Masking Confusion

This illustration shows a woman coping with hot temperatures while in a mask. Wearing a mask can have psychological impacts such as causing frustration and discomfort.

After the COVID-19 pandemic began and health guidelines were announced, some of us have found it difficult to adjust to wearing a mask. 

It is undoubtedly uncomfortable when we speak, harder for other people to understand us and more difficult to breathe easily. And then there’s all the little ways masks inconvenience us – losing or forgetting a mask right before entering a store, constantly readjusting the mask so it fits well and not being able to take in fresh air when going outside. 

The discomfort and exhaustion associated with wearing masks for an extended period of time has had a far-reaching, if subtle, psychological impact on our community.

Anastasia Savchenko, a third-year student at Oregon State University studying merchandise management said she never really got used to wearing a mask and still hasn’t. 

“I do it, of course, because it is mandatory, but it is really uncomfortable for me and affects my breathing,” Savchenko said. “I do not feel confident in public with it because it is covering half my face and I am constantly adjusting my mask.

Ian Kellems, a licensed psychologist and director of Counseling and Psychological Services at OSU, explained why wearing a mask feels uncomfortable for many people.

“From a psychological perspective, wearing a mask can feel awkward, because it makes it more difficult to read other people’s emotions and can even make it difficult to recognize other people,” Kellems said in an email. 

“I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of running into someone at the grocery store, but not being able to recognize them with their mask on.” 

According to Kellems, wearing a mask for an extended period of time can impact people in numerous ways, depending on the person.

“For some, wearing a mask may provide them with a sense of security and comfort, because it offers protection,” Kellems said. “For others, wearing a mask may make them feel frustrated, or even more anxious, as it can be a reminder that we are in a pandemic.”

However, some people have adjusted to wearing a mask more easily.

“I feel safe wearing a mask every day and feel more confident because I already got used to [it] with the precautions.,” said Hoang Thanh Truc Do, a second-year student studying tourism at OSU. “And [I] think people still need to wear a mask in the future until COVID-19 is totally gone. If not, I assume that the situation will continue to go on.”

Although COVID-19 vaccines are available for all students now, it’s still important to follow the safety guidelines and take the pandemic seriously. 

“The reasons for continuing to wear a face mask are obviously connected to preventing virus transmission, and this practice should be continued until public health authorities instruct otherwise,” Kellems said. 

“How you get more comfortable wearing a mask is simply by wearing a mask. The more we do it, the more comfortable we become. I remember feeling quite awkward initially wearing a mask, and now it has become second nature. As we become more comfortable wearing masks, we will feel better.”

Unfortunately, sometimes masks are just being neglected due to the discomforts they cause.

“It has not psychologically affected me, but it is annoying,” Savchenko said. “The most frustrating part about first having to wear a mask, was remembering to bring a mask in the first place. I was constantly forgetting it and would often have to wait in the car.”

Overall, Savchenko said she thinks she has been balancing her two jobs, school and social life well, and said she has been able to keep a good mental health.

“I feel that there have been way too many guidelines with COVID-19, and unnecessary ‘cautions of measures’ which has made me disappointed with how the country operated during these times,” Savchenko said. 

But she added that she thinks we should not wear masks in the future, though increased sanitation and keeping things clean in general is good practice. 

But Kellems noted that it’s important for us to understand that wearing a mask is one of the most important ways that we can take care of ourselves and others. 

“It’s the kind thing to do and seeing it as an act of service can make it feel less burdensome,” Kellems explained. “I also think that finding masks that are comfortable, and maybe even stylish, can help too.” Kellems encouraged everyone to continue wearing masks. 

“My hope is that wearing a mask will eventually feel more natural,” Kellems said. “I also think it is likely that once COVID-19 is appropriately managed, we will need to be prepared to transition to not wearing masks, which will also be an adjustment.”

Kellems explains how this will be an adjustment.

 “I think many of us have found comfort and protection in wearing masks—they have become a sort of security blanket for us.  When public health conditions improve then it is reasonable to believe that at some point in the future we will no longer need to wear masks.  This future adjustment back to not wearing masks may be difficult for some, as our “security blanket” will be removed.”

Wearing masks can impact a student’s well-being positively, Kellems said, because they are less likely to contract or spread COVID-19. On the other hand, a student’s well-being can also be negatively impacted if they perceive that wearing a mask is burdensome or embarrassing.

So Kellems gave some tips on how to feel more comfortable with mask mandates. 

“I think it’s important for students who feel distressed about wearing masks to try and understand the cause of that distress, and then to address that cause,” Kellems said. “Talking with friends or family can often be helpful. If the student feels like pandemic-related challenges – including mask wearing – are interfering with their ability to get things done, then they may want to consider talking with someone at CAPS.”

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Wearing masks can help communities slow the spread of COVID-19 when worn consistently and correctly by a majority of people in public settings and when masks are used along with other preventive measures, including social distancing, frequent handwashing, and cleaning and disinfecting.” 

Even if you’ve been vaccinated, the CDC has specific guidelines and urges everyone to “keep taking precautions—like wearing a mask, staying 6 feet apart from others, and avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces—in public places until we know more.” Though our lifestyles have completely changed because of this pandemic, Kellems said returning to campus will also be a huge adjustment for many students.

“This adjustment may include a whole range of emotions, including both excitement and fear,” Kellems said.  “It will be important for students to stay connected to their support systems, create new support systems, and to give themselves lots of grace.”

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