Four tips to follow when maskless people make you anxious, according to a trauma therapist

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First-person essay by Casey Swartz

On the list of public health recommendations known to help stem the global coronavirus pandemic, mask-wearing and social distancing are at the top. Unfortunately, complying with these basic public health measures has become politicized, leading some folks to refuse to do either or both. Others may have reasons we can’t immediately see for not following public health protocol.

We can’t always know what motivates others. We can change how we react and how we advocate for ourselves and our needs.

When we see folks not wearing masks or participating in social distancing, many of us find ourselves in uncomfortable and anxiety-filled quandaries. The intensity of reactions generally increases if you or someone with whom you’re in contact has an underlying medical condition that makes them more vulnerable to COVID-19.

As a trauma therapist, I’ve helped many of my clients identify and then find ways to address the often paralyzing anxiety that can make advocating for things like public health measures difficult.

Too many of us aren’t taught self-advocacy skills. This is especially true for girls and women. Instead, being polite and kind have been ingrained as highly valuable skills for children to develop (and as a mom of three myself, I don’t disagree!). But, we sometimes fail to also teach kids — especially girls — that standing up for themselves and others is just as important as being kind or polite.

Without the skills to self-advocate and stand up for others, people gravitate toward passive aggressive or full-on aggressive ways of expressing displeasure and discomfort. Think nasty comments under your breath, vague but mean social media posts or public shaming.

The reaction to those who refuse to wear masks is the perfect example of a society that lacks the skills to change public behavior in both micro and macro ways. The anxiety we’re all living with can put our defense mechanisms on overdrive, creating barriers to communicating respectfully and peacefully with one another. Folks with a history of physical or emotional trauma often find themselves facing even more barriers to calm, productive conversations out of fear that asking a stranger to put on a mask or move away could quickly escalate and become unmanageable.

While there is no one solution, there are a few considerations I’d encourage people to make when it comes to addressing mask use (or lack thereof) in public spaces:

Take control of what you can

This global pandemic has created a constant sense of uncertainty and lack of control for us all. At bare minimum, you have the control to decide if you want to be in a public space or not. It may feel extreme to leave a full cart at the grocery store or or walk out of a pharmacy without your medication, but if the risk appears greater than the inconvenience, be intentional about your ability to take action and make a decision that feels best for you. Many folks also have the privilege to decide where to spend our money. If a store, doctor’s office or restaurant doesn’t seem to be making your health a priority, explore other options you can feel good about.

“The reaction to those who refuse to wear masks is the perfect example of a society that lacks the skills to change public behavior in both micro and macro ways,” writes Casey Swartz, a certified trauma therapist in private practice. “The anxiety we’re all living with can put our defense mechanisms on overdrive, creating barriers to communicating respectfully and peacefully with one another.” (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Check yourself

It’s understandable to feel anxious or angry when we see someone not taking basic safety measures. But it’s important to remember that even if we feel really sure we know what is motivating a stranger’s decision, we’re really just making an assumption. The maskless person who just walked by may have their own physical or mental health issues that we cannot see. Remind yourself that some people, especially Black men, have reason to fear covering their faces in public. Wearing a mask could expose them to racial profiling and police harassment — or worse.

Communicate your concerns

You can take control over how you want to communicate. Do you want to ask the person directly if they would put on a mask or move farther away? Do you want to express concern to the store owner/manager? Would you feel better making a phone call or sending an email than having an in-person conversation? You get to choose what is right for you.

Communicate your concerns effectively

If the awkwardness of direct confrontation is your concern, then focus on communicating your needs. Rather than confronting a stranger with anger or shame, use those social niceties that were drilled into us. Try approaching gently with something like, “Hi there, I’m practicing social distancing. Could you help me with that by backing up just a bit?” If advocating for yourself feels foreign, then create some talking points. Have two to three “canned responses” to use when you need to request that someone put on a mask before engaging with you. Practice using those responses so that if/when you need them, you feel more comfortable.

Remember, we can’t control other people, but we can control ourselves. You deserve to feel physically and emotionally safe. An argument with a stranger, staying in a space that doesn’t feel safe or not advocating for your needs won’t help you achieve that sense of safety. So prior to being in a difficult situation, think about how you’d like to handle it. You’ll be more likely to respond rather than react and feel better about it as a result.

Casey Swartz is a certified trauma therapist in private practice. She can be reached at casey@caseyswartz.com.

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