Thanks to COVID-19, wearing masks has become routine for a lot of us. Regardless of whether wearing one is mandatory, recommended in specific situations, or purely a personal preference, here’s how to navigate how you might be feeling.
As the coronavirus pandemic has evolved in Australia, the advice around whether – and when – to wear a face mask has changed significantly. In some parts of the country, putting a mask on whenever you leave the house has become part of the daily routine, while in other places, masks are the exception rather than the rule.
Still, given wearing a mask in public is a relatively new development regardless of where you live, you’re not alone if it’s something that triggers a reaction, or maybe even several reactions, for you.
“Some people may find wearing masks reassuring because it makes them feel safer, but others may have mixed feelings or even find it unsettling,” says Dr Amy Dawel, a cognitive and clinical psychologist at the Australian National University. “Plus, because mask-wearing is unusual in Australia, it’s also a confronting reminder that things aren’t ‘normal’ right now, which can provoke anxiety and worry for some people, too.”
Strategies that can help
If you do find wearing a mask – and seeing others do the same – uncomfortable or unnerving for any reason, keeping why we’ve been asked to do it front and centre in your mind can be useful.
“Remember that we’re wearing masks to keep ourselves, our loved ones and our communities safe,” says Dr Dawel. “On some level, it’s the same reason why we put rubbish in public bins – it’s a way in which we can make a positive contribution to our community and is something we should feel proud of. As a nation, we need to make mask-wearing acceptable and do whatever we can to have a bit of fun with it.”
Dr Dawel says we also need to be conscious of finding ways to connect with others when we’re wearing masks. “Masks obscure important non-verbal communication cues – like smiling – that we rely on to communicate positive intent towards others, which can make it feel like we can’t ‘read’ people as well. Get creative – you may need to speak up and say ‘Hi’ or use a head nod or a wave to establish those connections instead.”
Helping kids feel comfortable
In parts of Australia where mask-wearing in public is still mandatory or recommended, young children don’t have to follow suit but they have had to get used to seeing other people wearing them.
Dr Leah Brennan, a clinical, educational and developmental psychologist from La Trobe University, says that fortunately, children are remarkably adaptable. “I live in Victoria and many parents and childcare workers I know have commented on how easily most children have adapted to adults around them wearing masks,” she says. “Many have even noticed that children want to wear masks simply because everyone else is.”
However, as a parent or carer, it pays to remember that children will take their cues from you, which means there are things you can do to help your kids adjust. “Treat mask-wearing in a calm, matter-of-fact way,” says Dr Brennan, “just like you would if you had to wear a sling or a bandage, or in the same way we treat wearing a hat in summer. Explain that we need to do it to keep each other safe when we’re out of the house, so putting a mask on is just something we do before we go outside.
“Let them see you putting your mask on and off and, provided it’s a mask you haven’t worn outside the house yet, you could even let them help you put it on and off.”
If you’d like your children to wear a mask, you can support them in other ways, too. “A lot of adults are wearing colourful or interesting masks because it helps to make something inconvenient a little more positive and fun. Do the same for your kids if you think it will help them be more accepting of mask-wearing.”
Sidelining the stigma
You may feel like the odd one out if you live in a part of Australia where community transmission of COVID-19 is low and though there are no rules enforcing it, you choose to wear a mask.
“It’s often uncomfortable to go against the grain,” says Dr Dawel. “But when we do that, it’s usually because it’s really important to us for a specific reason. If you do find yourself in this situation, actively remind yourself about the reasons you’re wearing a mask.”
Similarly, if you see someone wearing a mask in a low-transmission area or not wearing one in a part of the country where it’s mandatory, avoid jumping to conclusions.
“Keep in mind that there are many reasons why people choose to wear masks when it’s not mandated,” says Dr Dawel. “They may be more vulnerable than most or have close contact with vulnerable loved ones.
“Likewise, there’s often a very good explanation why someone isn’t wearing a mask. Opening yourself up to the possibility that someone is doing something you don’t agree with for a good reason may help to reduce your own anxiety and stress about the situation.
“Adding a good dash of kindness and empathy to your daily routine will help you feel better.”