Masks off… Stress response!

Tomorrow mask mandates will end in many places in Ontario, which means that wearing masks at school will become optional for a lot of kiddos.

Regardless of individual choices about wearing masks, we will all start to see more people in public spaces without masks on.

This is a HUGE CHANGE! And I’ve been thinking about how activating it might be for many people.

Here are a few things I’m keeping in mind as I head into this week:

💗 For the past two years, we have been told, and have repeatedly taught kids, that “mask on = safe” and “no mask = not safe.”

This is a very powerful association in our brains. It makes total sense that the idea of removing masks may activate our stress response (i.e. fight, flight or freeze!).

Our stress response jumps into action when our amygdala thinks we’re in danger. And removing something that is meant to keep us safe can really feel like danger! This might happen on a subconscious, nervous system level. So we might not be AWARE that we’re feeling scared or that we’re having a stress response, even though we are.

💗 Even if we don’t feel scared seeing faces without masks, we might feel overwhelmed.

Our brains are wonderfully adaptable. Over the past two years, our brains have learned how to communicate, read interpersonal cues, and interact with faces wearing masks.

For some kids, they may never have seen their teacher’s face in real life without a mask. They may never have had a conversation with some of their classmates without wearing a mask. This is NEW.

Seeing someone’s whole face means that we are receiving way more data during the interaction. And this might feel overwhelming from a sensory and information processing perspective.

When we feel overwhelmed, our amygdala sometimes interprets this as a threat. So this is another reason why we might have a stress response!

assorted cloth facemasks drying on outdoor clothesline
Photo by Jacek Poblocki

💗 When our stress response becomes activated, we lose access to our logical problem solving skills.

We tend to have big reactions to things. We struggle to use our words. You know, tantrums, meltdowns, crying, pushing, throwing… and this doesn’t just happen for kids. 😉

💗 When interacting with kids (or adults) who are in their stress response, the most helpful thing we can do is to model regulation and share our calm.

We can take deep breaths in their presence. We can use a calm but confident tone. We can offer a reassuring hug. We can adjust our expectations, understanding that logic and reason won’t land until the other person’s nervous system feels safe and calm again.

I’m heading into this week feeling a little bit activated out of anticipation! I’m not sure how my amygdala and my nervous system are going to respond. But that’s okay. I know they’re always doing their best to try and keep me safe. And I know that we can navigate this new phase just as we have throughout the pandemic: taking it one breath at a time, with compassion for ourselves and others. 💗

I’ll be thinking of you this week! 

~ Rubi 

P.S. Just a reminder that masks continue to be required in healthcare settings in Ontario, so this means that masks are still required for any in-person appointments at my office at Shift Family Health Centre. We will continue with masks and COVID screenings as we have been, with no change, until further notice.