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Face coverings and anxiety

Woman wearing floral face mask

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.

What are triggers?

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). 

Why is a face covering or mask affecting me?

Issues with face coverings

Techniques to help with anxiety about face coverings

Practical tips for coping with masks and face coverings

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