Wearing a face mask has become second nature for many people during the pandemic. But as states lift mask mandates and more people get fully vaccinated for Covid, you might find that going mask-less in public and transitioning back to "normal" makes you feel out of place or even a little awkward.
There's a psychological reason why you feel this way, according to David A. Moscovitch, professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo. Moscovitch's recent research found that mask protocols during the pandemic actually increase struggles with social anxiety.
Social anxiety is characterized by an intense, persistent fear of being watched and judged by others, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. People with social anxiety tend to be really worried about behaving in ways that conform to social norms.
Coming out of the pandemic, "we may notice that our anxiety level about interacting with people is a bit higher than normal," Moscovitch tells CNBC Make It. For example, you might feel like your social skills are rusty or you might feel self-conscious about "revealing ourselves again to other people at a close distance and without masks," he says.
Social norms and expectations are shifting rapidly as things open up, so it's only natural to feel uncertain about the new rules. "People with social anxiety will likely experience renewed fear and anxiety about behaving awkwardly or inappropriately (e.g., 'should I be wearing my mask here?' 'Is it ok to have a close conversation?') and being judged negatively by others," Moscovitch says.
For people who struggle with social anxiety, having a break from social obligations and showing your face in public might have felt comforting. Beyond a face mask's purpose for containing Covid, wearing a mask almost serves as a security blanket that relieves some of the "social pressures that come with fears of exposing flaws in appearance or signs of anxiety," the study authors wrote.
This social anxiety is compounded by the fact that we've been living in an "unnatural period of forced avoidance," Moscovitch says. In other words, being stuck at home and isolated from others mimics avoidance, which is a common coping mechanism for anxiety.
Avoidance and anxiety tend to go hand in hand: "If we avoid the things that make us anxious, it may feel like a relief in the short term but will just lead to more anxiety in the long term," Moscovitch says. "And if we feel more and more anxious, we are going to find it harder and harder to get over that avoidance."
Though it might be uncomfortable at first, Moscovitch suggests that you push yourself to participate in social situations as much as possible rather than continue to avoid them.
"Try to catch yourself when you're choosing to avoid even when you aren't being forced to do so by pandemic-related restrictions," he says. "Do your very best to summon the courage to push yourself to enter those situations and confront your anxiety."
In addition to making plans to see friends again in person, arrange to meet up with work colleagues or acquaintances to get back in the habit, Moscovitch says.
"Try to act friendly by making eye contact and smiling at people," he says. "Be intentional about doing these things every day for the sake of not avoiding and you'll discover that they will become easier and easier. As you make efforts to feel more connected with people, they will feel more connected with you as well."