December 4, 2021

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If people not wearing masks and walking too close is driving you crazy, here’s how to keep the focus on yourself

Is your anxiety around COVID-19 getting amped up by people who flout social distancing rules? Here's how to keep it in check. (Photo: Getty Images)
Is your anxiety around COVID-19 getting amped up by people who flout social distancing rules? Here’s how to keep it in check. (Photo: Getty Images)

Whether it’s fear of getting sick or losing a loved one, anxiety over finances or just being stuck at home, the coronavirus pandemic has upped stress levels on many fronts. And now, as some states move to partially reopen and citizens continue to receive mixed signals over mask-wearing and social distancing and sheltering-in-place best practices, folks are finding they’ve got a new worry to add to the list: other people’s behavior.  

“Maybe you’re a rule follower, or maybe you’ve done lots of research, whereas others are questioning or reacting to the safety measures,” explains Dr. Lynn Bufka, a psychologist with expertise in anxiety, and the American Psychological Association’s senior director for practice, research and policy. “So, you’ve got this mix here in a society that really values individual decision making. That’s the setup.”

Part of the challenge, she tells Yahoo Life, is that we’re receiving inconsistent information from federal, state and local leaders about what the expectations are, so we’re all left to try to figure it out our own. “There’s a degree of uncertainty and confusion and frustration,” she says, and people have different ideas about how they should proceed, based on what most concerns or motivates them.

“Some are feeling threatened by the virus and others are scared by the economics. [Either way], we’re already emotionally aroused — so you’re set up for things to not go so well when you see people doing things that are inconsistent with how you understand them.”

That’s led to reports of all sorts of conflicts, whether it’s vigilantes publicly shaming or even reporting neighbors to authorities for hosting social gatherings, or people yelling in the faces of those who don’t wear masks or stand or walk or run too close for comfort.  

It’s times like these, suggests Bufka, in which we’ve got to focus on the one thing that we actually have control over. “Our own behavior and our own responses,” although, she admits, “That’s easier said than done.” Here are some ways to give it a try.

Related Video: Nurses Make See-Through Face Masks For Deaf Father

Put yourself in others’ shoes

If you start to feel worked up over seeing people out and about without masks, Bufka suggests, think, “Do they not have a mask? Do they not understand the expectations? How can I, if not feel empathy, at least understand what position the other person is in?”

People are also all bringing to this crisis their own set of baggage and priorities. “If you’re from New York, you know what coronavirus does,” she says, while someone living in a sparsely populated area with fewer cases may be more concerned about the survival of their small business than focusing on social distancing. “Between the president’s messaging, people being financially desperate and others freaked out about their health, there are so many competing things happening,” she says. “So, we’re all weighing the risks differently.”

Turn your anger into something effective

This, says Dr. Jen Hartstein, psychologist and Yahoo Life Mental Health Contributor, usually means asking for what you want. “And you have to be prepared to not get it. Then, you get to decide how you want to handle that… Asking effectively may get you what you want and provide some education to the other person, too.” Further, she says, be careful how you ask.

“If we do it out of anger, we generally don’t get what we want and can, oftentimes, create more problems,” she notes. “So, take a deep breath and focus your thoughts as to what you want and then ask the person, as kindly as possible, for what you want: ‘Hey, there’s not a lot of space here, please step back’. Or, ‘please put on a mask if you have one, that protects us all.’ You may not get what you want from the other person, but at least you have tried.” 

Here's how to talk yourself down when you see people not wearing masks out in public. (Photo: Getty Images)
Here’s how to talk yourself down when you see people not wearing masks out in public. (Photo: Getty Images)

Bufka also suggests really trying to differentiate between the times when you need to act in the moment and when there might be a better, more effective response, such as taking your concerns to a public official or the local newspaper. “We’re going to run into a lot of conflict if we try to physically intervene because there’s so much conflict in the information we’ve received,” she says. “It also may not get us the change we want, and may actually make the situation more uncomfortable or difficult.”

Keep the focus on yourself

When you see a behavior that rubs you the wrong way, Bufka suggests, “We have to try to remind ourselves, ‘I can’t control that, it’s not my specific concern/issue/requirement to change the situation,’ and also tell ourselves… ‘It’s that person’s decision and they will have to contend with consequences, and I have to let that go. These are things that are not part of my domain.’ Sort of actively saying things like that can be helpful.”

Still, focusing only on you “is always a challenge,” admits Hartstein. “Emotions, for many of us, are hard to manage. We also expect others to act the ‘right way,’ which, sadly, is a recipe for disaster. We spend a lot of energy focused on others and what they are doing rather than ourselves.” It’s important to be mindful of that, she explains, and to allow yourself to really experience emotions, and notice how they impact your behavior. “Do a little reflection about how you want to manage them and what will be more helpful to you,” she suggests. “And, remind yourself that you only have control over one person: yourself. 

If you’re the one being called out, take a step back

“Anytime I feel criticized, I know that responding with attack is unlikely to improve the situation,” says Bufka. “Hold your ground, absolutely. But if somebody’s criticizing your behavior, it’s always worth stepping back when you’re calmer and thinking, is there any truth in this? Is there something I’m not getting here?” At the moment, she advises, you can either ignore the critic or “you can say, ‘please don’t speak to me with that tone of voice,’ and try to deescalate the attack piece of it… We’re all trying to figure out is what is the right solution. This is a brand-new situation.”

Adds Hartstein, “We all flout rules at different times. If someone gives you some feedback, hear them out and then decide if you want to change your behavior. Just like no one has to take your request and follow it, you don’t have to take others’. Just remember that it can impact relationships. Pick your battles. If it really matters to someone you care about, consider doing what works to keep your relationship healthy.”

Social distancing is a part of our everyday lives. The below experience allows you to place art in the space between. Place the image in front of you and move it around to line up with your loved one.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

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