MADISON, Wis. – After a year of justified fear of the COVID-19 virus, some Wisconsinites are struggling to feel safe without masks on, even in low-risk situations.
Dr. Shilagh Mirgain is a distinguished psychologist at UW Health. She calls the phenomenon “no-mask anxiety”.
“[A mask] is one of the most tangible things we've been doing to keep ourselves safe, and as we start to go out in the world without masks if we've been vaccinated, it's normal to feel some anxiety or unease," Mirgain said.
The pandemic isn’t over, even as vaccination rates climb. Kids under age 12 are not yet protected, and people with compromised immune systems may not be as protected by the vaccine. Health officials in Madison are also still recommending everyone wear a mask when they can.
Still, research on the vaccines shows they are incredibly effective. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that “fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing,” except when there are restrictions in place from their city, county or state.
However, it’s not that easy for some people. Even though they’re protected by the vaccine, that piece of fabric over their nose and mouth has become a security blanket they wear everywhere.
In Facebook support groups for people with anxiety, there’s often a game of “what ridiculous place did you wear your mask today?” Group members post that they’ve worn their masks into their backyard alone, or into their own bathroom at home.
“Masks have been the most visible, tangible things we've been able to do to keep ourselves safe during the pandemic … it was kind of a normal, everyday occurrence,” Mirgain said. “And so many people have some trepidation and anxiety about removing those masks.”
Jenny Krislov lives in Madison and can’t imagine a world without masking.
“The only time I don't have mine up is when I'm at home or driving in my car,” Krislov said. “It almost feels like my security blanket.”
She has a favorite mask, which is blue and white striped. In March 2020, when it was difficult to find masks, Krislov posted in a neighborhood Facebook group asking if anyone could help her get one.
“This sweet woman goes, ‘I'd be happy to make you one.’ She actually made this one I have on out of like a bedsheet,” Krislov said.
It ties on the back of her head, instead of having loops that go around the ears. Krislov is on the autism spectrum, and can’t stand the feeling of mask straps on her ears.
Like so many people, she has medical reasons to keep her mask on. She’s fully vaccinated but still doesn’t want to unintentionally infect the people she loves on a rare fluke.
“My brother is morbidly obese. I have a sister who's also a type one diabetic like me,” she said. “I was like, oh my gosh, if I don't wear my mask and do my duty, I'm putting also them at risk if I ever go visit them.”
She went months without seeing some of her family members in 2020. Being vaccinated has allowed her to spend time with them, but she’s still being as careful as possible.
Isolation and masking have had an impact on nearly everyone’s social skills. With Krislov’s autism, masks have actually made some parts of socializing easier.
“I kind of like having it on, because then if you're in one of those awkward situations and you're talking to somebody, I'm like 'Oh God, I don't have to force myself to smile!'”
She’s also had to get better at reading body language.
“One thing I learned about people is if you pay attention to their body language, gestures, things like that, you can tell what a person's thinking even if you can't see their mouth,” she said. “Like when you smile, like your eyes kind of crinkle up here on the side like that.”
Mirgain said after being in survival mode for more than a year, it can be hard to get out of that mode.
“It's not like a light switch where we can just turn the light switch and everything's back to normal. It's going to take some time,” she said. “However, we're incredibly resilient. We have the capacity to bounce back.”
She said if you’re having a hard time returning to low-risk activities, take baby steps.
“Adjust to these new guidelines at your own pace,” Mirgain said. “You might do a small step, like meeting with a friend outside who you know is vaccinated, and you're vaccinated, and not wearing a mask. You plan a time to see a relative, both of you are vaccinated, and meeting indoors without a mask.”
People experienced extremely stressful situations over the past year, whether it was being able to pay the bills, being isolated from others, or keeping their family safe. Mirgain said as the world starts to open back up to us, some unresolved emotions from this last year may now start to pop up.
“If you are struggling with your mental health, if you're feeling anxious or depressed, or some real difficulty is nagging at you, please seek professional help. Contact your physician or reach out to a behavioral health specialist.”
For mental health resources in Wisconsin, click here.