Behind the mask: Ubiquitous mask is leading to a lot of mental distress and anxiety in people

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Updated: Aug 09, 2020 5:26 PM

Shopping streets have a new fashion accessory and brands have built creative campaigns around it, but the truth is that the ubiquitous mask is leading to a lot of mental distress and anxiety in people

For a vast majority of people, though, masks help filter out fear of the virus.For a vast majority of people, though, masks help filter out fear of the virus.

The fight against Covid-19 has made masks a necessity today. Consequently, masks have become an intrinsic part of social culture, a new fashion accessory, with brands building creative campaigns around them. Not everyone, though, has taken to wearing masks happily. Take, for instance, US President Donald Trump who embraced it only recently, arguing that he and those around him were being tested frequently and, therefore, there was no need for him to wear one. “I sort of liked the way I looked,” he rued, saying that wearing a mask made him look like the Lone Ranger.

It’s true that you and the world don’t look the same through a mask—it makes one feel uncomfortable, strange and out of tune. Wearing a mask has also been theorised to bring psychological effects: disinhibition, as well as various psychosomatic changes. Besides discomfort in breathing, blurred communication and forcing one to give non-verbal cues, masks also make one feel claustrophobic. And yet stepping out without one today is unthinkable. “I can’t leave the house without wearing one. It’s a reminder to protect ourselves. Despite being uneasy, I am conscious of this new habit because it soothes my anxiety to stay protected and gives an illusion of being in control,” says Hyderabad-based homemaker Aarti Sharma.

Masks also hide facial features and identity. This feeling of anonymity, which has catalysed a wave of anxiety, stress and fear, is now forcing many to re-evaluate its efficacy. What if it’s not worn? What if it doesn’t protect? “With such uncertainty, the natural human response is to try and stick to the status quo, which in this case, has demonised the item that most represents the enemy: the mask,” says Delhi-based Marcus Ranney, general manager, India – Thrive Global, a US-based behaviour change technology and media company. “For some people, rebellion against the mask gives a false sense of control and reinforces their denial of the disease. For others, it creates a feeling of being a risk-taker, a daredevil status amongst a sea of boringly repetitive daily activities,” he adds.

Santosh Bangar, consultant psychiatrist, Global Hospital, Mumbai, shares the case study of a 24-year-old patient with stable panic disorder who reported breathlessness, nervousness, palpitations, and anxiety in June while stepping out of the house with her mask on. “In such cases, negative thought patterns of a catastrophising nature can make one uncomfortable, as if someone was going to strangulate you and you would die due to lack of oxygen. Her thinking pattern needed to be changed. We reassured her about the safety and positive effects of wearing a mask, and altered her thoughts to abate panic attacks,” says Bangar.

For a vast majority of people, though, masks help filter out fear of the virus. “The fear of contracting the virus is leading us to take protective measures that go beyond hand hygiene and social distancing. If we were reluctant to use masks at first, social pressure and constantly seeing people with their faces covered has created the need to buy them,” says Bhavna Barmi, co-founder, Psycare Neuropsychiatry Care Centre, Delhi, and senior clinical psychologist, Fortis Escorts Heart Institute, Delhi. “Earlier, lack of stock in pharmacies and other places amplified the restlessness, fear and obsession to acquire one. The shortage led many to make their own masks, but homemade fabric masks can cause more distress, as the fear of not being properly protected can trigger anxiety in certain cases,” she cautions.

Additionally, carrying a mask around for long periods of the day affects the general mood of the person. “The chronic impact on our mental health is not just the acceptance of the new normal, but the discomfort of wearing masks as a regular feature. It is a barrier in non-verbal communication that we rely on to better understand each other, usually subconsciously. To combat this obstacle, we need to give increased attention to our conscious communication… the words we use become more important, as does active listening,” adds Barmi.

Seeing faces and facial features can bring significant changes in moods. Facial expressions help recognise emotions and if the full face is not visible, it tends to disrupt complete processing in the mind. “We analyse people through their facial expressions, make eye contact or detect different moods from contrasting parts of the face. But a mask can disinhibit its wearer and he/she feels less identifiable. There is a physical barrier between you and the person you’re communicating with as it hides emotions,” says Devendra Niranjan, consultant clinical microbiologist and infection control officer, Regency Super Speciality Hospital, Lucknow.

As a remedy to make faces visible, San Francisco-based artist Danielle Baskin has introduced an anti-surveillance technology service that prints a user’s face on an N95 mask, protecting them from the virus, while also allowing them to unlock their phones using facial recognition tech. Closer home, Kottayam-based photographer Binesh G Paul has introduced customised masks with the lower half of the wearer’s face printed on them. “Faces help in recognition and immediate connect. A person with their own face on the mask can be identified easily as the covered portion will have your face superimposed on the mask,” Paul said in a telephonic chat, explaining how customers came to him, inquiring about masks with full facial features. The digital photographer has been receiving orders of up to 1,000 masks every alternate day since the lockdown in March.

In a hot country like India, though, masks with comfort and function help. “The hot and humid Indian climate makes it difficult to wear masks for long hours. Some people get rashes. A five-ply mask made of good-quality breathable fabric ensures comfort all day and is acceptable as daily wear,” says Delhi-based Vikas Bagaria, founder of personal hygiene brand Pee Safe.

Masks are surely changing the way people think and function today. The traditional habit of looking suspiciously at a person wearing one, for instance, is not valid any more. “Masks, which were sociologically identified with a tendency to hide something, have now become a sign of a conscious citizen who is not only doing good to himself, but also to those around him. If you are not wearing a mask in a public place, you may be stared at and even reprimanded,” says Mumbai-based Prakriti Poddar, a mental health expert and managing director, Poddar Wellness, a mental health foundation and counselling centre.

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