Face coverings aren’t most people's our favourite thing, even if they are a pretty silk face mask or Liberty print as worn but the Duchess Of Cambridge this week. Not only can they bring on the dreaded mask-induced spots, AKA maskne , they’re also one extra thing to add to the 'keys, purse, glasses, phone' checklist before you dash out of the door.
But there are emotional consequences too. Wearing a mask can make you uneasy, not just because it's a reminder that we're in a global health crisis, but because sometimes it's harder to breathe, to talk and can feel claustrophobic, especially when your glasses fog up as well.
“Some of us may find covering our face very hard, or even impossible to cope with,” says mental health charity Mind, which has set up a dedicated hub on 'mask anxiety, face coverings and mental health' on its website . “For those of us with existing mental health problems, masks may pose extra challenges.”
4 totally normal anxiety reactions to wearing a mask
1. You feel claustrophobic and find it hard to breathe
If you're prone to claustrophobia - you don't like taking lifts or crowded tubes - wearing a mask can make you feel uneasy, explains TV and radio broadcaster, author and life coach Anna Williamson who herself suffers from anxiety. “I have issues with feeling claustrophobic and feeling enclosed, so wearing a mask has definitely taken some getting used to. I've found wearing sunglasses at the same time is a 'no' as it gets even more stuffy.”
Feeling like you can't breathe easily underneath a mask can be a trigger for panic attacks and shortness of breath or hyperventilation. “If you believe your breathing is restricted, your body might read this as a signal that there is danger, leading to the fight or flight response,” says clinical psychologist Dr Lucy Tinning, who specialises in treating anxiety depression and trauma.
2. It reminds you of the virus
The sight of people around you in masks can also be unsettling (although sometimes not as unsettling as people not wearing a mask at all or half-on-half-off). "Masks are a very powerful visual reminder of the virus, " says Lucy. "This might make people feel unsettled and fearful which can be difficult to switch off from when you are wearing the mask and seeing other people in their masks."
3. It makes you self-conscious about the way you look
Wearing a mask changes your own appearance and make you feel more self-conscious especially if you suffer from social anxiety. “Because mask-wearing changes how you look, people with negative feelings about their identity may struggle,” explains Lucy. “This could make you self-conscious and less inclined to go out.”
4. You struggle to make yourself understood
Repeating your coffee order several times is a pretty normal start to the mornings these days as we struggle to communicate with other mask-wearers, especially in shops where there is a Perspex screen to contend with too. We rely on lip-reading and overall facial expressions more than we think, especially in noisy environments or where there is a strong accent in the mix.
“We rely on micro-facial expressions in order to communicate effectively so when we can’t spot a slight turn down in the lips or a mini smile, it’s hard to know if we’re accurately reading someone, " says chartered psychologist Dr Meg Arroll, of wellbeing brand Healthspan .
“Wearing a mask certainly makes communicating with others more challenging,” agrees Lucy. “Our mouths are covered and our voices are muffled so we have to rely on non-verbal communication from hand gestures and eye expressions which might mean mask-wearing is too much to cope with for those with social anxiety.”
7 ways to make a mask day less anxious
1. Remind yourself that you are doing your bit
There are many positives to mask-wearing, primarily knowing you’re doing your bit to protect others. Without a mask, droplets produced during coughing can travel up to 12 feet. With a mask, this distance is reduced to just a few inches, according to the scientific journal Physics of Fluids . “Instead of thinking 'I can’t deal with this mask, I feel awful', which will get you riled up, notice the thought and instead alter it to something gentle and helpful,” advises Lucy. “Think 'I don’t like wearing this but I’m managing it now' and 'I am OK' or 'I don’t like wearing it but it keeps me and others safe and that is a good thing'.”
2. Remember that you can breathe
“Remind yourself that masks are safe,” advises Lucy. “They allow for good airflow and there are no significant changes in oxygen or carbon dioxide levels. Before you put your mask on, get some fresh air outside and do something that you know relaxes you.”
3. Reduce the times where you need a mask
“Plan your day-to-day activities so you can reduce mask-wearing as much as possible,” advises Anna. “Think about places you’re going to regularly and consider changing some habits, such as doing your shopping online rather than going to the supermarket where a mask is essential.”
If you do want to go to the supermarket skip browsing and efficiently go through your shopping list, suggests Lucy. “Don’t hurry as this might get you hot and bothered under your mask. Calmly get what you need and leave and if you’d rather run errands in two short trips rather than one long one, plan accordingly to minimise time spent in your mask.”
If you take public transport you could consider factoring in time to walk some of the way or travel at a less busy time.
4. Phone and friend and make your mask smell nice
If the visual reminder of the pandemic distresses you when you are around other mask wearers, distraction is a great technique to lessen anxiety. Call a friend while you’re doing your shopping to keep your mind off the situation and hear a friendly voice, advises Lucy.
“Don’t focus on other people's faces if it's distressing, look around other non-human things in the environment, trees, buildings, shops, notice colours and smells,” she says. Slow breathing will help too. A few drops of soothing essential oils or a favourite comforting fragrance inside your mask could be calming to breathe in too, she says. If you have sensitive skin, stick to applying to the parts of your maks that don't directly touch your face.
5. Wear your mask at home
This sounds like madness if you hate wearing your face covering, but doing a dry run at home and building up your mask tolerance is something the experts say works. wearing it at home will help you get used to how it feels. “It might also be helpful to de-sensitise yourself to your mask, wearing it at home for short periods for example, and building up the time you can tolerate it for, " says Lucy.
6. Choose a mask you like
Sterile-looking medical-type masks can trigger anxious feelings, so a pretty mask could help, one that feels good on your skin and with a pattern that makes you happy can make the whole experience more comfortable (check out our edit of the best silk face masks to find one you’re happier to wear).
7. Stop calling it a face mask
Calling it a face-covering instead is helpful, as Meg points out: “When we refer to masks as face coverings, we let go of the either medical or for some, dodgy connotations of a mask. Face coverings are fast becoming part of our appearance and how we signal our identity to the world, so by shifting our mindset to how we can make this an expression of ourselves and creativity, we can dampen down anxious feelings.”