Dr. Saliha Afridi, PsyD. (US), Clinical Psychologist and Managing Director of Lighthouse Arabia
The recent announcement of UAE no longer requiring masks to be worn in most indoor places is being met with mixed feelings. No doubt there are many who have wanted to have masks removed and so they are welcoming this announcement and finally being able to see and show faces, and there are those who have had their anxiety surface as it does when any big life change arises, and there is also a third group who are both anxious and excited as they adjust to a new way of being. Regardless of what group you belong to, know that it is completely normal for the whole range of feelings to surface as part of any adjustment and transition period.
During times of change and uncertainty, our minds and bodies respond both physiologically and emotionally. On one end of the spectrum, some people, especially those who may not be ready to have their masks removed yet, may feel powerless to circumstances out of their control. These people will most likely experience bouts of elevated anxiety with symptoms such as rapid heart rate or pressure in the chest, restlessness, feeling agitated and irritable, excess worry, tense muscles, being unable to sleep and/or symptoms of panic attacks.
Most others may find themselves feeling more agitated, stressed, and irritable during such times, not realizing that change of any sort can make a person feel destabilized for a few weeks. As with any change, there is a transition from one way of doing things to the other, and one can expect difficult feelings as they adjust to the new. During transition periods, which typically last 6 weeks, one can expect many feelings and symptoms of stress and anxiety.
The point at which no-mask-anxiety or any form of anxiety for that matter becomes concerning is when it consistently and persistently starts to get in the way of social, occupational or academic functioning.
This could be a person unable to go out to the grocery store or to work because they feel full of fear, or a person who is no longer socializing with people because they cannot stop thinking about the possibility of COVID-19 being amidst them. It could also be children who start to engage in school refusal because they cannot remember going to school without a mask. People with pre-existing anxiety or social anxiety might also struggle with clinical levels of anxiety during times of change.
The best way to manage big changes is by approaching them intentionally. The winds of change will blow, and in the world we live in the winds will blow more frequently and more often, it’s only those who know how to harness the power of the wind that will get to the place where they want to get to. It’s better to learn how to make the most of each and every stage, rather than to get into an argument with reality.
If you are struggling with no-mask-anxiety here are some ways to cope and manage difficult feelings.
Remember you have a choice: Feeling powerless only exacerbates our anxiety. Whether you are a child or an adult, remember and remind yourself that you still have a choice and you can continue to wear the mask and most people will continue to respect your choice. You can also keep extra masks in your carry bag as a visual reminder and have a script ready for those who ask why you continue to wear a mask.
Take care of your physical body in times of change. When the mind is feeling like it’s spinning in circles, go in through the body. Spas use a bottom-up approach to calming the mind. They use aromatherapy, teas, soothing music, lighting, a decluttered environment and essential oils to send signals to the mind that everything is ok.
The essence of the mind-body connection is the Vagus Nerve, a cranial nerve that connects the brain to all the major organs in the body including your heart, stomach, lungs, liver and kidneys. It is a two-way highway, however, it has 8 lanes going up from the body to the mind and 2 lanes coming down from the mind to the body, meaning, the state of your body will have a huge impact on the state of your mind.
Get moving. Research consistently shows that exercise is great for releasing negative and anxious emotions and increasing positive emotions. Some research suggests that exercise is as effective in eliminating anxiety and depression as medication. Just 30 minutes a day of exercise at 75% of your maximum heart rate will help you feel more in control and also release happy chemicals in your brain.
Sleep also plays a huge role in combatting anxiety. The two biggest culprits of disrupted sleep are caffeine and blue light. It is important to have a structured nighttime routine that involves not drinking caffeine after 10am and consider wearing blue light-blocking glasses or having blue light shields for your screens. Drinking Chamomile tea every night can help to wind the mind down and taking MagVita supplements can also help to reduce stress and tension in the body. Note, that anything less than 7 hours is considered sleep deprivation and you are 60% less able to regulate difficult and intense emotions when you are sleep deprived.
Eat right: 90% of our happy chemical serotonin is produced in the gut and up to 80% of your immunity is in the lining of your gut, thus as the saying goes, you are what you eat! If you eat junk, your mind will feel just as hollow and if you eat foods that are deep fried, you will certainly feel that way in your mind too.
Unfollow or switch off the news. There are many things in the world that are resulting in people feeling emotionally vulnerable and powerless. Switching off the news can be of real benefit to those suffering with anxiety. Consuming difficult content can play on our fight-or-flight response as we give so much attention to fast-paced, graphic news stories. Limiting your consumption to once a day for one hour only can certainly help but if you are feeling particularly out of control, you should turn it off completely.
Stick to a routine. You can avoid crowded places or ask to work from home while you adjust or keep your N95 handy for when you feel anxious. Whatever you decide, stick to a routine and a consistent way of doing things for the first few weeks. Routine and rhythm, are the antidote to uncertainty and powerlessness. Setting realistic schedules and following them whether you feel like it or not will help to ensure you are more in control and empowered when you do this.
Highlight the positive. When there is so much bad news around, it is easy to get caught up in a negative mindset. While allowing for the difficult feelings to surface, feeling them and releasing them, you need to also highlight the positive aspects of your life. If you are struggling to figure out what to be grateful for, start with the biggest or smallest thing- it could be your favourite food to your favourite person. Feeling the feelings that come along with gratitude and appreciation counteract the feelings of fear and anxiety.
No one could have imagined how much all of us will go through and continue to go through as a result of the pandemic. Our lives- the way we work, the way we communicate, the way we socialize all have been impacted and every few months brings about a ‘new normal’ that we adjust and adapt to. With every change, it is normal to experience difficult feelings, but it is equally important to highlight how far you have come, how much capacity you have to cope, and how much you have courageously and resiliently endured.