Face coverings and anxiety

Currently the government requires us to wear a face mask or face covering in many public places to help to reduce the spread of Coronavirus. But for some people, wearing – or seeing – masks and face coverings can cause a range of difficult and overwhelming negative emotions. Some of us may find covering our face very hard or even impossible to cope with. Face coverings can sometimes ‘trigger’ uncomfortable feelings.

A trigger is something that causes us to remember memories – and we all experience them. Triggers can help us to feel happy, for example positive memories such as smelling freshly-baked bread in the kitchen or a special time spent with a grandparent. However, triggers can also remind us of memories when we were anxious, distressed or frightened.

Triggers can be all sorts of things but at the moment, having to wear a face mask (or seeing others wearing a face covering) can produce very uncomfortable emotional symptoms for some people, such as anxiety, panic, discouragement, despair or fear. Often a trigger is linked to a sensory experience ie, something that you can smell, touch, see, taste or hear.

A triggered traumatic memory can cause a person to feel overwhelming sadness, anxiety or panic, and may cause some people to experience flashbacks. A flashback is a vivid, often-negative memory that may appear without warning. It can cause someone to lose track of their surroundings and ‘relive’ a traumatic event, even though the events are not in present time – they just feel like they are.

During a traumatic event, the brain often merges sensory stimuli (smells, sounds, tastes, feelings, sights) into our memory. Even when a person encounters the same stimuli in another context, they associate the triggers with the trauma. In some cases, a sensory trigger can cause an emotional reaction before a person realizes why they are upset.

Due to the unprecedented pandemic, we are in a situation where the majority of the population is having to wear face coverings, and have their mouths covered in public places. For many individuals, this is stimulating past events including crime in their lives, which may cause them to have extreme feelings (as if the events were still happening to them now).

Being triggered can be linked to a range of memories, from playing with your sibling who put their hand over your mouth in a rough and tumble game, to experiences of domestic violence, rape and sexual violence, ritual sexual violence, physical assault, abduction and other crimes.

It can relate to people who’ve experienced crimes in which the person was gagged, and/or forced to wear something over their mouth or nose, or if they observed a perpetrator in a mask.

Because triggers are linked to our senses, it’s not only the face coverings themselves that stimulate our feelings but the sensations or feelings that existed in our bodies through having our mouths covered, having a bag or other covering over the head, being forced to wear a gag, suffocation, lack of ability to breathe etc.

Physical sensations that you might experience from having your mouth and nose covered may include:

  • feeling an inability to breathe, which might lead to feeling anxious or panicky. This can cause other symptoms such as feeling dizzy or sick, which you might associate with the mask
  • feeling anxious, trapped or claustrophobic, which might result in an increased heart rate
  • feeling acutely sensitive to the feel, smell or touch of things. Having certain materials touching your skin might remind you of an abusive situation or abuser and produce emotions that feel very hard to cope with, which may cause a range of emotional and/or physical distress responses.

Often wearing, or seeing other people wearing, face coverings has an influence on how safe we feel in the world, as:

  • face coverings are a visual reminder of the existence of Coronavirus. Seeing face coverings may make you feel on edge or unable to relax, as it might seem like danger is everywhere. Try to keep in perspective the need for the wearing of masks: rather than seeing it as a reminder of something that is fearful, try to see the wearing of a mask in a positive way – for example, contributing to the health of our communities, or supporting our health professionals.
  • seeing people covering their faces might make you feel uneasy or scared of others – they might seem threatening, sinister, or dehumanised. If you are aware that you have been triggered, it’s important to remember that uncomfortable feelings are in the past, not the present.
  • if you feel anxious or upset around people who are not wearing face coverings in public, it’s important to remember that many people are exempt from wearing them, and you won’t always know their reasons.
  • if you are exempt from wearing a face covering, you might feel anxious about being judged, shamed or stigmatised in public. This may feel especially hard to cope with, if the reason you can’t wear a face covering is also to do with your mental health. Remember, there’s a wide range of reasons why people are exempt from wearing masks, and they don’t know what your reason might be.

The effects of cruelty, abuse and crime can stay with us for a long time. Memories are always in the past, and even though the effects of a crime seem real and in the present moment, we’re not suffering ‘in the moment’ from the crime, but experiencing thoughts and feelings about it. Having this realisation often helps us to feel less overwhelmed by our feelings and more in control of them.

Everyone has both helpful and unhelpful triggers, and all of us feel insecure about something at different times of our lives. If you are experiencing anxiety about wearing or seeing face coverings, there’s nothing to feel ashamed of.

Here are some approaches that may help you to deal with your anxiety:

  1. Become aware of signs in your body, such as changes in your breathing, so that you can learn how to calm yourself down. Empower yourself by preparing to cope with triggers.
  2. You could try the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique — a simple, effective method for regaining control of your mind when anxiety threatens to take over. The exercise uses the five senses – sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste – to help bring you back to the present:
  • identify five things you can see
  • identify four things you can hear
  • identify three things you can feel
  • identify two things you can smell
  • identify one thing you can taste.

3. Try an activity to calm your mind. When we’re in the grip of our anxious feelings, it can feel like there is little we can do to help ourselves to get out of feeling helpless and scared. You could try an activity to help shift your focus to the present moment, and away from what is causing you to feel anxious.

Example activities that might work for you:

  • Going for a walk
  • Gentle exercise such as swimming, running or cycling
  • Cooking or baking
  • Listening to your favourite music
  • Watching or playing your favourite sport
  • Deep breathing, meditating or practicing mindfulness
  • Writing in a journal.

Sometimes it’s reasonable to try to avoid triggering situations. But if avoiding possible triggers starts to affect your everyday life, please seek further help.

Learning to cope with triggers that you can’t anticipate or avoid requires emotional support. You are not alone. Victim Support offers a range of support options to help victims of crime who are experiencing anxiety with face coverings and masks.

If your mental health is suffering as a result of wearing a face covering, you may be exempt from having to wear one, if you have a ‘reasonable excuse’ not to.

The exact guidance on how this applies to mental health conditions is written differently for England and Wales, and it’s being updated often, but in practice the meaning is similar. In both nations, ‘reasonable excuses’ to do with mental health include:

  • If you’re not able to put on, wear or remove a mask/ face covering, because of a physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability
  • If it’s essential to eat, drink or take medication
  • If putting on, wearing or removing a mask/face covering will cause you severe distress.

Some people may feel more comfortable showing something that says they don’t have to wear a face covering. This could be in the form of an exemption card, badge or homemade sign.

This is a personal choice and is not necessary in law. You can access exemption card templates and the full list of exemptions on the UK Government website, and the Welsh Government website.

You might not ever feel comfortable with masks. But there are a number of things you could try to help make the experience easier for you:

  • Get some fresh air outside before and after you wear your mask
  • Do something to relax you before and after you wear a mask. For example, you could try a short breathing exercise
  • Choose a face covering that hangs down your neck, rather than fitting around your jaw. This type of covering is called a ‘neck gaiter’
  • Experiment with different fabric types. You could try making a face covering from an old t-shirt that doesn’t bother you to touch. You can search for mask-making tutorials online. The Government also has some information on how to make your own mask
  • Experiment with different ways to secure your mask. Some fit round the ears, some tie behind your head. You could try attaching buttons to a hat or hairband.

These tips might help a little, but if you need further practical support please contact us anytime.

If you’ve experienced a crime and have anxiety with face coverings and masks, we can offer you a range of free and confidential support options.

You can get in touch by:

Alternatively you can create a free account on My Support Space – an online resource containing interactive guides (including a guide on coping strategies) to help you manage the impact that crime has had on you.

If English is not your first language and you would like some support, call our Supportline and let us know which language you speak, and we will call you back with an interpreter as soon as possible. We also welcome calls via Relay UK on 18001 08 08 16 89 111.

My Support Space – Victim Support’s online resource containing an interactive guide on coping strategies
Gov.uk advice on face coverings, including exemptions (England)
Welsh government guidance on face coverings, and exemptions (Wales)
National Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0808 2000 247
Men’s Advice Line: 0808 801 0327 or email: info@mensadviceline.org.uk
National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0300 999 5428 or email: help@galop.org.uk
Childline: 0800 1111