How I perceive my emotions when I wear the mask: embodied cognition and therapeutic implications

How I perceive my emotions when I wear the mask: embodied cognition and therapeutic implications

All of us, these days, know the feeling of discomfort in wearing the mask, mandatory for protection from CoVid-19.


Many reflections have been made on the fallout that the covered face can have in interpersonal relationships. We know that the emotions of the other can be better understood if we see their complete face, through the system of mirror neurons, that in front of a person with a covered mouth we are less able to distinguish his emotions, in particular the joy and disgust is that blocking one’s facial mimicry diminishes accuracy in understanding other people’s emotions.

But what happens to our emotions when their somatic expression is partially hampered by the use of masks?

According to the embodied cognition we know the world through our body, with the body we can act on our cognitions and mental states and the changes in posture and facial mimic affect our perception. In particular, according to the Facial Feedback Hypothesis, the movement of the muscles of the face communicates what we feel not only to others but also to ourselves. Returning to Charles Darwin: amplifying or inhibiting the expression of an emotion affects its perceived intensity of the same.

Studies conducted on the subject, in which participants had been mechanically induced an inhibition of emotional expression, for example by holding a pen in the mouth or blocking some facial muscles through the injection of a botulinum toxin, gave results in agreement with the previous hypothesis.

By combining clinical experience, the studies cited and personal sensations, we can reasonably assume that the mask on the face can be considered a physical impediment to the full facial expression of emotions, with all the consequences that derive from it. With the face partially covered we can find it more difficult to understand which emotions we are feeling and we can perceive them less intense.

If this phenomenon is easily overcome in healthy subjects, who probably compensate for it spontaneously, greater difficulties may be found in people with personality disorders, typically guided by dysfunctional interpersonal schemes, with a strong emotional component often embodied in little awareness. In any case, whether for the phenomenon of embodied cognition, for the difficulties of understanding the emotion of others due to the covered face or for the discomforts due to the sense of “oddity” in wearing a mask in front of your therapist, it is necessary to rethink vis à vis therapy in the studio taking into account the presence of the masks.

How can we help the patient in therapy overcome this impasse?

Many psychotherapists have opted for online psychotherapy, for safety reasons and to overcome the restriction of the setting caused by the masks. When this is not possible and we choose to work in the studio, it is necessary to compensate with direct interventions to the setting, relationship and body techniques. For those who still use the desk it may be time to move on the armchairs, to have a complete view of the other’s body and posture, which partially compensates for the lack of information coming from the lower part of the face.

The all-Italian gestures in speaking help us, emphasizing the communication of what we feel and sometimes leaving little room for interpretation!

The interventions on the relationship can be even more incisive. We need to verbalize a lot of what we feel, ask for frequent feedback on the patient’s emotions, helping him to shift attention from reasoning to emotions. Therapy should be increasingly hot and lively.

Using bodily techniques always helps us, even more so in these circumstances: if we induce an emotion in imagination, we can help the patient to perceive it, name it, identify the somatic sensations related to it and memorize them to facilitate their recognition even outside the study.

Probably the use of masks will lead us to change habits and to shift our attention to the upper part of the face of others, returning to the eyes the value of “mirror of the soul”, waiting to be able to review the complete face of our patients and be able to show ours in complete safety.