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27th August, 20207 min read

Are masks and social distancing stressing you out? Here’s how to cope

Medical reviewer: Healthily's medical team
Author: Meera Senthilingam
Last reviewed: 28/08/2020
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

Going out is a very different experience than it was 6 months ago.

A face mask, hand sanitiser and keeping your distance from other people are now standard things to keep in mind every time you leave your home — and while you’re out.

This is all in the hope of keeping you, your family and your community safe by helping to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

But this constant state of awareness can weigh heavily on your mind.

“There’s a lot more to consider now, and that does wear you out when you have to do it over and over again,” says Rosie Weatherall, spokesperson for mental health charity Mind UK. “When restrictions started to ease, everyone got a lot more uncomfortable,” she adds.

Life under lockdown had its challenges as you adjusted to being at home more and keeping isolated from loved ones outside of your home. But the guidance was simple — stay home. Your government was handling the rest of it.

“After a while, many people got quite comfortable and felt quite secure in their lockdown routines,” says Weatherall.

But now, the responsibility of staying safe and reducing the spread of coronavirus is on you, and with this comes a bigger demand on your mind — and your mental wellbeing.

Does going out cause anxiety?

Do you struggle to keep a distance when you’re out or feel uncomfortable wearing a face mask for too long? These are just a few examples of the many situations that are causing people stress, explains Weatherall.

This is because your cognitive load has gone up. That’s the amount of decisions or factors you have to weigh up when doing things at any particular moment.

“It’s also not just ‘am I doing the right thing’, but ‘am I being seen to do the right things’ and people’s opinions of me, says Weatherall.

But these lifestyle changes will be around for some time yet, so it could be worth taking the time to think about the causes of your stress or anxiety and find ways to manage them.

Here are a few things to think about.

Does wearing a face mask cause you discomfort or stress?

Wearing a face mask in public is now compulsory in many countries, but wearing one for long periods of time can become uncomfortable for some people. This may be on public transport or while shopping, or maybe in the office.

And if you’re prone to panic, this may also make an attack more likely. “The experience and moist air can make people panicky, then dizzy or sick,” says Weatherall.

But Mind UK suggests a range of things you could try to make the experience more pleasant.

  1. Relax or unwind before and after wearing your mask — this could be by getting fresh air, breathing exercises, or by doing something you know makes you relax.
  2. Keep your body as cool as possible — this may help you handle the warmth of your face mask.
  3. Plan your time out to limit how long you wear a mask — if you plan what you need to buy in a shop or find the quickest way to get somewhere on public transport, for example, you can minimise the amount of time you spend wearing a mask.

Does seeing other people wearing a mask make you anxious?

More people are wearing face masks as more rules come into place asking you to wear one in different settings. For example, a survey conducted in the UK at the end of July found that 70% of people had worn one in the past week, compared to just 19% in April.

But this also changes your interactions with others when in public. “Seeing other people in face masks can be intimidating, sinister or can dehumanise them,” says Weatherall.

A few ways to handle this could be to:

  • look away from someone when you’re talking to them
  • listen to podcasts or music or call someone for a chat when you’re out and about in public — to distract you
  • pay attention to your surroundings, as this could help you calm down

Masks can also make it harder to understand other people’s emotions, as they hide smiles and other facial expressions. If you’re struggling with a conversation, let the other person know.

Do people keep coming too close to you or your family?

Keeping a distance from other people in public can become challenging, particularly if you’re indoors.

If someone does come too close to you, you may feel uncomfortable about saying something to them, such as asking them to move. You may also be concerned about what they may say in return or what the people around you may think.

This can lead to anxiety, stress or worry — especially if it happens regularly.

To help cope with this, Weatherall recommends planning ahead for the situation so that you know exactly what to say to someone when it happens.

“Practise your lines,” she says. “Having that language ready so it falls out before you’ve thought about it can be really useful.”

You could also think about positive ways to say it, she adds. For example, you could apologise for being in that person’s way and suggest you both move to stay safe. “It doesn’t have to be confrontational,” says Weatherall.

Are you finding it stressful to keep away from others?

Another cause for concern could be your own struggle to keep away from other people.

Perhaps you need to walk down narrow streets or get public transport regularly. You may also have kids who get close to other people. There are many situations where distancing can be a challenge.

As there’s a lot you can’t control, Weatherall suggests making choices to manage the things you can control.

“Make a conscious effort to take care of yourself,” she says. “Do something you enjoy before and after.” This means you will go into a stressful situation more calmly and when you come out of it, you won’t carry the stress with you.

“That’s probably a good strategy for many situations that are stressful,” she says. “Have an activity to signal that the stress bit is over and you can move on.”

The idea behind each of these steps is to know what causes you stress or anxiety in this new way of life, and compensate for it by just being nice to yourself.

“That’s great mental healthcare,” says Weatherall.

However, if anxiety and stress continue to affect your daily life, despite following this advice, you may want to speak with your doctor.

Key points

  • the new way of life can make some people anxious and uncomfortable
  • knowing this and taking steps to calm your mind before and after any stressful situations can help you cope
  • limiting the amount of time you need to wear your mask may help
  • keeping your body cool can help you handle the warmth of a face mask
  • prepare for situations where people may come too close to you by planning or rehearsing what to say when it happens
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