In the midst of a global pandemic, a study from Texas A&M University revealed that more than one in five Americans consider themselves anti-vaxxers and tend to embrace the term as not just a stance, but a social identity. The findings, both surprising and concerning, “demonstrates the scope of the challenge in vaccinating the population against COVID-19 and other vaccine-preventable diseases,” says Texas A&M researcher and associate professor Timothy Callaghan.
On a grand societal scale, anti-vaxxers pose a tremendous public health risk, using fear-mongering tactics to perpetuate misinformation amid the lingering Covid-19 pandemic, jeopardizing efforts to get the health crises under control and, in some parts of the country, overwhelming hospitals.
But, on a personal level, the refusal of others to get vaccinated — and deeming it a part of their social identity, one that’s not likely to be altered by traditional health messaging — can induce anger, frustration and anxiety among those who have been judiciously following public health guidelines for the better part of a year and a half. Children who are not yet eligible for the vaccine remain susceptible. Large-scale social gatherings and a myriad of businesses have been stuck in purgatory for a year and a half. And, hospitals that were crushed with Covid cases at the height of the surges have had to ration care.
So how can you channel your ire so it doesn’t harden into resentment and cause continued emotional distress?
“Understand you can’t control others, however, you can learn to cope with the frustration the interactions bring up,” says Sue English, MSW, LCSW, CADC, a therapist in Naperville. Grounding techniques like four-square breathing, redirection of thoughts or meditative practices can help regain a sense of emotional control, she says.
Here, therapists and medical experts share their best advice for dealing with anger (which can also be masking other feelings, like vulnerability and fear) towards anti-vaxxers and lend tips for interacting with those who are vaccine hesitant.
1. Set boundaries with unvaccinated family and friends
With the holiday season around the corner, and family gatherings coming up, you may find yourself needing to set boundaries with those who are not vaccinated.
If you’re inviting family or friends over for the holidays, provide safety instructions and vaccine requirements on the invitations or evites, says Nancy Paloma Collins, LMFT, a California-based Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.
If you need a script, you can say the following: “We are choosing as a family to only do fully vaccinated gatherings. Until everyone is able to meet these requirements, we’ll have to celebrate from afar. Thank you for your understanding!” suggests therapist Dr. Lauren Cook, PsyD.
“This keeps the message friendly yet firm,” Cook says. “You don’t want to stoke a fire that will lead to volatility. Instead, politely share your boundaries. Others will learn that they need to respect it if they want to spend time with you.”
2. Have self-compassion
Many of us are taught that we need to be “kind” and “accepting” — which is a lot different than being respectful of boundaries and needs, explains Alison Gomez, a LMFT based in California.
“So allow yourself to be angry and frustrated while also not feeding fuel to the fire,” she suggests. “This means focusing on the facts and staying away from judging. As an example: ‘I’m mad that they aren’t taking the vaccine and putting others at risk’ vs. ‘They’re stupid!’”
While you can go down that rabbit hole of judgement, it makes the feeling more intense and doesn’t actually help you move through it, she says.
“Anger is toxic when you sit in it and let it lead to resentment,” Gomez says. “So instead of making the anger go away while we’re still in a pandemic, the focus should be: What do I want to do with my anger?”
Here are some prompts to think about, according to Gomez:
- Do you want to make change or do you need to validate yourself?
- If you want to make change, where do you have power? Maybe it’s donating money to a health organization or perhaps it’s through writing.
- If it’s validation, who can you go to to connect?
3. Protect your peace
As human beings, our most primitive and instinctual goal is to survive and stay alive, says William Chum, LMHC, a licensed psychotherapist in New York. This can mean different things for different people.
“For many, this means trusting experts in the scientific field, understanding the federal regulations and ethics of nonmaleficence that society has entrusted for centuries,” Chum says. “For others, this means strongly questioning, rejecting, and distrusting others to make recommendations in their best interest. For those who have decided to trust the scientific research that has guided most public health decisions effectively, it can feel extremely frustrating to realize the consequences of those who ‘have their own thoughts and will do their own research.’”
Although it can be so frustrating, it is important to remember that we do not have control over anyone else’s decisions but our own, and then to find and protect the peace of knowing you are doing what feels most appropriate to your own health even if others are not, Chum says.
“Recognizing our own emotions and anxieties means making decisions that serve us rather than hurt us, and sometimes that will mean choosing not to engage in certain conversations that will not serve us,” Chum says.
He encourages individuals to redirect the energy on things that they actually do have control over, practicing self-care, meeting their basic needs, and finding their own versions of peace and safety.
4. Ask thoughtful questions
Edie Weinstein, a licensed social worker and psychotherapist based in the Philadelphia area, suggests doing your best to listen to the objections of those in your life who are anti-vax and get a sense of what is behind their rationale.
“Emotions play a role where facts may not,” she says. “I ask how they would feel if someone they loved got ill or died. I ask how they would feel it they were the ones in peril. I acknowledge their frustration at mask mandates, vaccinations and lock downs. I ask how they imagine this will all end.”
Weinstein says she also reminds people that the virus doesn’t care who you voted for or the political party in which you identify.
5. Listen to where vaccine-hesitant people are coming from
This may surprise you, but hear out the concerns of those who are vaccine-hesitant, Cook suggests.
“If you show that you are genuinely curious in understanding where they’re coming from, you’re much more likely to have an open conversation where a change in opinion can actually happen,” she says.
On the flip side, Cook says, when people feel attacked or accused, they tend to shut down, get defensive, or even lie.
“Even though it may feel uncomfortable for you, lean into the conversation to hear their perspective,” she says. This may help in gaining traction to encourage them to consider other perspectives, Cook says.
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Brittany Anas is a freelance writer who specializes in health, fitness, and travel writing. She also contributes to Men’s Journal, Women’s Health, Trip Savvy, Simplemost, Orbitz, and Eat This, Not That! She spent a decade working at daily newspapers, including The Denver Post and the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado, and she is a former federal background investigator. In her free time, Brittany enjoys hiking with her gremlin-pot belly pig mix that the rescue described as a “Boston Terrier” and coaching youth basketball. She also works with domestic abuse survivors, helping them regain financial stability through career coaching. Follower her on Twitter and Instagram.