The Mindset Shift That Will Get Us Through the Pandemic Home Stretch

With normal feeling tantalizingly close, it’s time to reconsider how we think about trust

I got my Covid vaccine a couple weeks ago (Johnson and Johnson, in case anyone was wondering). If you’ve received yours, too, you know exactly what I’m talking about when I say the wave of emotions hit as soon as I felt the needle in my arm. Gratitude. Joy. Relief. And coursing underneath it all was the unmistakable rush of adrenaline: Every cell in my body seemed to be screaming at me to throw a party, jam myself into a crowded indoor happy hour, do all the things I so desperately craved.

Maybe most of all, though, I was thrilled to finally be rid of the phrase that’s been a bane of my pandemic experience, the one that’s come up too many times when I tried to figure out how to see friends or family: It’s okay, I trust you. I’ve heard it. I’ve thought it myself. And I’ve always hated it.

Living through a pandemic, as we’ve all learned, means constantly calculating risk. That calculus looks different post-vaccination. But in one way, it remains very much the same. In this home stretch, it’s harder and more vital than ever to remember: The virus has never known, or cared, who our friends are.

It’s something so many of us have struggled to understand this whole time. We’ve spent the past year side-eyeing maskless strangers on the sidewalk and nervously hustling our way through the grocery store, but when it comes to people we know, we’ve spent the past year loosening up our precautions. I trust them, I told myself each time I made my way into a small backyard gathering that felt a bit larger than I’d like. And it was true. I did. Inevitably, I still left feeling anxious.

Because over the past year, trust hasn’t carried the weight we’ve assigned it — not at the beginning, not at the winter peak, and not now, when we’re so close to getting out of this. One of the worst things we can do at this point? Be overly generous with our trust.

Of course, vaccination is bringing all kinds of (welcome!) new possibilities. But when it comes to interacting with non-vaccinated people in our lives, overriding our trusting instincts is what will get us to the finish line. And once we’re in The After, we should keep on remembering that trust is a gift made better by boundaries.

We’re hardwired to ascribe a positive bias to friends and loved ones, a feature of the human psyche that’s generally been beneficial, as Nate Pipitone, an assistant professor of psychology at Florida Gulf Coast University, explains: For thousands of years, our ancestors lived in close proximity to relatives and other close tribe members, sharing the burden of providing for and protecting one other from enemy tribes or wild predators. Isolating from these trusted people — or choosing unreliable friends — would be dangerous. “Life was a lot more difficult then, and you weren’t afforded the opportunity to be in a relationship with someone who could put your survival at risk,” says Pipitone.

The deep-rooted belief that your friends and relatives are automatically no risk to you, and vice versa, lives in the emotional part of your brain. Over the course of the past year, though, that’s precisely the part that’s put us in danger. “Your intuition is there in many ways to help you, but in some cases, it can be wrong,” Pipitone says. “So it’s important to employ logic instead.”

Logic like this, as much as it protects us, can be hard to swallow — especially because we all innately stigmatize illness. The mindset that disease is “bad,” and health is “good” only serves to strengthen our bias toward people who care about us. So your cousins aren’t fully vaccinated yet? Okay, but you know them. A family party feels fine.

The reality, of course, is that sickness can happen to anyone — even when people do their best to practice all the right precautions. If this past year has taught us anything, it’s that. But the trust bias is what propels us to find exceptions to precautions we otherwise see as rules. And as the vaccine numbers tick upward each day, it can be hard to find the motivation to hold on to those precautions for the sake of the unvaccinated in our lives. The rising vaccination rates joining forces with the warming weather to make everything feel tantalizingly normal.

To combat that, you can also tune into the more rational part of your brain with a bit of reframing self-talk. Yes, this gray area we’re in now is still hard, even if it’s getting easier and even if you can do a lot more than you could before. Remind yourself that as much as it sucks to still have to live with some level of vigilance, there will come a day when that’s no longer necessary. “The more you can remind yourself this won’t go on forever, the more you can learn to tolerate it for what it is right now,” says Natalie Dattilo, a psychologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Remember: Hope is an essential survival strategy. It’s what got us this far. Patience is what will carry us the rest of the way. The sooner we’re on the other side, the sooner we can give the people we love exactly the kind of trust those relationships deserve.

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.

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