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Masks and Our Sense of Social Safety

This article explores how poly vagal theory might help to describe what happens when mask wearing gets in the way of social interaction, and makes us feel uncomfortable.

How are you responding to everyone covering their face? Do you feel more, or less connected to others, and your sense of community? For me, I have noticed how much harder it is to feel my inner social systems lighting up and coming alive around others when we're all wearing masks. It's a necessary and effective component in the effort to overcome COVID-19, but it doesn't make it a pleasant one.

Mask wearing seems to be disrupting, and reducing our opportunities for visual social reciprocity.

This might be where one person smiles and the other smiles back, or noticing somebody frowning, and responding by asking if they're OK. When these sorts of interactions happen outside, when masks are often off, I can feel my system almost re-lighting up.

These small interactions are a key ingredient for our neurobiology to recognise queues of safety in our environments.

We're getting less of them right now, because we often can't see other people's lower half of their faces.

Tracking our States

To better understand what might be going on with our reactions to seeing others in masks, I am going to briefly outline a map of our autonomic nervous system that is used within Polyvagal Therapy.

Our body’s nervous system operates in relation to our emotion and the environment it finds itself in, and it can be mapped into 3 major states that act in a hierarchy.

•They are all natural and normal states to experience.

•The structure of our nervous system is common to all of us, but the way that each of these states is expressed, and how they are triggered, is unique to each of us.

•These states are evolutionary adaptations that have helped us to survive and thrive.

•Healthy regulation means being able to move between these states freely, not getting stuck, or unnecessarily darting between them.

Within and outside the therapy room, working at tracking these inner states can become the bedrock for developing a language and awareness around our responses, leading to more inner calmness and regulation in life. This can be useful at addressing a number of different issues someone might be facing.

The goal, in many ways, is to find ourselves more often in our Ventral Vagal state, and moving in and out of the Sympathetic and Dorsal Vagal states with more ease, and not getting stuck in them for prolonged periods.

With the advent of mass mask wearing, seeing everyone else wearing masks might be triggering people out of their ventral vagal states.

*As an interesting side note, the UK government guidelines recognise that it is not compulsory to wear a mask if it causes you severe distress, or if you cannot where one because of physical or mental illness. These exemptions specifically address the effect of wearing of a mask, but not how other people wearing masks can effect the individual.

Moving between states after adversity

Moving quickly and freely between these states can be a particularly difficult for people who have experienced adversity or traumatic experiences. It might not have been overtly traumatising, but having one's emotional and relational needs unmet growing up can have a similar effect.

Experiencing adversity, at any point in life, can lead to a nervous system that responds to the environment in ways that are disproportionate to the circumstance. For instance, take the man who becomes enraged and adrenalised by another driver who has wronged. Unable to 'let it go', the driver is still experiencing the fight responses many hours after the event, even though they now safe. Someone else in the same circumstance might react very differently, with the fight or flight responses quickly dissipating and returning back to a calm sense of being almost instantly after the event.

Not only can we get stuck in the lower two states, but we may also uncontrollably dart between them.

Our environment right now is unusual in that we are seeing the vast majority of the public covering their face. This environmental change is likely to be causing shifts and changes in our nervous system’s responses as we go about our daily lives.

Regardless of our developmental histories and adversities, having a map of our states and how we move between them is a useful resource in navigating our current context, particularly with indoor mask wearing.

How we move between states is not permanent

For people who are struggling with their ability to move healthily between these 3 states, it is important to remember the phenomenon of neuro-plasticity. Dis-regulation between the three states is not inherently a permanent fixture to life. Our autonomic nervous system and how we regulate between our emotional states are trainable in a similar way we can train muscles. They are incredibly adaptable, and can increase in strength and flexibility over time, which can move people back into healthy regulation between the three states.

The key to achieving this is a staged process. It requires developing an awareness of our inner states and tracking them, whilst learning how to listen to our body's subtle (and not so subtle) signals within the context of relationships, then figuring out new ways to respond to those signals. Simultaneously, it’s about adopting and experimenting with daily practices that strengthen our response-flexibility.

Working in the therapy room with masks.

So for now, we’re united in our collective experience of losing one of our major visual signals for social engagement and safety in public: other people’s mouths.

In order to adapt and encourage myself into a state of connection when in mask wearing environment, I have asked myself 2 questions, that might be useful to you:

1) What other non-verbal body language queues of safety and social engagement can I tune into more?

2) What can I practice, to maintain a regulated nervous system that can move between states with ease?

Taking on board all of what I have discussed, and considering the impact of mask's in the therapy room, at Gwynedd Therapy we have recently invested in some clear masks, that are FDA approved and designed for working with people who rely on lip reading to communicate. The idea is that by still being able to see the therapist’s mouth, clients can get some sense of the non-verbal signals created by facial expressions.

Let’s be honest, they still look a bit ridiculous! But they’re a good enough for now, and a safe solution that allows for face to face work to carry on. I hope this article has been useful, and if you have any questions or comments, do get in touch.


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