It’s hard, if not impossible, to comprehend just how difficult the coronavirus pandemic has been. With an invisible yet deadly virus shooting through our communities, we were told the best way to protect ourselves was to stay home, layer on masks, and isolate from friends, family and colleagues indefinitely. And so we did.
Over a year later, many of us are still living in fear — even, in some cases, after being vaccinated. The science tells us that the vaccines are highly effective and the chances of contracting COVID-19 after vaccination are slim. But shaking off trauma isn’t an easy task, especially while the news is focused on variants and a potential fourth surge.
The challenge for vaccinated people now is to step away from fear-based thinking and arrive at a place where they are willing to live and take risks again. Here’s why it’s so hard to stop living in fear after getting the vaccine, and how to readjust to life once you’ve had the shot.
Fear lingers even when the threat is reduced
After a traumatic event, it’s normal to be fearful and on high alert. Human beings are wired for survival and built to run from danger, said Lucy McBride, a practicing internal medicine physician in Washington, D.C.
“We are naturally fearful and afraid and vulnerable when there is a threat like COVID-19,” McBride said. After the threat passes, the fear can linger.
We see this play out with various traumas. Take, for example, people who were recently in a serious car accident. Survivors might develop post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, and it could take some time before they’re ready to get behind the wheel again. Similarly, survivors of domestic abuse may hesitate before jumping into a new relationship.
The same concept applies to COVID-19. After more than a year of sustained trauma, it’s not going to be easy to pivot from a hypervigilant state of fear to a place where we are willing to live life and take risks again, McBride said. When the fear is gone and when the threat is minimized (through vaccination), it will be OK to let go and move on. But that’s often easier said than done.
“We are naturally fearful and afraid and vulnerable when there is a threat like COVID-19.”
There’s also confusing messaging about what’s safe to do post-vaccine
One of the reasons it’s so difficult for vaccinated people to transition out of that fear mode is the broad, muddled public health messaging on what is and isn’t safe after vaccination.
“There are so many megaphones and there are so many conflicting pieces of advice,” McBride said.
Take the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest guidance on travel. The CDC has released recommendations on what’s safe to do once you receive the shot, saying there’s little risk if you’re fully vaccinated (meaning it’s been two weeks since your second dose of Pfizer or Moderna, or since your Johnson & Johnson shot). The guidance also says that vaccinated people ― who’ve been advised to keep wearing masks and social distancing in public ― don’t need to self-quarantine after travel or after an exposure to someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 (as long as they don’t have symptoms).
Then, however, experts from the CDC went on to say that nonessential travel should still be avoided, without much further explanation. (It’s basically because we’re still in a pandemic and COVID is still spreading like crazy, so we should all continue to be mindful and respectful. But it can be very confusing!)
The science is out there and it’s clear: It’s really hard to get COVID-19 if you’ve been fully vaccinated. “You’d have to try hard,” McBride said.
Clinical studies show that the shots are incredibly effective, but the real-world evidence is even more compelling. According to Monica Gandhi, an infectious diseases specialist and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, real-word data shows the actual risk of getting COVID-19 after vaccination is about 0.05% — and that’s during a surge when you are around a lot of people.
Going to the gym, dining indoors, going to a movie theater or a hair salon — all the activities deemed unsafe for unvaccinated people — don’t carry the same risk for vaccinated people. Vaccinated people can safely do “all of that and more,” Gandhi said.
Now, the real-world data can’t possibly apply to every single person on the planet, McBride said. There will be rare breakthrough infections, and we will hear about vaccinated people testing positive. But by and large, after vaccination, death and severe disease are virtually off the table. There have been very few failures after vaccination, and the vast majority of breakthrough infections are likely to be mild if not asymptomatic.
All that said, it’s not time for vaccinated people to throw out the masks just yet — mainly out of respect for the majority of Americans who are still not fully vaccinated and remain susceptible to COVID-19. The latest evidence says fully vaccinated individuals are very unlikely to get sick, carry the virus or spread it to others, but as long as most of the population is unvaccinated, masks will likely be the social norm.
“Do be polite in public and maintain the restrictions that are imposed because we’re not all vaccinated,” Gandhi said.
“It's like getting your feet wet. After any trauma, slowly stepping into the water will make things better.”
How to get reacclimated to life after your COVID-19 vaccine
Human beings are wired for survival, but we’re also wired for connection. There are tons of studies highlighting how social relationships improve our mental and physical health and cut our risk of mortality. Having meaningful interactions with others is vital to our well-being, which is why health experts are starting to tell vaccinated patients to loosen the reins.
McBride recommended first finding someone you trust, like a primary care doctor or a therapist, who can help break down the broad public health messaging and provide nuanced guidance for your unique physical and mental health needs. The risk assessment for vaccinated people who are severely immunocompromised may differ from that which applies to the general vaccinated public.
It will take time for vaccinated people to break through the trauma, and everyone should go at their own pace. Start slow. If you’re still feeling fearful after being vaccinated, don’t jump right to eating at a crowded indoor gathering. Have a picnic with a friend who is also vaccinated, and if you feel good about it, do it again or try something else. Practice socializing and going out. Gradually, it will feel less scary.
“It’s like getting your feet wet,” Gandhi said. “After any trauma, slowly stepping into the water will make things better.”
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.