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‘Find ways to make yourself feel in control’: How to cope with anxiety about people removing their masks

As the government announces that wearing a face covering will soon become a ‘personal choice’, Olivia Petter examines how to curb people’s fears of a brave new mask-less world

Tuesday 06 July 2021 14:54
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More than 12 months after face masks were first made mandatory on public transport in England, the prime minister has announced that masks will no longer be legally required in any public places when England enters into the final stage of lifting lockdown restrictions, expected to be from 19 July.

Final decisions regarding the exact timing of this final stage will not be until announced until 12 July. However, government guidance will suggest that people might still choose to wear masks in “enclosed and crowded places” and Professor Chris Whitty said on Monday that he would wear one in three situations: in crowded indoor spaces; if required to do so by “any competent authority”; and when doing so will make others feel more comfortable.

Many medical experts have expressed concerns about restrictions surrounding face coverings being lifted. Professor Adam Finn, from the Government’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), recently said he will continue to wear a face mask “indefinitely” despite the mandate lifting.

Meanwhile, Professor Stephen Powis, NHS England’s medical director, added that it would “not necessarily [be a] bad thing” if some people continued to wear face masks in certain circumstances, such as crowded places.

Given how well-documented the advantages of wearing a face covering have been when it comes to reducing transmission rates, it’s no wonder that people are concerned about the sudden rule-change. In fact, a recent YouGov survey found that as many as two thirds of Britons intend to continue wearing face coverings once the rules end, while countless social media users, particularly those who are immunocompromised, have expressed fears about people taking masks off.

“Masks have played a huge role as one of the measures implemented to reduce viral spread over the course of the pandemic,” says Dr Eleanor Gaunt, Sir Henry Dale Fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute. “These measures have been so effective that we have seen two strains of influenza become extinct. Therefore, looking forward, the continued use of masks is absolutely critical in limiting viral spread, not just for SARS-CoV-2 but also other respiratory viruses that are predicted to return with a vengeance once we allow them back in.”

So what can be done if you are feeling concerned about people taking their masks off? The Independent spoke to Dr Sally Austen, consultant clinical psychologist, to find out.

Think about how you might deal with someone who isn’t wearing a mask in advance

If you leave your house once England enters into step four, chances are that you will encounter somebody who isn’t wearing a mask. The key to making sure this doesn’t trigger your anxiety to thinking about how you will handle this situation in advance, says Dr Austen.

“Try to respond assertively,” she says. “Say you’re on a crowded tube. You could sit quietly resenting those around you without masks; the aggressive response could be to shout at them. However, the assertive option may be to quietly offer them a spare mask, to open the windows, to move seats or to get off at the next stop.”

Considering your options ahead of time will, Dr Austen says, prevent you from feeling overwhelmed if an when you do encounter mask-less faces in a crowded space. As this will become inevitable moving forward.

Remember that anxiety isn’t always a bad thing

It’s easy to get caught up in thinking that our anxieties are always negative feelings. But this isn’t always the case. “Anxiety has been with us since our cavepeople days,” says Dr Austen. “Generally, anxiety keeps us safe. We are frightened of lions because they are likely to harm us, for example.” This can be reassuring to remember if you feel frustrated by your anxieties.

Occasionally, though, our anxieties can fuel unhelpful blockages that hinder our daily activities. “Our 21st century brains have evolved slightly ineptly when it comes to anxiety and we are sometimes frightened of things that can’t hurt us,” adds Dr Austen.

“Have a think about whether your anxiety around Covid is useful or not. If you have significant underlying health conditions, have not been vaccinated and are in a crowded enclosed space, then your anxiety might be serving a good purpose. Whereas a twice vaccinated, healthy person in an outdoor space might consider they anxiety to be excessive to the situation.”

Try to work out what it is you’re really afraid of - and confront it

In some cases, anxiety can manifest as a way of masking other emotions, says Dr Austen. If, for example, you have worked out that your anxiety is not entirely useful, you might be experiencing something else: avoidance.

“Our behavioural response to anxiety tends to be avoidance,” she explains. “Again, if the fear is of something with a physical danger, this is wise. However, avoiding something that does not have actual danger can increase the anxiety we feel over time. If we confront our fears they tend to subside; if we avoid them, they tend to grow.”

Avoid using ‘nothing statements’

When we are anxious, it’s only normal to have slightly irrational thoughts, says Dr Austen. When we are very anxious our brains tend to pick all or nothing solutions; we say things like: ‘Because I could die of Covid, I must avoid all contact with all people’.”

Try to identify if you’re using these kinds of statements, says Dr Austen, and see if you can turn them into slightly more flexible ones. “For example, the phrase ‘I’m not speaking to anyone who is not wearing a mask’ might be adjusted to ‘I will make my decision about who to engage with, based on whether they have been recently tested’.”

Identify the other feelings you have about restrictions lifting

Whether it’s anxiety or avoidance, chances are that if you’re feeling either of these things you will also be feeling a mix of other emotions. Dr Austen suggests trying to identify whether your anxiety is masking anger.

“If so can you ‘park’ the anger to help you find some useful day to day solutions,” she says. “Work out your self-talk in advance eg ‘I really think these people without masks are inconsiderate idiots. What can I do to make myself feel more in control?’”

Finding ways to make yourself feel more control is crucial to overcoming any fears and concerns you have about people taking masks off, she adds. “Remember that anxiety and anger go hand in hand, particularly true when we feel out of control. Try not to blame others for how bad you feel and focus on yourself and your feelings.”

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