How to learn to live without a face mask (and fear)

After two years of the pandemic, it is normal to feel apprehensive about taking off the covering. Here are four measures that can help with the transition

Lorenzo Montatore

After two years of smiling with our eyes, greeting each other with our elbows and maintaining social distancing, when the masks finally come off – in Spain this is due to happen in most interior settings on April 20 – we may feel insecure or even in danger. For a long time now, the fear of contagion has been very present within society. If we accept that a habit can become established after three weeks of daily practice, as some authors claim, what we have lived through since the coronavirus pandemic took hold in March 2020 is going to make the return to normality with no masks very complicated. Some may feel that they are putting their health at risk if they are speaking at a close distance and without a face covering, or they may feel more uncomfortable if they receive two kisses, a hug or even a handshake.

In the words of the psychologist Monia Presta, “during the pandemic, people have got used to living in a permanent state of distress.” This class of negative stress prompts the constant activation of our alarm system. After the long period that we have lived through, that alarm will remain active even though the rules and the real risks have now changed.

“When a human being feels they are in danger, their paleocortex activates a fight or flight strategy,” the Italian psychologist explains. “The duration of this health crisis has introduced that alarm within us. As human beings are, in essence, adaptive, many people will have problems returning to the old normality. In the same way that we found it hard to adapt to all of these restrictions, readaptation will also take some time.”

Here are four measures that can help with this process:

1. Make gradual changes.

Two years with our alert mechanism activated will require a transition phase before we can feel comfortable again with the old normality. We have got used to masks, a lack of contact and social distancing. For many people, it won’t be possible to go from zero to 100 without suffering a certain apprehension. The secret is to readapt ourselves bit by bit, as we would in exposure therapy, which gradually exposes a person to the things that scare them.

2. Be spontaneous

It’s as stressful to keep this alarm system on when there is no reason to, as it is to force yourself back into behavior prior to Covid without having psychologically returned to normality. Each personality type will need to follow a different rhythm. Those with phobias will have more problems taking off their masks, especially in closed spaces, and may take an instinctive step back when people try to kiss or hug them. Gestures and external habits, in the end, are an expression of how we are on the inside. Those who have paid more attention to alarming news stories will be more fearful, and will require a longer time for detox.

3. Monitor post-traumatic stress

Therapists and psychiatrists are observing more and more symptoms of post-traumatic stress during their sessions. The two years of the pandemic, whether or not there have been losses within our close circle, have caused insomnia, general anxiety and hypochondria. The fear of dealing with this can prompt avoiding behaviors and even self-imposed confinement. This problem mostly affects people who have phobic personalities and seniors, given that they were the risk group that will have the most difficulty when it comes to moving on.

4. Learning the pleasures of life once more

To move from fear to love, it is necessary to stop thinking about threats and to start thinking about benefits. Let us recognize the beauty of a smile that, finally, we can see on someone’s lips. Or the feeling of comfort that we get from a great hug. Depending on the interests and the social character of each person, there will be specific pleasures that we will be happy to see return to our list: enjoying a concert with the crowd, shouting “Goal!” in a packed stadium, and returning to lunches and dinners with friends.

Beyond the pandemic and wars, of past, present and future threats, we cannot live clutching on to fear, as that will prevent us from enjoying the gift of living. As the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson said: “There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy.”

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