re a statement of political and social identity. Which brings us to the largest barrier to shifting gears: social norms. As countless studies attest, it’s often the practices of the people around us that most shape our own decisions. It can be scary to be the first to host a party if most people in your community are still staying isolated. In fact, many people fear that loosening up will encourage bad habits in others. “I’m disheartened by the [CDC] guidelines because I worry that it will encourage anti-maskers to forgo masks when they are helpful for all,” says Alexa Hart, a teacher in Pacifica, California.
While vaccinations are rising and case counts are falling, Americans and people around the world are still living with the pandemic. (In fact, the United States sucked up much of the world’s vaccine supply, while other countries are suffering from surges in cases and deaths.) Many are not vaccinated and some never will be, but there’s no way of knowing for sure who is and who isn’t. When so much is uncertain and unknown, it can be tough to navigate social situations. Here are some guidelines, developed from a combination of research and experience.
1. Move gently and mindfully
While it might be tempting to run out the door and hug everyone you see after you’ve been fully vaccinated, that’s not a good idea, for many reasons. Medically, vaccine data are still coming in, and most researchers argue that we should proceed cautiously in expanding our contacts. Psychologically, you and the people you’re trying to hug might find yourselves in for a shock.
Earlier this month, some friends of mine threw an outdoor party. Two hundred people showed up, and as I surveyed the sea of masked faces, my heart started beating uncomfortably fast and I felt short of breath. In other words, I was experiencing low-level panic—which is to be expected, after 15 months of restricting interactions to people in my pod. I was nervous about not recognizing faces; I was often at a loss for what to say next during small talk.
Former clinical psychologist Alice Boyes, author of The Anxiety Toolkit, recommends setting little tests for yourself, to “see what benefits you get from loosening up.” You don’t need to jump into a 200-person gathering; you can start with inviting a close, vaccinated friend into your home for dinner, or jogging without a mask. “You can always go back to being more restrictive if you decide you prefer more caution,” says Boyes. “If you try it out, you’ll know you have the flexibility.”
As your world expands, you might find things getting complicated at home. “If I’m honest, I am feeling a bit of fear and a sense of loss knowing the cozy little worlds I built are all about to change,” says Kate Kronstadt, an attorney in Berkeley, California. Kronstadt adds that as you move out into the world, that’s going to affect the people “who weathered this storm with you.” It might be strange for them to be left alone at night for the first time in a very long time; they might feel hurt that you’re not as available as you were. She urges being conscious of their feelings as things change.
If you’re feeling awkward, anxious, or even ill-tempered, you can count on the fact that others will be in a similar place. Jessica Penchos of Oakland, California, tries to remind herself that “nobody is their best self right now.” This helps her to approach “surprising or hard interactions with more compassion.”
The bottom line? Try to be gentle with yourself, your podmates, and the people you meet. Watch and name your feelings and the feelings of those you love. Breathe; count your breaths. Aim for quality of interaction, not quantity. Your social skills might be rusty, so give yourself the time to build them up again.
2. Focus on your habits
“It took an entire year to learn this behavior, take precaution, and be fearful of those around us,” says Santos. “Just as we got settled into the new normal, vaccinations took place and now we are once again on a steep learning curve. It will probably take an equal amount of time to unlearn this behavior and begin to trust those around us. Our brains are wired for connection, but trauma rewired us for self-preservation.”
“Risk is never zero and we still do things like driving cars, accepting this risk. ”
The habits we developed at the onset of the pandemic were ideally shaped by evidence. As our knowledge of COVID-19 expanded, individual behavior and public policy evolved. It’s true that many factors interfered with our ability to interpret and apply evidence to our behavior; nothing during the pandemic was perfect.
Which is all the more reason to link your behavior change with new evidence—to, in other words, adapt as the situation changes. That might mean putting aside emotional investment in specific practices that have become a litmus test for political allegiance. That’s tough, because as sociologist and Greater Good contributor Christine Carter says, “people generally won’t actually form habits because of ‘evidence.’” It’s not cold, hard facts that drive us to behavior change—it’s feelings and stories.
So, what story are you telling yourself? At the beginning of the pandemic, the story I heard was that staying home and wearing a mask were ways to take care of people more vulnerable than me. That was a good story that helped me to change my behavior. As people are vaccinated, we’re going to need a new story. I don’t yet know what that is, but here’s an idea: It’s time to rebuild our lives and our society by renewing our connections to each other, even when there’s risk involved.
Changing habits can also mean tackling your feelings in a very direct way, especially anxiety. “Risk is never zero and we still do things like driving cars, accepting this risk,” says Boyes. “Striving to avoid any anxiety isn’t generally psychologically healthy because it restricts our lives too much.”
The point isn’t that we should suddenly stop wearing masks and head to the movies. Rather, it’s that we need to pause, update our knowledge, audit our pandemic habits, ask ourselves which ones are still serving us, and change our habits—perhaps by changing our story.
3. Ask, don’t guess
In July, I published an article with my friend William Winters about forming a pandemic pod. We urged readers to take a page from sexual communication in ethically non-monogamous communities, where safety and consent are essential—and guessing is frowned upon.
In other words, people in non-monogamous communities train themselves to ask in very direct ways about the sexual health of prospective partners: When were you last tested for sexually transmitted infections? How many sexual partners do you have? What are your safer sex practices?
To people outside those communities, these questions might seem invasive—and yet we need to approach pandemic social interactions with the same curiosity. Today, the most important question is about vaccination: How vaccinated are you? When I attended that picnic earlier this month, I fumbled a bit with this one, but it gradually got easier. Then came the next question: Can I give you a hug? More often than not, the answer was yes.
These can be surprisingly hard questions. “We don’t have any way of knowing whether someone is vaccinated unless we ask, and I honestly don’t feel comfortable asking people that question,” says Serena Daniels of Detroit, Michigan. “Do we want to live in a world where we are giving our people unofficial health screenings each time we interact?”
Her answer is no—but mine is yes. I am comfortable asking these questions, but I still need practice in asking them gracefully. If you don’t plan to ask about vaccination status, then you probably should restrict your socializing to your trusted circle—and/or keep masks on. Still, even then, it is very likely that you’re going to find people going in for hugs or coming indoors without masks. In those situations, you need to learn to hold boundaries.
4. Accept boundaries and hold your own
Setting and holding boundaries is a critical life skill—and during a pandemic, it can be a life-saving one.
The first step in implementing boundaries is to admit that you can’t control other people, says Boyes. You can’t know for sure that they’re vaccinated; you can’t make them wear a mask—or take one off. The only thing you can truly control is yourself.
To take another tip from non-monogamous communities, the standard response to someone setting a boundary with you is to say, “Thank you for taking care of yourself.” In the pandemic, this is also a good reply when someone says they’re not yet ready to hug you or join you indoors for dinner. While it’s natural to feel rejected and hurt, we can choose to react with grace and even gratitude when someone sets a limit.
Likewise, it’s OK—indeed, necessary—for you to set your own boundaries. You can refuse a hug from someone whose health status you don’t know. You don’t need to remove your mask. You don’t have to disclose anything about your own health. Those are your decisions to make, and you’re not responsible for other people’s reactions to your decisions.
As Carter writes in Greater Good: “It is never mean or unkind to take care of yourself and your own basic needs. It is unkind to harm ourselves, no matter how subtly, and it is certainly unkind to ask someone else to harm themselves.” Carter recommends stating your boundary out loud and then repeating it to yourself silently, to help you hold firm.
Afterward, you might even try saying to yourself: “Thank you for taking care of me.”
5. Respect different experiences with COVID-19
“The last year was definitely traumatic,” says Santos.
She’s not alone in feeling that way. At this writing, almost 600,000 Americans—and over 3 million worldwide—have lost their lives to COVID-19, which means that millions more are grieving. Many survivors are struggling with the long-term physical effects of the disease. Studies from around the world confirm that many health care workers are dealing with profound post-traumatic stress disorder. One in four Americans lost a job or lived with someone who did.
However, it’s entirely possible to have sailed through the pandemic with the wind at your back and the seas of life smooth as glass. I’ve heard introverts actually express gratitude for quarantine and masking. These differences are to be expected. COVID-19 was, and still is, a worldwide event. Billions of people were touched by it in ways that were shaped by their wealth and income, gender, personality, culture, family situation, communities, and jobs, among many other factors.
That’s a huge diversity of experiences—and that’s why it’s important to approach all conversations about COVID-19 with the utmost sensitivity and respect. When you’re catching up with a friend you haven’t seen in a year or meeting someone new at a BBQ, you simply cannot know what burdens they carried through the pandemic, and beyond.
“It’s important to come from a place of curiosity and general gratitude when someone shares their experience with you,” says Lindsey Antin, a psychotherapist in Oakland. “Even just asking, ‘What has this time been like for you?’ gives someone the freedom to answer however they choose.” She adds these tips:
I like to be direct if I know someone has had a difficult time. Never say, “I can’t imagine…” To the grieving and the traumatized, this feels like a push-away. Instead say, “I am trying to imagine what this has been like for you.” And then wait.
People will choose what to share with you, and it’s important to not assume—but also not be afraid to ask and listen. Also, I remind clients that you get more than one shot at conversations like these. We will be talking about COVID for a long time to come, and you don’t have to discuss everything in one exchange when catching up with others.
6. Get professional help if anxiety interferes with life
“Fear compounds over time,” says Antin. “The longer you resist doing something that makes you nervous, the more reticent you are to do it.”
As governments lift pandemic restrictions and people start mingling again, there will be plenty of opportunities to feel anxiety and fear—but that doesn’t mean you should stay home for the rest of your life. Even if we do reach herd immunity, COVID-19 and its variants have become part of the treacherous landscape of all our lives, and the disease is going to take a place alongside other perils that have even greater risks and mortality rates. Life will remain a series of calculated risks—and we take our risks in part to build a life worth living.
“If we know something is illogical and we also admit it affects our well-being, then we have a responsibility to ourselves to practice getting back to socializing,” says Antin.
She suggests that if you find yourself withdrawing in a conversation, feeling overly exhausted after socializing, worrying a lot after a brief hug or handshake, ruminating about what you said or how things went, or just continuing to avoid contact with other human beings after vaccination, you might see a therapist, at least for a little while.
A therapist can help you to figure out what you want and how to get it, which can involve “changing expectations and self-talk around what socializing looks like, clarifying your personal boundaries so you can relax and have a good time, and not planning too many social outings as you get used to the world again,” says Antin.
I don’t expect my brain to stop second-guessing every interaction anytime soon—but I do have faith in my ability to adapt. Indeed, that’s one of the things I learned about myself during the pandemic: No matter what happens, I will adjust. You will, too. This is a yet another change we’re all going through together.