Masking In Mental Health: Causes, Signs & 5 Things To Do To Start Unmasking in 2024

May 8, 20247 min
masking in mental health - a man is hidding his face with hands

What is Masking in Mental Health?

The literal meaning of the word ‘masking’ is to hide or conceal something by putting an obstruction in the way. All of us mask some aspects of our personality in different contexts. This is why we don’t behave in the same way, around family versus at work. 

While some amount of “masking” is necessary to navigate social situations, for those who struggle with mental health issues, this takes on a different connotation. 

Individuals with mental health concerns may sometimes feel the need to “mask” or hide aspects of their identity. This stems from a need to either fit in or protect themselves from judgment, pity, or dismissal. Sadly, it’s common for people to respond to mental health concerns with apathy or judgment because of a lack of awareness. 

Having said that, for someone dealing with a mental health issue, masking may feel like an easier way to navigate social situations, than having to explain to people what they’re going through. 

Some examples of mental health masking include - someone with neurodivergence who has a low threshold for sensory stimulation and may try to hide their facial expressions and emotional discomfort when they hear a loud, screeching noise. Or, someone dealing with depression may give a scripted response to questions such as, ‘How are you?’, instead of talking about what they’re really feeling.

3 Type of Mental Health Masking

There are three types of masking we see most often among individuals with mental health conditions. 

1. Behavior Masking

This is when one may make attempts to conceal aspects of the behavior they associate with their mental health. For example, someone with body-related compulsive behaviours such as picking on their hair or skin, may stop themselves from doing it in a social setting. 

2. Social Masking 

Social masking pertains to appropriate social cues. Some individuals who are on the autism spectrum struggle to understand social cues and may learn to mask this by laughing at jokes they don’t find funny, or spacing out in order to be able to maintain eye contact. 

3. Compensation 

Compensation is exactly how it sounds. In order to hide one’s mental health struggles, one may find ways to compensate for it by overdoing something else. For example, if someone feels anxious when there’s conflict or disappointment in a relationship,  they may compensate for it by being overly giving in their relationship.

Why Do People Mask Their Mental Health Discomforts?

Masking can serve an important function in our interpersonal lives. In mental health, in particular, masking is a way of fitting in and navigating complex social situations in ways considered acceptable in society. 

So, masking, in essence, is a coping mechanism one learns in order to successfully navigate social settings. Even today, despite the public discourse about mental health, it is a deeply misunderstood phenomenon., Sometimes, masking is a result of stigma and the shame that may result from this. 

There is misinformation about mental health, which sometimes leads to judgment and shaming. Masking one’s mental health condition protects us from difficult experiences which can range from being stereotyped to being discriminated against. 

It’s important to remember, though, that this can take up a lot of energy. Individuals with ADHD or neurodivergence often talk about how exhausted they feel after an event where they’ve had to “mask” or consciously conceal aspects of their identity. 

This is because masking is a catch-22 situation wherein both doing it and not doing it has its costs and benefits. While masking protects us in one way, as we’ll discover in the article later, it can be quite exhausting in the long run.

women mask mental health discomforts

7 Impacts Of Mental Health Masking 

While masking may have some short-term benefits, in the long term, it can cause us harm. Below are a few ways long-term masking of our mental health discomforts may impact us: 

  1. It can lead to increased, unmanaged stress 
  2. It can make us feel anxious about engaging in social settings and activities 
  3. It can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness 
  4. It can make it increasingly difficult for us to reach out for support when we need it 
  5. It can lead to ruptures and distance in our relationships 
  6. At work settings, long-term masking may contribute to burnout 
  7. It can take a toll on our self-esteem, and at large, our sense of self and identity

What Mental Health Conditions Are Associated With Masking? 

While masking is most often associated with neurodivergence, anyone who struggles with a mental health condition may find themselves masking certain aspects of it in certain situations. It’s important to bear in mind that masking is not all bad. 

It helps us feel belong, and sometimes, as discussed above, it protects us from feeling or being judged. This is why anyone - with or without a mental health diagnosis - may find themselves masking. 

Here are some ways masking can show up in 5 different mental health conditions: 

1. Depression

If you remember Deepika Padukone’s campaign, Dobara Poochho, on depression, you’ll know what masking depression can look like. It shows four different characters, across ages and genders, responding with ‘I’m fine’ or ‘It’s all good’ when asked how they are. Individuals with depression often struggle to talk about their feelings or may feel they don’t want to ‘dump’ on others, and resort to pretending they are doing okay when they’re not. 

2. Anxiety disorders 

Anxiety can feel all-consuming and show up in the form of both, emotional and physical ways. Anxiety can also show up in our interactions with others. For example, certain conversations or situations may trigger an anxious response. Individuals may mask this by changing the topic or avoiding the situation altogether. Physical symptoms of anxiety are sometimes masked by pinning the cause purely on a biological issue.  

3. PTSD - Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

In order to camouflage, someone with PTSD[Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] may avoid talking about their trauma or may find ways to avoid triggering situations and conversations. If they can’t avoid triggering situations or events, they may hide their discomfort and emotions. Over time, this can take a toll on their well-being. 

But, in the short term, masking flashbacks or reminders of trauma can help us feel safe in interpersonal situations. Sharing trauma histories and the feelings that come with it can feel extremely vulnerable. If we’re around people we don’t fully trust or feel safe with, masking can help us retain a sense of safety and control.  

4. Substance Use Disorder

Individuals may find ways to conceal the signs of substance use. For example, wearing sunglasses if they have bloodshot eyes from the use, avoiding situations where they can’t use, wearing long sleeves to cover needle marks, and so on.

They may underreport their use. In fact, it’s quite common for someone struggling with substance use to say, ‘Oh but I don’t drink/smoke THAT much!’ Masking substance use from others in this manner helps the individual protect themselves from judgment or criticism.

5. Neurodivergence 

Neurodivergent individuals process and respond to information slightly differently than neurotypical individuals. For example, their sense of time may be different or they may not understand social cues like when something is funny or serious.

This can make them seem or feel like the odd ones out in a social setting, especially around people who don’t understand the implications of neurodivergence. For this reason, neurodivergence individuals have to mask a lot of behavior and emotions in order to fit in and not invite unnecessary attention. 

Masking can feel quite draining and further contribute to poor mental health. Long-term masking is not only stressful but also makes it more difficult for us to connect with others and build close and authentic relationships.

As we know, managing stress and maintaining close relationships are important for our mental well-being. Long-term masking almost becomes a vicious cycle wherein we hide parts of ourselves, but if there is shame associated with it, it may make us feel more anxious.

Even when we recognize how masking helps us navigate certain situations, we might feel exhausted and overwhelmed by it. 

If you or someone you know may be feeling this way, here’s what you can do about it.

How to Stop Masking Personality?

Here are #5 things to do to start unmasking in 2024

1. Work with a mental health professional: 

Working closely with a professional can help you with strategies that are personalized for you. A therapist can help you manage stress, tap into safe spaces and relationships, and help prevent and manage the feeling of exhaustion or loneliness that may arise sometimes.  They can also help process and understand how masking helps you, as well as how it impacts you. 

2. Let people know what you need: 

If you were a really tall person and needed extra legroom, you probably wouldn’t hesitate to let people know. Perhaps having a similar approach for your mental health needs can be helpful. If you can look within, understand your needs, and find a way to communicate them to others, it can be helpful not only for you but can also help create more intimacy in your relationships. 

3. Educate people around you: 

Educating the people you’re close to and feel safe with about your mental health status, your needs, and your limitations can be extremely beneficial in the long run. It can help create spaces where you can, for a while at least, take the mask off, and just be.

4. Practice self-advocacy: 

While masking has its benefits, so does educating others about mental health. Approaching social situations from the point of view of self-advocacy can help you create a bit more distance from it, and become more comfortable sharing your experience.

In advocating for yourself, you’ll also be advocating for others who might be experiencing a similar condition as you. Advocacy goes a step beyond educating others. It encourages others to be more inclusive, and in the individual advocating for themselves, it can instill a sense of confidence and self-assuredness. 

5. Finally, find a community:

Where you can take the mask off! This can be a support group or an activity group where you can be fully engaged. It can even be a group of friends who see you and understand you for who you are. 

Conclusion

While in certain social situations, all of us perform some amount of masking, in the long run, this can be harmful to our wellbeing. It may seem like we need to do it in order to fit in, but over time, it can corrode our sense of self. Understanding our needs and limits better, educating our loved ones about what we’re going through, and seeking ongoing support can help us prevent the harm that long-term masking may cause.

Author's Profile picture
Prachi Gangwani
Therapist | Yoga Teacher | Author of Dear Men: Masculinity and Modern Love in #MeToo India