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Home / Articles / Ask Amanda / Ask Amanda: Wearing a Face Mask is Triggering Anxiety

Ask Amanda: Wearing a Face Mask is Triggering Anxiety

For survivors of domestic violence who have experienced suffocation or strangulation, there is a way to calm yourself before putting on a facemask

  • By
  • Oct 14, 2020
Ask Amanda: Wearing a Face Mask is Triggering Anxiety

This edition of Ask Amanda was written by Lisa Fontes, a domestic violence expert with a Ph.D. in psychology.

Q: My domestic violence experience has left me with a huge problem wearing a facemask, which are mandated in my town during the pandemic. I cannot have anything covering my nose, mouth or chin. It brings everything flooding back—him holding my nose shut with one hand while covering my mouth with the other; him taping my mouth shut so I couldn’t talk and telling me not to take it off; wrapping his hands around my throat and squeezing until I passed out. I can’t wear scarves to protect my face during winter, either, and forget a mask at Halloween! As soon as I even think about putting on a facemask, I start crying, my stomach tightens and my heart drops. I am sick of the anxiety. I want to be able to shop like everyone else. – Facemask Panic

Facemask Panic,

It sounds like you are aware of the importance of wearing facemasks to keep ourselves, our families and our communities safe. But it must be awful to have to deal with this anxiety now—when everyone is already tense and worried about the future. Having your face covered can trigger a flashback or panic attack, which makes a lot of sense, given your experiences.

I am sure you make use of other shopping options when you can, such as shopping online for home delivery, giving a shopping list to someone else to pick things up for you and ordering items online to pick up curbside. Additionally, some communities and stores allow exceptions for people who cannot wear masks due to health or other reasons.

However, you have said that you “want to be able to shop like everyone else.” It sounds like you do not want to have to explain your situation every time you go into a store and also do not want to have to endure glares from others who think you are simply being irresponsible. It sounds like you would like to be able to wear a facemask in public.

If you are in therapy, wearing a mask might be a good thing to “practice” with your therapist. But you can also do it on your own, with self-treatment using gentle, gradual exposure. You need to have confidence that you will be able to do this, and take your time with this process. If it feels too difficult at first, try it again later in the day, or the next day. Here are the steps:

1. Practice feeling relaxed by thinking about pleasant things, imagining your happy place, or listening quietly to some favorite music. Tune in to your breathing.

2. Pick up a face mask. Just hold it in your hands while you are feeling relaxed. Look at it carefully, all sides. If you begin to panic a little, know that you can overcome this, and keep practicing until you can feel relaxed while holding the mask. (You might like to make a mask or choose a mask that you can feel good about because it is pretty or your children decorated it or it has a symbol on it that is meaningful to you).

3. While holding the mask and feeling relaxed, imagine yourself putting it on and taking it off. It is YOU who will put it on and YOU will have the power to take it off, when you are ready. Visualize this several times until it feels okay.

4. When you are ready, hold the mask up to your face, then take it down. Practice doing this while feeling relaxed. Look in the mirror while you do this, if you want. See that you are okay. Tell yourself, “I’ve got this. I can do this. I am safe now.”

5. When you are ready, put on the mask and breathe through it. Remind yourself that it is you who is doing this and you can take off the mask at any point. Practice adjusting the mask so it feels most comfortable and does not fog up your glasses, etc.

6. When you can take the mask on and off in your home, practice wearing it for a few minutes at a time. Maybe walk around your home a bit, maybe do a chore while wearing it. Look at yourself in the mirror while you are wearing it. Take a photo and send it to someone if you want, or show your loved ones. You got it!

7. Now visualize yourself going into a store with your mask on. You will be able to nod to greet the clerks and the other shoppers. You will feel solidarity with them because you are all protecting yourselves and each other.

8. When you are ready, bring your mask to a store and put it on before you go in. Practice feeling safe and strong with it on. If you have to leave quickly the first time, that’s okay, you can try again another day.

    If you engage in the above steps, you can feel as comfortable (or uncomfortable!) with a face mask as everyone else. Most people look forward to the day when we do not have to wear them.

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    Survivors of domestic violence like you who have had their airways closed off may feel panicky when first trying to use a face mask. I hope these steps help you achieve your goal of being able to “shop like everyone else.” And as face masks are required in more and more public places, being able to wear one will serve you well in other settings, too.

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    Ask Amanda is meant to offer helpful resources and information about domestic violence. If in crisis, please reach out to your nearest domestic violence shelter for the guidance of a trained advocate.