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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. Includes information on exemptions for mental health reasons.

How might changes to the mask rules affect me?

Changes to the rules for masks are going to mean different things for different people. For example, we know that:

  • not everyone can wear a mask
  • not everyone is fully vaccinated
  • not everyone can have the vaccine. This includes some people who could become very unwell if they catch coronavirus.

When mask rules were first introduced last year, it took a while to get used to them. Even now that some of the rules have been relaxed, wearing a mask is still likely to be the social norm.

You might find that changes to the rules leave you feeling:

  • Pleased or relieved, especially if you find wearing masks difficult. Or if you find other people wearing face masks distressing.
  • Anxious, uncomfortable or distressed, especially if you are not vaccinated or you disagree with the changes. It might be harder to feel safe when you are out and about.
  • Social pressure to continue wearing a mask. You might feel pressure to show you are 'doing the right thing'. We have some tips on what to do if you are challenged about not wearing a mask.
  • Unsure or conflicted. You might feel a mixture of all these things. Or find that your feelings change from day to day.
  • Stressed or worried about being in places where people aren't wearing masks.

There is no typical way to feel about changes to the rules for masks. And it can feel hard to know what to do when the rules don't feel clear.

Minding your 'mask manners'

For many of us, the rules for wearing masks have been relaxed. But it is still important to do what we can to help stop the spread of coronavirus.

For example, in Mind’s English charity shops, we are asking customers to consider wearing a mask if you comfortably can. This is especially for when the shops are busy. But we are also asking our staff, volunteers and customers to be kind and considerate, and not to judge others.

These are some questions you could ask to ‘mind your mask manners’ while you are out in public, and help others feel more comfortable:

  • “Would you like me to wear a mask?”
  • “Would you prefer it if I took my mask off?”
  • “Is it ok if I take my mask off?”
  • “Shall we spread out a bit? I could sit or stand over here.”
  • “Shall we open this window?”
  • “Is it ok if I leave the door open?”
  • “Would you like some of my hand sanitiser?”

It’s also OK to state your own needs and ask for the support of people around you so that you feel more comfortable. But if you are unsure whether others will observe social distancing, 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 yet ready to start socialising indoors just now. Can we find a more socially distanced alternative?'

Why masks can cause difficult feelings

Many of us have been wearing masks to help stop the spread of coronavirus during the pandemic. But masks are not easy for everyone. Some of us may find covering our face very hard, or even impossible to cope with.

Others may find it hard to interact with people who are wearing masks, or not wearing them. And for those of us with mental health problems, masks may feel especially difficult.

Some challenges of wearing masks

  • You might feel anxious or panicky, as covering your mouth and nose might affect the air you breathe. This can cause symptoms like feeling 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 very 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.
  • 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 or unable to relax. It might seem like danger is everywhere.
  • Wearing or seeing people wear masks might trigger a memory of a traumatic event. If this is the case for you, there is further guidance on the Victim Support website.

"I get very anxious about all the people who wear masks, they make me feel like I am full of dirt and germs."

Some challenges of not wearing masks

  • You might feel very anxious or upset around people who aren't wearing masks in public. This might make you want to avoid some places or situations, even those you would usually enjoy.
  • Even if you are exempt from wearing a mask, you might still feel anxious about being judged, shamed or stigmatised in public. You might feel upset if people assume you are avoiding wearing a mask for the 'wrong' reasons.This may feel especially hard if the reason you can't wear a mask is also linked to your mental health.
  • You may also feel worried about being turned away from places where a mask is required.
  • Or you may worry about the possibility of being asked to pay a fine, in situations where masks are still required by law.

Can I be exempt from wearing a mask?

Some people may be ‘exempt’ from wearing a mask, or have a ‘mask exemption’. This means they have a reasonable excuse not to wear a mask, such as experiencing certain mental health problems.

These exemptions were previously recognised in law across both England and Wales. But the legal situation for mask exemptions is now different between England and Wales:

Mask exemptions in Wales

It is still a legal requirement to wear masks in certain settings in Wales. This means you can still have a legal exemption from wearing a mask.

Some businesses and public services may also have to ask their staff to wear a mask while they are at work. And they should understand that some people cannot wear one and should still be exempt.

If you have disability which prevents you from wearing a mask and you are treated worse because of this, you may also be protected by the Equality Act.

The Welsh Government website has information on who does not have to wear face coverings in Wales.

Mask exemptions in England

The laws for mask wearing have been relaxed in England. This also means you no longer need to have a legal exemption from wearing a mask.

But some businesses and public services are likely to continue to ask you to wear masks. And they should understand that some people cannot wear one and should still be exempt.

This includes if your employer asks staff to wear masks while at your place of work. They should still take into account that you cannot wear a mask for mental health reasons. 

If you have disability which prevents you from wearing a mask and you are treated worse because of this, you may also be protected by the Equality Act.

How do I prove I am exempt from wearing a mask?

You do not need to prove that you are exempt from wearing a mask. There is no legal document or proof that you need to carry on you.

If you are challenged about not wearing a mask, you could:

  • Tell the person why, if you feel able to. Try saying "I am exempt for health reasons", or "I have a good reason that you can't see. Please be kind".
  • Write down your reason and show it to people. This could be written on a piece of paper, or displayed digitally on your phone.
  • Consider printing or downloading an exemption card. These are not required at all, but might make you feel more at ease when explaining to others.

Mask exemption cards

Some organisations have created optional exemption cards, lanyards and badges that you can display.

You do not need to apply for or buy one, and you do not need to carry or show one. But having this to hand might make you feel more comfortable. It is your choice.

If you choose to carry one, you can find exemption cards to print or download on the UK Government website.

You can also find exemption cards to print or download on the Welsh Government website, in English and Welsh.

Unfortunately, you might find that not everyone understands, or is supportive. This can be hard to cope with, but you're not alone. Consider trying some self-care tips and ideas to help look after yourself.

Tips for coping with masks and face coverings

You may never feel totally comfortable with masks. But there are lots of ideas you could try to help make your experience easier.

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. For example, you could do a short breathing exercise. We have some relaxation exercises you could try.
  • Choose a face covering that fits differently. 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.
  • Reduce the time you spend having to wear your mask. For example, try planning your shopping in advance before going out. This can help you cut down the time you spend browsing in shops.

"It's so hard to wear a mask and carry on all day when underneath I feel sheer panic."

Physical discomfort

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. The UK Government also has instructions on how to make your own mask.
  • 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, you could:

  • 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, 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 call someone you enjoy chatting to. Or 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 (like 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.

Being supportive to others

There are many ways we can be supportive to people who might be struggling with masks.

  • Don't judge people who aren't wearing masks. Don’t assume that by not wearing a mask, someone is 'just being selfish' or 'breaking the rules'. Many people are exempt from wearing masks, but their reasons might not be obvious.
  • Offer to put on a mask in situations where it is unclear if it is required, or if some people are wearing masks but others aren't. Others might be wearing masks because they feel uncomfortable and prefer to be socially distant. If you notice this, it is kind to offer to put yours on too, or ask if you can do anything else to help them feel comfortable.
  • Acknowledge people in a friendly way. You could say a friendly "hello" or "good morning" as you pass them, or wave your hand. Some people who can't wear masks might feel like others are avoiding or ignoring them.
  • Communicate with people in other ways. Try using your voice, eyes, hand gestures and body language. This could help compensate for what you're unable to show through smiles or other facial expressions.
  • 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 can maybe get a transparent mask to wear with them.
  • If someone tells you they’re exempt, accept their word for it. It might be difficult for some people to go into detail about their reasons. If you work in a place where masks are compulsory, make sure you understand the exemption rules of your workplace. See our page about going into work during coronavirus for more information.

This information was last updated on 4 August 2021.

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