Face Coverings Without Fear
So, as of 24th July, face coverings are compulsory in shops in England. It might seem like something you can do without thinking - pop on a face covering if you want to go shopping. And amid the debate and discussion about the decision to make this compulsory much is circulating on social media designed to encourage a public response condemning those who choose not to wear a mask.
So what do you do if issues with anxiety, panic, past trauma, or mental health challenges make wearing a mask very difficult for you?
Here are 5 steps to wearing a face-covering without fear:
1 - Practice breathing exercises to help you manage anxiety
Most people who struggle with wearing masks do so because for one reason or another they trigger anxiety. This may be because of fears around not being able to breathe, traumatic memories or a sense of claustrophobia - but in all cases, the anxiety is your brain alerting you to the fact that there MIGHT be a problem - a bit like a smoke alarm tells you there MIGHT be a fire. Obviously in this case it is a false alarm - but that doesn’t make the anxiety any less unpleasant.
The key to managing anxiety spikes like this is the emotional equivalent of the smoke alarm dance - you know it - wafting the alarm until it stops going off! In the case of your emotions, the most effective way of doing this is to practice breathing exercises. You can find out more about them here.
Note - if the source of your anxiety around mask-wearing is a fear of not being able to breathe you may well find that focusing on your breathing actually makes things worse. If this is you do not try breathing exercises - instead the most effective thing you can do is find a song you really like, put it on your phone and headphones and hum along to it as you do your shopping. Humming like this regulates your breathing, and the song distracts your mind - and, if it is a worship song or one which you associate with feeling safe and calm, can help your emotions to settle.
Whatever you do to manage anxiety we suggest you practice at home, in a calm safe environment at first. Only once you have got the hang of it should you try it elsewhere or in more challenging spaces - take it step by step.
2 - Practice wearing your face covering
The next thing to do is to put the mask on - but to do so in a place where you feel otherwise calm, and you know you can take it off if you need to. Set yourself a timer if you need to, and challenge yourself to wear the mask for a set period of time, whilst doing your breathing or humming exercise. Gradually increase the time you wear it and each time, keep practicing that length of time until it starts to feel easier.
You might like to have someone with you the first few times you try this - moral support is always helpful. Get them to hum along with you! Or tell you jokes to distract you - anything that helps!
If you find tying the mask on or hooking it around your ears too hard remember that you can make it even easier than that - the first few times try just placing it over your mouth gently and holding it lightly in place. Get used to the feel of it on your skin - and the more you practice this the more your mind will get used to it and stop triggering an alert when it experiences this previously negative sensation.
3 - Try different face coverings
Masks vary - there are cotton ones, paper ones, disposable ones, washable ones, coloured ones, patterned ones, ones with nose clips, ones without, ones that tie around the back of your head, ones that hook over your ears … some are thicker than other so feel more obstructive, some are tighter or looser than others - the variation is almost endless. Be creative and try out a few different kinds until you find one that feels comfortable. Some people find the thicker fabric ones are much more difficult to wear because they feel heavier around your face - so you might prefer a disposable mask. Or you might like to experiment with masks that are brightly coloured or more fun looking. Or if you are really lucky maybe you can ask a friend to make you one so you associate it with that person.
4 - Try aromatherapy
This is a love it/hate it one but some people find it really helps. If you like scents, try putting drops of your favourite essential oil (you could also choose a calming blend) on the edges. Or you may find a washable mask washed in your usual household fabric softener has that soothing scent you associate with home and safety. Again, try some things and see what works - if you find strong scents or too much stimulation tricky this one is probably not for you.
5 - Remember you do not HAVE to wear it if you really CAN’T
The guidelines state quite clearly that if a physical or mental illness means you cannot put on, wear, or remove a face covering, you do not have to. This specifically includes “if putting on, wearing or removing a face covering will cause you severe distress”
Many people who are unable to wear face coverings fear being judged, criticised or even harassed for not wearing one. Many patient organisations, societies, and support groups are producing badges, lanyards and other labels you can wear to explain why you are not wearing one - for example hidden disabilities sell a low-cost lanyard and badge you can wear.
By the way…
There have been some false news articles circulated on social media claiming supposed risks of wearing masks. We are aware these have caused some to feel very anxious - but they are not accurate - you can read the truth about these concerns here if you are worried.