Clinicians, MASK Up for Better Mental Health

Anxiety and burnout are real challenges. The MASK strategy can help mitigate them

February 6, 2021

It seems as if things have changed drastically and at warp speed over the last few years. Work lives, personal lives, parenting, careers—pandemic or not, everyone has had to change their approach to managing their lives. Many changes have been abrupt, inducing anxiety and stress along the way.

Add in the ongoing, often unpredictable pandemic, as well as other global tensions, and we’ve all felt increased isolation, anxiety, and depression. What helps to respond to these real emotions?

It’s important to accept the challenges you face in your current situations and find ways to help minimize your anxieties. Each of us deals with these emotions and situations in our unique ways and have individual stresses compounding our responses.

“Acknowledge that this is a challenging time,” said Eliza Menninger, MD, medical director of the Behavioral Health Partial Hospital Program at McLean Hospital. “We, as clinicians, have to use different ways to manage than in the past,” she said.

Menninger suggested that health care providers use the MASK strategy to help cope with what is being experienced currently—and what may come your way.

M: Make Boundaries

It is important, especially if you are working remotely, to set up distinct boundaries between home and work—both physically and mentally.

In the past, if you had to commute to work, you would have time between the two to process and separate your day from “work” and “home.” Now, you can literally roll out of bed and start your day.

“That results in a blurring between home and work, leaving you to feel that there is no distinction between the two and can lead to exhaustion and difficulty being productive in either arena,” explained Menninger. What’s one way to set up a boundary between the two environments? “Act like you are going to work,” said Menninger.

While it may seem silly to get up and get ready for work as you would if you had to leave the house—like changing out of pajamas and showering—it’s effective in creating those boundaries.

Woman clinician wearing mask, holding spiral notebook
The MASK strategy can help people, especially health care professionals, cope with challenging events and experiences

Create a space just to do your work, if possible, in a separate area of the house, so at the end of the day, you can “leave work” by shutting the door.

“When you try to be in two places at the same time, you will feel that you are not doing either well,” said Menninger. “The more you can reinforce separation between work and home, then it helps you function better. You’ll be less fatigued and more productive.”

If you are still going into your place of work, take time to seek solace in small parts of your day. Something small, like taking five minutes to meditate in your car before walking into the building, can make a difference in terms of your mental health. If weather permits, take a walk outside on a mealtime break. You can also set your commute as a “no-work zone” and use that time to listen to audiobooks or podcasts, enjoy a coffee, or relish in the silence.

A: Avoid “Pandemic Fatigue”

Despite being well into a pandemic and knowing how to prevent the spread of germs, it’s easy to feel fatigued and less vigilant as when we first started hunkering down. Small habits lead to big results—and keeping you safer and healthier.

“Even if we’re vaccinated, we still need to wear masks when in public, keep physically distant, and sanitize your hands whenever you have been out in public,” said Menninger.

Even if you feel fatigued by masks, sanitizers, and more, incorporating these into your daily routine can be helpful. By adding in small—and not overwhelming—habits, you can protect yourself and your loved ones.

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S: Stay Connected (to Others and Yourself)

“Staying connected is different from connecting,” explained Menninger. There are so many challenges with connecting through technology, including issues with the internet, devices, and privacy. With many folks working remotely, there are increasing challenges with sufficient connectivity to jobsites. Add in kids learning digitally as well, and it can lead to slower connections, dropped calls, and frozen webinars.

More importantly than being connected digitally is feeling connected to others. “Feeling a sense of belonging, and not isolated, is more important now than having reliable internet,” said Menninger. Even though more is happening virtually, we need to find ways to create an authentic connection.

Perhaps it is through routine contact with your family, going to online services through your religious affiliation, or maybe it is a physically distant connection with a friend or relative, but there are ways to feel emotionally fulfilled even when we’re apart. “I have learned to take breaks from virtual meetings and get outside to both remind myself of the bigger world and to have exercise,” said Menninger.

Menninger suggested making an effort to “see” people you care about and who care about you. “We are all in this together,” she said. “I have had more meaningful conversations with my family during this time than ever before.”

But How Do I Connect With Myself?

When connecting with others, it’s also important to stay connected with yourself. Take the time for self-care. This means focusing on a routine that includes healthy eating, sleeping, and exercise habits.

Connectivity can lead to fatigue. Many have complained about multiple Zoom meetings, feeling tethered to their devices, or working longer days as a result of the pandemic. This constant need to feel like we’re keeping up can be exhausting, especially if we are caring for others too.

“Value yourself enough to be supportive rather than critical of yourself,” Menninger urged. “We are all primed to focus on the negative and how we are failing.” Instead of focusing on what we aren’t doing well, or what we’re missing out on, we need to remind ourselves that we are all doing the best we can in difficult moments.

“Even if you start by improving one thing, that’s enough,” Menninger said. “It is about building on the positive and knowing you are trying. Life is about the journey, not the destination.”

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K: Keep the Faith

“My father used to say this when we were kids!” remarked Menninger. While times may seem bleak, she encouraged us to remember we will get past this. Not only do we have a vaccine but also various treatments that are leaps and bounds from what we’ve previously encountered.

Menninger’s rules of staying positive are easy to remember. “Have hope, maintain a sense of humor, and be patient,” she said. “Developing new routines is hard, but we have done this before. If you remember when seatbelts were mandated, you’ll remember that while it took time, we now do it as a habit. Even better, it feels weird if you don’t wear one. What was once uncomfortable is now a matter of life.”

While we are creatures of habit, we are amazingly resilient. Despite that, it’s important to realize the emotions we are experiencing right now are real. We are all in this together and need to be kind to ourselves and those around us.

“Take the time to be present in the moment, to be engaged with what you are doing, focus on what you can control, and be the kind of person you want to be to yourself and those around you,” encouraged Menninger.

Together, We’ll Get Through This

It’s easy to feel alone in the obstacles we’re facing. After all, we have spent a lot of time apart from one another during the pandemic.

If these circumstances feel too overwhelming, they can be made more bearable by using the MASK strategy:

  • Make boundaries
  • Avoid pandemic fatigue
  • Stay connected
  • Keep the faith

“The Kansas state motto, ‘Ad Astra per Aspera,’ means ‘to the stars through difficulty,’” said Menninger. “Together, we will reach the stars.”