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Unmasking Anxiety: More Masks, Ongoing COVID-19, and Anxiety

Aren't we supposed to be over the COVID-19 pandemic and the heightened anxiety it's causing? Most of us hoped, and even expected, that we would be. Yet here we are, well into month four in the United States, and many states are sliding backwards. Legal orders to wear masks are on the rise. A seemingly sudden explosion of controversy and heated emotion around mask-wearing have left many people wondering why: Why now, why the big issue around masks, and simply why are we continuing to experience mental health challenges around COVID-19? Here's a look that won't solve the problem but may help shed light on it and help you manage increasing anxiety.

Like Them or Hate Them, Masks Throw COVID-19 and Anxiety in Our Face

In theory, mask-wearing slows or prevents the spread of the COVID-19 virus. This is something that most, if not all, of us want. Yet the stricter orders to wear masks in public are dividing an already torn-apart society and increasing stress and anxiety in the process. 

Seeing masks everywhere is a sign that we're in the midst of a health crisis. For many, this is terrifying. Just when we were starting to crawl out from under the weight of the restrictions and isolation, reports that the virus is increasing are spreading and some state governors are ordering people to mask up. No matter your opinion of the issue, you see a constant reminder of all the problems everywhere you look. This is unsettling and anxiety-provoking. 

Further, masks are now one more physical symbol of divisiveness. For those that embrace mask-wearing and see it as a way out of this health crisis, seeing others without masks is frustrating and maddening. For those that don't believe in mask-wearing and see it as one more uncontrollable restriction on life, seeing masks or being told to wear one is frustrating and maddening. Masks on or masks off, we're increasingly stressed and angry. The dominance of these negative emotions is taking a toll on individual and collective mental health. 

The Root of the Problem Isn't the Masks

On a gigantic scale and for a prolonged period of time, we have been experiencing two very big causes of anxiety:

The increased mask-wearing is throwing in our face the fact that we don't know how this COVID-19 pandemic is unfolding. The only thing that's certain is uncertainty. That is hard to deal with.

On a practical level, we can't plan for the immediate future, not to mention the not-too-distant one. Are schools going to reopen? Are our jobs secure? Are all of these measures actually doing any good. or are they causing significant harm that is going to be hard to undo? Are the masks helpful or useless? Do they keep us healthy or harm our respiratory health? Many people are certain they have the answers, yet we really do not. To be sure, we're learning, but it's a long process that is hard to be patient through. 

The masks, too, highlight our lack of control over this situation. We can't control what our state governments are going to order us to do. We can't control whether others will wear masks. To be sure, we can holler at each other in parking lots and stores (I've witnessed this) or we can scream on social media and leave all sorts of comments, but in reality this doesn't really affect change positively. 

Reflect to Regain Certainty and Control and Reduce Anxiety

Regardless of where you stand on the mask issue, if you are feeling frustrated and anxious right now, pause to reflect on how much uncertainty intolerance and lack of control are contributing to your anxiety and even unhappiness. Go beyond the masks. Look past what others are or are not doing. What is really bothering you?

The next step is to determine what little things you can do to add a degree of control to your life ("Do This to Help Anxiety Amid Uncertainty, Chaos in the World"). What can you do every day to feel stable and more peaceful? What is already good despite the problems around us, and how can you do more of it? What can you do in your life moment by moment to feel healthy and safe despite what others are doing? 

You are going to see masks, and you're going to see people not wearing them. How can you look beyond the masks to discover what positive things you can do in your moments? This isn't going to solve the greater problem, but it just might quiet some of your anxiety so you can live well and thrive in spite of it all. 

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2020, July 16). Unmasking Anxiety: More Masks, Ongoing COVID-19, and Anxiety, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, October 24 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2020/7/unmasking-anxiety-more-masks-ongoing-covid-19-and-anxiety



Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Tanya J. Peterson delivers online and in-person mental health education for students in elementary and middle school. She is the author of numerous anxiety self-help books, including The Morning Magic 5-Minute Journal, The Mindful Path Through Anxiety, 101 Ways to Help Stop Anxiety, The 5-Minute Anxiety Relief Journal, The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps, and five critically-acclaimed, award-winning novels about mental health challenges. She also speaks nationally about mental health. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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