I watched a young woman in my local shops tonight. She was standing in the corner, inching her face mask closer and closer to her mouth, looking close to tears. People moved around her like she was a leper with scorn in their eyes. I felt myself bristle slightly, my thoughts probably echoing others, “put your bloody face mask on lady”. Fear does that to us. It creates an ‘us’ and ‘them’.
On reflection I wondered about the distress this woman showed. What did that mask mean to her? Was the mask she held a trigger, throwing her backwards in time to some earlier trauma? Had her nervous system been triggered in the fight, flight, freeze or fawn response.
Had she once experienced medical or dental trauma? Trauma related to wearing an aesthesia mask? Perhaps the difficulty breathing she experienced while wearing her mask triggered memories from a bushfire or house fire or asthma attack where she struggled to breath? Was she experiencing rising panic and feelings of suffocation? Did she have hearing issues and her mask prevented her from lip-reading and communicating with the world.
I later considered what mask wearing may mean for my clients who have experienced trauma. Are they experiencing distress or increased anxiety moving around in this world of mask wearers? Trauma primes us to be on high-alert, searching our environment for cues of danger. When our trauma has been inflicted by another person we consciously and unconsciously assess others for potential risk. Masks impair our ability to read facial cues that may indicate danger (an upturned mouth, look of distain or anger). Masks may also muffle voices making it harder to be alert to subtle shifts in tone and intonation.
For everyone, trauma or not, adult or child, masks may increase our anxiety. They are a very visible sign that things are not normal and that COVID poses a very real threat.
If you are finding masks triggering please tune in to your body, use gentle and compassionate internal self-talk. Grounding and breathing or vagal nerve activities (chewing, humming, singing) will help to calm your nervous system. Seek support from your psychologist, family and friends.
And if you see someone without a mask, remember that people often fight battles unseen. In this crazy time of COVID and bushfires, choose kindness.