Thunder Bay

Thunder Bay psychotherapist sees increase in mask related anxieties, offers coping strategies online

Posted: August 15, 2020
Last Updated: August 17, 2020

In northwestern Ontario, wearing a face mask in public settings is becoming the norm. In July, masks or face coverings were made mandatory in indoor public spaces in the Thunder Bay District. Starting August 17, a similar policy will be implemented in the Northwestern Health Unit district area. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Mandatory face mask directives are meant to decrease the spread of COVID-19, but for some people, donning a mask in a public setting can also cause an increase in anxiety.

The CEO of Kelly Mental Health, a mental health clinic located in Thunder Bay Ont., says she has seen how masks have impacted her clients, leading her to offer coping mechanisms for mask related anxieties online.

"It's very common, and you see that sort of being manifested in different ways," said Linda Kelly, who is a registered social worker and psychotherapist. "For some people that anxiety comes out in the form of anger and that's why you see some of the vitriol being spilled online."

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Kelly said people with mask related anxiety might experience a fear of being confronted or criticized while wearing one, while others may experience physiological symptoms. 

"Putting a mask on your face as well, can add to that sense of 'what am I doing wrong'...It just causes this sense of self-doubt and drives up that feeling of adrenaline, and feeling off balance."

Kelly said not only are mask related social anxieties becoming more prevalent for the average person, but especially for people who may have medical exemption from wearing a mask in a public setting. 

"There's people that are really struggling with this," she said. "In our office we know we're not even really allowed to ask 'why are you not wearing a mask?' It causes anxiety for the people that have to enforce these rules. It causes anxiety for the people that do have a medical condition and don't feel like they should have to explain themselves to every person they see."

In the Thunder Bay District Health Unit area, exemptions to mandatory masks in enclosed public spaces include children under two years old, and people who cannot wear a mask or face covering for medical reasons. The health unit has indicated that proof of exemption is not required in the district area. 

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Beyond social anxiety, Kelly said wearing a mask can also act as a serious trigger for people with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"You take a person with PTSD and they put on a mask, and if they start having those intrusive thoughts that trigger them, just the feeling of the mask on their face, the heat, the texture, the feeling of being stuck... that can very quickly spiral out of control and it can be unbearable," Kelly explained.

To hear Kelly's full interview about mask related anxiety on Superior Morning click here.

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As mandatory mask policies are being put into effect in more places, including across the northwest, some people are feeling increased anxieties.One Thunder Bay registered social worker and psychotherapist has been working with people to manage their mask anxiety. The CBC's Amy Hadley spoke to Linda Kelly, CEO of Kelly Mental Health in Thunder Bay, about recognizing and coping with mask anxiety.  7:55