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Mental Health Monday: What changing mask policies mean for your mental health

We've lived in a masked world for long enough now that seeing large groups of mask-less people can be overwhelming for some.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Should I wear a mask? Should I just leave it in the car? Am I going to get sick if I don't wear it even though I'm vaccinated?

Those are questions many have following the changes tied to masks from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said fully vaccinated people are OK to go without masks in almost all circumstances.

Lots of people are ditching face coverings while others want to keep them on or at least handy.

Many big companies are changing their mask policies.

Masks are no longer required at Trader Joe's, Walmart, Costco and Target. 

But you will need to keep wearing them if you shop at Kroger, Walgreens or CVS.

"Relieving some of the restrictions is very hopeful, and shows folks that there is a lot of light ahead at the end of the tunnel," said Ben Harrington, executive director of the Mental Health Association of East Tennessee (MHAET).

With those restrictions easing, a lot of people are going through this thought process:

"I should keep wearing my mask. Well, no, I'm vaccinated, I'm fine. But what if those strangers aren't? Better wear it. Wait, no, no one else is wearing one and they're all looking at me weird."

"It may be somewhat of a security blanket because it has certainly, you know, lessened anxiety and made people feel comfortable," said Harrington.

He said this quick change of what is now normal is causing some anxiety for people used to wearing masks.

"It's not for me to look down my nose at anybody," he said. "The purpose is, if I choose to wear a mask, I'm trying to keep you safe."

For those who followed safety guidelines for the past year, being around so many unmasked people in places like grocery stores can be overwhelming.

"When you're out in public and there're so many people you can run into, it's hard to know, do they really have the protections that they want you to think they do?" said Harrington.

He said calls to MHAET for mental health help increased drastically in 2020, and haven't stopped just because of easing mask mandates.

But people now have a choice, and whatever side you're on, don't pressure people to agree with you.

It'll only add more anxiety to an already stressful pandemic.

"It never hurts to take a deep breath," said Harrington.