I was talking to my older brother on the phone the other night. We were catching up on the last couple of months of “pandemic life” and something simple he said really struck a chord with me.
“I’m over it,” he said.
Yes! Me too... I feel exhausted from all the things that have taken place since February, and especially since the stay-at-home orders in March. And I could hear the same tone in his voice that I try to keep out of mine. That “I’m-going-to-wear-a-mask-but-I really-don’t-want-to” tone.
Of course, he’s a computer engineer. So if he chooses to leave his house without a mask, it wouldn’t necessarily be seen as a flaw in his character. I am a public health professor. If I ran into anyone I knew in public without a mask on, it would undermine my entire professional AND personal integrity.
And it should! Despite the current controversy, there are very few scientifically legitimate reasons to not wear a mask, especially given the rising cases of COVID-19 that we are seeing in the US since we began re-opening. And, for me, there are very few legitimate reasons even to leave the house. With a history of cancer and other medical “stuff,” it would be tough to argue that I’m low-risk. And my mom, who I live with, is definitely not. The once-a-week curbside grocery pickup and the occasional medical appointment are about all I can justify if I want to keep us safe and healthy.
But, I still don’t want to wear a mask. Or socially distance. Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to anyway. I just don’t want to.
It could be that I’m just a very bad and uncaring person, and that’s why I don’t want to do these things. Certainly the numerous memes and persuasive pleas to view masks as acts of kindness or respect would support that view, but I’m hoping that’s not all there is to it. That point of view, while both true and valuable, fails to account for the unconscious, not-within-our-direct-control, powerful messages our brains send us to NOT wear a mask.
As I discussed in my last post, during this pandemic we have lost many of our daily routines, which drives mental bandwidth demands up, and we have also been immersed in uncertainty, which significantly wastes the bandwidth we have. Given this, I believe my low-bandwidth, highly-reactive “pandemic brain” is the real reason for my reluctance to wear a mask and my annoyance with social distancing.
We are a few months into a pandemic, and our brains want a break.
To get a break, the easiest things to do would be either to go back to our old routines, or to create some certainty. The problem with going back to our old routines is, of course, that many of them are still not possible or useful. And for some of us, they won’t be useful for the foreseeable future. A close friend, who used to commute to work for a fairly standard 40-hour work week, was recently told that she would be working from home “indefinitely.” The commute routine? It’s gone.
Those routines that we could feasibly return to, simply may not be safe during this pandemic. For example, my friend who spent last summer practically living in her mom’s swimming pool with her parents and her young children, is mostly making do with a 10-foot inflatable pool on the deck. Not bad, but not what they were all yearning for… However, with her mom undergoing cancer treatment, it’s the safest option for them right now.
Creating certainty right now is also not really an option for a “brain break.” We are trying. In fact, we are REALLY trying. You don’t have to go far to hear the anxious pleas of parents wanting to know when (or if) their children will go back to school, or to come across someone who is desperately planning a vacation, “just in case.” Hey, I think my brain would be happy if the grocery store hours would just stay consistent! But, in terms of certainty, I don’t think we’ve yet seen the light at the end of the tunnel. So our brains are uncomfortable and bandwidth-exhausted, and longing for a break.
You know what doesn’t feel like a break to our brains? Wearing masks and social-distancing!
In fact, they are quite the opposite of a break—they create more work for our brains because they require building new routines. Staying at least 6 feet away from someone is not what most of us are used to. If you’ve tried to have a “socially-distanced visit” with friends, my guess is that you slowly drifted closer and closer together, as if you couldn’t help it. And wearing a mask—for most Americans, at least—is not a habit. Given that building new habits can take 3-6 months AND use up a lot of bandwidth, these new “healthy” behaviors are merely an additional source of increased bandwidth demands. No wonder our brains don’t want to do them!
Wearing masks and socially distancing can also take away from the things we try to do to refresh our bandwidth. Things that might normally help us relax and enjoy ourselves are suddenly tinged with irritation and discomfort. It’s like spending the day at the amusement park in shoes that hurt your feet. Yes, you have fun—kind of. But you’re also more annoyed and impatient, with a strong desire to ditch those shoes as soon as possible. The problem is, we need our shoes to protect our feet…
Likewise, we need masks and social distancing to protect our lives and our loved ones.
So what do we do? You’re probably not going to like my answer. We push through, and do it anyway. Because the pandemic is not going away soon, and wearing masks and social distancing are what’s going to help to keep all of us as healthy as possible. Here’s the good news—if we keep consistently doing these things, they will become easier for our brains to do. The trick is to be consistent, so the brain gets used to doing them, and they become less bandwidth-demanding. Every time you leave the house, the mask goes on. Around someone not in your household? Put up your imaginary 6-foot force field.
How do we move past those strong brain messages to forget it all and just do what we want? It’s not easy. Our brains can be really loud and persistent. And we can’t control our brain messages, or how much bandwidth it takes to do any particular thing. We can control our actions. That means that we can hear our brain messages, recognize what they are offering, and still choose to do the behavior that serves us best.
Understanding that reluctant brain messages are natural, and do not make us "bad people," can help.
Judging ourselves as “bad” for not wanting to wear a mask or socially-distance is not helpful—it uses up more bandwidth and can make it harder to commit to doing what we know is actually the healthiest choice. Making others feel bad about their reluctance to take these actions also doesn’t help. When other people feel judged, it uses up their bandwidth, and that doesn’t help them make wise choices either. Again, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we just do whatever our brains want. We all still need to be wearing masks and social-distancing. At the same time, we can be compassionate to our poor, exhausted brains by recognizing that taking these actions taxes our bandwidth! We can give ourselves, and others, credit for doing things that are not as easy as they seem.
Wear your mask, and keep your distance. Your brain may not like it at first, but it matters, and you can be proud of doing it.