Mask anxiety, face coverings and mental health
Explains why masks or face coverings can cause difficult feelings, and gives practical tips on how to cope.
In England, masks or face coverings are no longer required by law. You could consider wearing a mask in crowded and enclosed spaces if you’re worried about spreading coronavirus.
In Wales, masks or face coverings are not required by law. But the Welsh government strongly recommends wearing a mask or face covering in healthcare settings, such as hospitals and GP surgeries.
If someone asks you to wear a mask, you can still let them know that you don’t wear masks for mental health reasons.
For more information, see:
- The UK Government’s advice on wearing face coverings
- The Welsh Government’s advice on wearing face coverings
Challenges with wearing a mask yourself
There may be situations where you want to wear a mask, such as on public transport or in a hospital. But there might be reasons that you would find this difficult. For example:
- You might feel anxious or panicky, as covering your mouth and nose might affect the air you breathe. This might make you feel dizzy or sick, which you may then associate with your mask.
- You might feel trapped or claustrophobic.
- Covering your face changes the way you look, which may cause negative feelings around your identity or body image.
- Certain materials touching your skin might feel hard to cope with, which may create sensory overload.
- If you wear glasses, they might steam up so you can't see clearly. This might add to feeling overwhelmed.
If you choose not to wear a mask, there may also be things that you're worried about:
- You might worry about what is expected in certain situations. For example, this could be in a GP surgery where some people are wearing masks and other people aren’t.
- You might feel upset if people assume you’re avoiding wearing a mask for the 'wrong' reasons. This may feel especially hard if the reason you can't wear a mask is linked to your mental health.
“I get very anxious about all the people who wear masks, they make me feel like I am full of dirt and germs.”Challenges with masks and other people
You might worry about seeing other people wearing masks. For example:
- Seeing people with covered faces might make you feel uneasy or scared of others. They might seem threatening, sinister or dehumanised.
- Masks are a visual reminder of the virus, so seeing masks might make you feel on edge. It might seem like danger is everywhere, especially if coronavirus is also in the news.
- Wearing or seeing people wear masks might trigger a memory of a traumatic event.
You may feel anxious or upset around people who aren't wearing masks. For example:
- Being around people without masks might make you feel less safe from coronavirus.
- If you cannot wear a mask yourself, you may feel less protected. So you may feel nervous being around others who don't wear masks.
- These different emotions might leave you feeling confused or unsure of how to act. You may worry about how to deal with going to places you can't avoid, like your GP surgery. You might also feel like you want to avoid some places or situations completely.
If you wish to wear a mask or face covering, the tips below may make your experience feel a little easier. You will also find tips to try if you struggle being around other people wearing face masks.
Anxiety, panic and breathing issues
If wearing a mask makes you feel panicky or like it's harder to breathe, you could:
- Get some fresh air. You can try breathing in air outside before and after you need to wear your mask.
- Do something to relax before and after wearing your mask. We have some relaxation exercises you could try.
- Choose a face covering that fits you differently. For example, you could try one that hangs down your neck, rather than fitting around your jaw. This type of covering is called a 'neck gaiter'. It might feel breezier.
- Keep your body as cool as possible. For example, by wearing loose-fitting clothes or sitting by an open window on the bus.
- Add a comforting scent to your mask. It might help to use a familiar fragrance, like your own perfume or aftershave. Or you could try a smell that reminds you of someone else. A few drops of lavender oil can also be soothing.
If wearing a particular material creates sensory overload, you could:
- Experiment with various fabrics. Try making your face covering from an old t-shirt that you don't mind the feel of. You can search for mask-making tutorials online.
- Try securing your mask in a different way. Some fit round the ears, some tie behind your head. You could try attaching buttons to a hat or hair band, so the mask doesn't irritate your skin.
- Choose another type of face covering. Try using one that doesn't touch your face in the same way, like a neck gaiter.
“I feel very claustrophobic and the masks make my face sore.”
If wearing a mask steams up your glasses and makes it hard to see, you could:
- Wash your glasses with soapy water. You can polish them with a tissue after. A thin layer of soapy film may make it harder for the lenses to steam up.
- Sit your glasses on top of the fabric. Do this by raising the top of your mask up onto your nose. Then place your glasses on top of the material.
- Line your mask with a tissue. The tissue helps to absorb some of the moisture from your breath.
Body and identity issues
If covering part of your face makes you feel uncomfortable in your body image or identity, you could:
- Think of your mask as a fashion accessory. A mask or face covering with a design or pattern might better express who you are. You could use a scarf or bandana. Or try to find a selection of colours that you can match your outfits with.
- Choose a transparent mask or see-through face covering. This way, the fabric doesn't hide your face in the same way.
Anxiety around other people wearing masks
If seeing other people in masks makes you feel uneasy or afraid, these ideas may help:
- Shift your focus away from someone's face. While talking to someone, try switching the angle of your body. It might feel better if you're not directly opposite them. You can be side-by-side and both look ahead in the same direction.
- Try to pay extra attention to non-human surroundings. This might be trees, traffic and shop windows. Or the sounds and smells you notice. It may not be possible to avoid looking at people entirely. But by balancing it with other things that feel more familiar, you might feel calmer.
- Distract yourself while you're out. For example, listen to music or podcasts through headphones. Or you could call someone you enjoy chatting to. You could try something simpler like focusing on breathing, or picturing yourself elsewhere. See our page on tips for relaxation for more ideas.
- Let the person wearing a mask know how you feel. Someone you have to see often, such as a friend or housemate, might wear a mask that you find scary. If so, you could try gently telling them how it makes you feel. They might be able to change it or cover it up in your presence, to help you feel less anxious.
Tips for awkward conversations around masks
It's OK to state your needs and ask for support from people around you, so that you feel more comfortable. But these requests might feel awkward.
Here are some suggestions on ways to speak up about what you need:
- "I find it difficult to be around people who aren't wearing masks. Is it OK if you step back, put on a mask or come outside with me?"
- “When we meet, I’ll be wearing my mask. Could you do the same? It would help me to relax and focus on enjoying spending time with you.”
- "I'm not sure I’m comfortable socialising indoors. Can we find an outdoor alternative?"
There are many ways we can be supportive to people who might be struggling with masks:
- If you're in a place where some people are wearing masks and others aren't, it might be kind to offer to put yours on too, if you have one. Others might be wearing masks because they feel uncomfortable.
- Don't judge people who aren't wearing masks in places where they're still recommended. Don't assume that by not wearing a mask someone is 'just being selfish'. Someone's reasons for not wearing a mask might not be obvious.
- Communicate with people in other ways. Try using your voice, eyes, hand gestures and body language. This could help to make up for what you can't show through smiles or other facial expressions while your mask is on.
- Ask people what would help. If you see someone regularly who is uncomfortable with people wearing masks, ask how you can help. For example, you could get a transparent mask to wear when you're with them.