COVID has become an extremely emotional, political and contentious issue within our community.
Yet, regardless of the wildly differing views surrounding COVID laws, science and politics, we must all agree on one thing – no-one’s health should be at risk (physical or mental).
Some people view COVID protocols (such as social distancing and mask wearing) as an integral part of stopping the spread throughout our community, without question or hesitation.
Yet, others find these protocols challenging, for a variety of reasons. They may object morally or ideologically, cite legal grounds, have issues with authority, dislike feeling controlled, feel their personal rights have been violated, be suspicious of political motivations or question the science behind these protocols.
For another group again, mask wearing (in particular) can exacerbate certain physical and/or mental illness/es and create genuine distress.
This includes both people who experience distress when covering their own face and people who struggle with other people wearing face masks (or not wearing them).
Some psychological challenges may include:
Anxiety, Claustrophobia and PTSD
Placing a covering over your mouth and nose can affect your breathing. Whether you suffer from breathing difficulties (such as with asthma) or not, this can create anxiety and induce feelings of claustrophobia. This can result in symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath and feelings of panic.
Tip: Practice deep breathing. Try meditation, breath work or mindfulness apps to help with this. Put your earphones in and listen to these apps in public or phone a friend to distract yourself.
Add a comforting scent to your mask. This can be a calming essential oil such as lavender, or a fragrance that reminds you of something or someone that calms you.
Take regular breaks in the fresh air where you are not required to wear a mask. Go for a walk or run along the beach or in your local park. This is also a great chance to reconnect with the grounding influence of nature.
Note: If your doctor recommends you do not wear a mask due to breathing issues, please follow their advice. Quality breathing is more important than anything else.
If you have previously experienced a traumatic event where you have had your mouth covered (e.g. during an assault), this may also trigger any underlying PTSD.
Tip: See your GP and ask for an exemption letter. The benefits of wearing a mask may not outweigh the serious side affects of PTSD. If anyone questions you, simply show them the letter – they require no further explanation or details. (Your condition does not need to be detailed in the letter.)
Similarly, if you have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as an armed robbery, seeing other people with their faces covered could also trigger your PTSD.
Tip: Avoid looking at people’s faces. Instead, stand or sit on an angle to or side by side with them. Focus on the things around you. What can you see, hear, smell and touch? This will help to ground you in the present and not flash back to the past.
Not being able to read people’s faces, expressions and smiles, which might normally deescalate your fight or flight response, can actually add to any feelings of ‘threat’.
Tip: Look at the person’s eyes and body language – you will still be able to see their smile and determine that they pose no threat. Listen carefully to the tone of their voice – this may help to calm you. If not, excuse yourself from the conversation as you normally would when someone makes you uncomfortable.
If you are not used to the feeling of having your face covered or having certain materials touching your face and you live with a sensory condition (such as Autism), wearing a mask may create a sensory overload.
Tip: Find a mask that is more comfortable. Search online for one made from silk, with softer straps and a looser fitting around the jaw. This may assist with physical, emotional and sensory issues.
(These issues can be further exacerbated if the mask causes your glasses to steam up and you can’t see properly.)
Tip: Line your mask with a tissue. This helps to absorb the moisture from your breath and reduce that feeling of overheating, stuffiness and fog.
Furthermore, if you rely on reading lips or facial expressions as an integral part of communication, you may find that communication has become increasingly difficult.
For a person with sensory issues, this can mean not having all of their needs met, feelings of isolation, fear/confusion surrounding not being able to ‘read people’ (more than usual) and even overwhelm or shutdown.
Tip: Wear a mask that is see-through. This will allow others to see your face and may help with issues surrounding communication. You could also suggest this to others you interact with regularly. Show them to where they can buy one.
Phobias and OCD
Masks are a visual reminder of COVID and everything it represents. Seeing this constant reminder makes it difficult to escape or ‘switch off’, leaving you constantly on edge and unable to relax.
You might begin to feel that danger is lurking everywhere and that no-one is ‘safe’ or ‘germ-free’. This can cause you to disconnect or distance yourself from others and shut yourself off from the world, (in extreme cases) to the point of agoraphobia.
Tip: If you are finding crowded places overwhelming, choose venues, times and days that are likely to be less busy. Most supermarkets even have set shopping times for people with sensory issues, with reduced lighting and sound.
Reduce the time you spend having to wear a mask by planning ahead. This may mean planning all of your errands in one outing to ‘get it over and done with’ or planning them in short bursts that are more manageable. Whatever works for you. Planning ahead with a list also helps to cut down ‘idle time’.
Ruminating on COVID may also exacerbate any underlying germaphobia you struggle with. Unfortunately, germaphobia can often go hand in hand with some OCD behaviours (such as hygiene rituals). Both can be extremely debilitating, as they put you on a constant ‘loop’ of ritualistic behaviours, where you can never relax.
Tip: Look at all the hygiene signs and hand sanitising stations around you. Jump into your logical brain, review this evidence and keep reminding yourself that our community is actually the cleanest it has ever been! The evidence? The flu and common colds are almost nowhere to be seen this winter.
Even if you are medically exempt from wearing a mask (or you simply find it difficult to cope and choose not to), you may still feel a great deal of anxiety sans mask.
This can include fear of being ‘unprotected’ (from COVID), receiving a fine, not being able to enter places or see people, judgement/shame/hostility from others or having to explain your illness in public (especially if it is mental health-related).
Conversely, you may be wearing a mask, but feel extremely anxious when you see others not wearing one.
This might be because you feel they are putting your health at risk or disregarding your safety, which can leave you feeling both fearful and angry.
Although many people are exempt from wearing masks, can never tell if this is the case – especially with invisible illness/es. It’s easy to rush to judgement.
Judgement can leave you in a very negative, fear-based, unhealthy emotional space.
What else can you do?
Unfortunately, these are confusing and contentious times. Not everyone is going to understand or support your needs. This can be difficult to cope with. You may feel very stigmatised or isolated.
Fortunately, there are some things you can do to make mask life a bit easier.
Keep up with your self-care routines. Create time and space away from masks where you can attend to your own needs without this added anxiety.
Think of your mask as a fashion accessory. Wearing a mask that reflects your personality or matches your outfit may help you regain some control or autonomy.
Let others know how you feel. Be honest (to a level you are comfortable with). Most people will understand if you let them know you are genuinely struggling – they may even be in the same boat!
Be supportive and kind to others. Coming from a place of empathy also has a positive effect on your emotional wellbeing and allows you to let you of unwanted or harmful emotions that may exacerbate your anxiety.
If you are struggling, please seek support from a GP or a mental health professional or call Lifeline anytime for free on 13 11 14.
I also offer a range of modalities including Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), Hypnosis, Time Line Therapy®, Access Bars® and Life Coaching and can work together with you and your support team to maintain continuity of support.
I remove anxiety using concentrated Time Line Therapy® sessions to create shifts in both the conscious and unconscious mind, by releasing the emotions that lead to and create anxiety. To initiate a personal breakthrough, it typically takes 10-12 hours working together, with one 2 hour session per week, for 5-6 weeks.