Why Face Masks Can Trigger Unpleasant Emotions
Acquiring tools to manage mask anxiety can help you.
Posted May 13, 2020
Many of you may be experiencing strong feelings of being upset, sad, anxious, or irritated when wearing or seeing others wearing a face mask. However, you may not be able to put your finger on exactly why you feel these intense emotions.
There are many reasons why you might feel this way. Traumatic memories may be connected to face masks, and there is also the lack of social cues via facial expressions—any and all of which can cause us to go into fight, flight, or freeze survival mode, depending on our own individual trauma history.
Identifying what is causing your reactions and learning how to calm them down can help you to move through these challenging times of COVID-19 a little more easily.
When I called my mother for Mother’s Day, I was reminded how face masks can prompt memories of a traumatic time, even if it was many years ago. My mother immediately mentioned how sad she becomes when going to the store these days and seeing others wearing masks. Everyone knows that it is a requirement under the present circumstances and the importance of it, yet that does not alleviate our reactions.
My mother, who lives in Germany, mentioned that the masks remind her of the time when she was a little girl. Growing up after World War II in 1945, she recalled having to wear a face mask due to the debris and toxins in the air that remained from the fires and bombings. She expressed to me: “I thought I was done with my childhood and was surprised to have memories from so long ago.” It was with great grief that she recalled these times, but suddenly many additional childhood memories appeared in the following days as well.
Her story helped me realize why I am stricken with sadness wearing a mask. In the last few years, we had serious fires in California near where I live. They were so large that ashes covered my car and it was hard to breathe. Every day, I was worried if my house would be burned down when I came home after work, or that I would have to evacuate. Although that never became a reality for me, for many people nearby it did. Fortunately, I was not harmed, but the memory of the threat of being harmed gets triggered every time I pull the mask over my face.
Many traumatic memories can be linked to face masks. For example, people are sometimes robbed or assaulted by someone with a mask, or perhaps they endured medical procedures such as cancer treatments or developed a virus that required others to wear face masks around them. There are many more such incidents.
When we are reminded of a traumatic experience, we suddenly are thrown back in time, which can trigger emotions and even the re-experiencing of symptoms that accompanied the original incident. This is because “subconsciously (but not randomly), a connection or association has been made between the present and a dangerous situation of the past” (Babbel).
But even if you have never experienced major trauma, the sight of a face mask can be unsettling. Face masks can make you feel uncomfortable for many reasons, such as when you are claustrophobic, you feel your freedom is taken away, you fear getting sick or making someone sick, there is confusion about whether you should wear one or not, it reminds you that things are not normal, and more.
My client Elisa felt uneasy with the sight of others wearing masks and complained, “I can’t read facial expressions and it makes me anxious.” Stephen Porges (2011), a professor of psychiatry, observes that we need cues about others such as facial expressions, tone of voice, and body posture to appraise whether or not a person is safe. As trauma specialist Bessel van der Kolk points out, “To survive and thrive, we must be able to distinguish friend from foe, know when a situation is safe or dangerous … and without it, we are prone to misinterpret safety as a threat” (Porges, 2011, p. xiv). Facial expressions of others help us to calm our nervous system, but if we don’t receive those signals, we might go into survival mode.
Whenever you are “triggered” by trauma, your nervous system goes into fight, flight, or freeze mode. Because your nervous system does not listen to logical reasoning, you need to engage your sensations to calm it down and to reduce your stress response. Relaxation techniques such as breathing in and out deeply, listening to soothing or inspiring music on headphones, or smelling a beautiful scent (put a drop or two of soothing essential oil on your mask such as lavender) while wearing a face mask can be helpful to keep you calm. Engaging your facial muscles — such as by chewing gum, humming, or singing — activates the vagus nerve with its function of taming your stressed nervous system (Babbel, 2018).
If you try to be curious about what is causing your reactions, become aware of your feelings and name them, realize they are normal, and use supportive and compassionate self-talk along with tools to calm down your nervous system, you might feel very different the next time you are exposed to face masks or must deal with stressful situations. But most of all, being kind to yourself and each other can make us all feel safer in a world that feels so unsafe and unpredictable right now.
Ideally, learning that it is common to experience anxiety around wearing or seeing others wear face masks, and acquiring a few tools to manage “mask anxiety,” will give you reassurance and strength to cope more easily during this time of COVID-19.
Babbel, S. 2018. Heal the Body. Heal the Mind. A Somatic Approach to Moving Beyond Trauma. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Porges, S. 2011. The Polyvagal Theory. Neurophysiological Foundation of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, Self-Regulation. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.