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Masks and your mental health: 3 tips for dealing with uncertainty around COVID-19

You’ve probably seen the posts on social media -- the cringeworthy viral videos of Karens screaming in grocery stores or public parks about their rights being violated by ordinances to wear a mask to stop the spread of COVID-19.

If you haven’t, here are a few greatest hits:

Those who oppose masks call them a serious infringement of personal rights. For those who support masks, they’re a necessary step to protect public health.

It turns out anger surrounding masks may actually have more to do with psychology than freedom.

The impact of uncertainty

There’s a lot of uncertainty in the world at the moment -- from the COVID-19 pandemic, to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, to political division and the upcoming presidential election.

Studies show that uncertainty causes an intensified physical and emotional response. Something may be bad, but the uncertainty around it makes it feel even worse.

As humans, we respond to this uncertainty in different ways. Some of us defer to those we trust to guide us. Some look for ways to regain control. Others may even deny or diminish the threat altogether.

According to research from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, fear heightens subsequent perceived risk, while anger reduces that perception of risk. Extremes on both sides can cloud decision making.

In the case of masks, those who have grown frustrated with being stuck at home may be unconsciously more likely to downplay the perceived risk of Coronavirus in their minds. That may make them less likely view masks as necessary. So when they are “forced” to wear masks or are made to feel guilty for not wearing them, this only feeds anger, which continues the spiral of denial.

How to cope with uncertainty

It’s normal to feel both fear or anger around uncertainty. It is difficult for any parent to navigate school closures in the fall that impact their children -- and feeling frustrated is understandable. But if we dwell on the frustration, we may get stuck and not be able to act accordingly. And we think we can all agree we want to move forward safely.

If these feelings become extreme in one direction or the other, it may be a sign to take a breath. If you find yourself feeling intense feelings related to this pandemic, here are a few tips that can help:

1. Avoid judging your anxieties -- or those around you

It is important to give ourselves grace and permission to feel the way we do. The more we resist our feelings, the stronger they will grow. But not judging does not mean feeding into those anxieties. It means just noticing them.

Also avoid judging others if they may react differently from you. This may be especially hard during a crisis if you think someone’s behavior may be reckless. When people feel attacked, they tend to dig their heels instead of being open to new ideas. Judgment may be unintentionally hindering the very purpose you’re trying to achieve (e.g., getting others to recognize the importance of masks).

2. Focus on the facts

This can be hard in today’s world of "fake news" and knee jerk reactions. Find one or two sources you trust and focus on facts -- not the “spin.” Cable news outlets and blog sites may get ratings or clicks by feeding on anxiety, but they aren’t great for your mental health.

Regardless of your perspective, be open to facts that you may disagree with, so that you don’t get stuck in confirmation bias — try to avoid “what ifs.” They can cause catastrophic thinking which feeds our anxieties. When faced with heightened anxiety, practice deep breathing and mindfulness techniques to turn down the volume.

3. Practice radical acceptance

Radical acceptance is a simple yet powerful distress tolerance skill that helps us to keep pain from turning into suffering. It involves accepting wholeheartedly that we cannot change the facts, even if we don’t like them. This is different from tacit approval of our current situation. It gives our minds space to shift our focus from resisting to accepting and coping. And it allows us to focus on things we can control in our lives.

Instead of ruminating around how long COVID-19 might last, accept that no one can predict the future, and this may last months. Once we do, we are able to see the situation clearly and take appropriate steps -- like wearing masks -- to help protect ourselves.

More resources

If you’re looking for more ways to cope with increased uncertainty, here are a few helpful resources:

How mental health manifests may vary from person to person. If you find yourself getting angry, losing sleep, or feeling unmotivated, those may be signs that you need to pay attention to your mental health.

If you’re already a reflect member, we encourage you to talk to your therapist about how you’re feeling.

If you’re not yet one, we invite you to consider therapy. Because we can all benefit from talking to someone, especially during these tough times.

Click here and take our short matching survey to get matched to the right therapist.


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