14 Things You Can Do To Reduce Anxiety While Wearing a Face Mask
Imagine an old horror movie. You see a hand come from behind and suddenly cover the victim’s nose and mouth. There’s a feeling of shock, a struggle, gasping for air and then a sudden sense of relief when you realize it’s not the enemy, it’s just the person’s friend.
But having your nose and mouth covered with a face mask can trigger those same scary feelings and sensations for some people.
As you probably already know, anxiety is a tricky little minx. It doesn’t have one cause, one trajectory or one neat little fix. It’s a very individual matter and being anxious about wearing a face mask is no different.
When you feel anxious what sensations do you feel? Heart racing? Hot/sweaty? Constricted? Feeling irritable? Sensations of shortness of breath? Feeling out of control?
When you put on a mask correctly – it’s covering your nose and mouth so it can make you feel these same sensations. These physical sensations are really happening but they’re not necessarily anxiety. Everyone is feeling these sensations when they put on a mask.
But of course, for some people who already have anxiety, wearing a face mask can make it feel worse.
Why Face Masks make you Feel Anxious
If you already have feelings of claustrophobia, feeling restricted when in a small space like an elevator, then a face mask might also give you that same restricted feeling. That tells your brain “I’m in danger’
If you are sometimes worried about what others think of you and have feelings of social anxiety, wearing a face mask might make you feel like others are looking at you and judging you poorly.
Add to that, not being able to read other people’s facial expressions can have an impact on how you interpret a person’s mood.
PTSD or Triggered Memories
Experiencing a traumatic event can increase your risk of developing anxiety-related symptoms and a small number of people also go on to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is possible that wearing a face mask can trigger intrusive memories, flashbacks or nightmares for some. Especially those who may have had a trauma related to masks or face coverings, such as being the victim of an armed robbery, having to wear a gas mask in a war or being in hospital for a long time.
Anxiety although seen as all in the mind – actually has very real, physical sensations. So you will get a rapid heart rate, dizziness, chest tightness, feeling hot. Or the face mask will give you those sensations and your mind/ body interprets it as anxiety.
And let’s be honest, wearing a face mask is fairly uncomfortable. Here in Florida we’re currently in the throes of a humid summer. Wearing a face mask makes me hotter (and not in a sexy way)! Feeling hot and sweaty is normally a sensation that you can get when anxious or panicky. Other sensations from wearing a face mask can mimic anxiety too such as a feeling of constriction or shortness of breath.
Wearing the mask may not give you anxiety but your thoughts around it might. If you’re worried that you might have a panic attack while wearing one because you had a panic attack recently or you’ve heard from someone that it made them hyperventilate you may have thoughts that wearing a mask will cause you anxiety. Guess what that thought does? Yep, the thought itself will bring on the sensations of anxiety. It’s not the mask. It’s the thought of what the mask represents to you. At this point the mask is like a weapon to your mind.
So the answer to the question is that the actual wearing of the mask itself may not give you anxiety. But it may give you sensations that are easily interpreted as anxiety. And it may give rise to thoughts that can make you feel anxious.
How Do I Get Over Face Mask Anxiety?
- Notice what you’re telling yourself about wearing a face mask in public. Are you worried about what others think or say about you? Concerned a face mask will give you a panic attack? Maybe you’re not convinced a face mask will protect you adequately? It’s the thoughts that will lead to a panic attack, not the face mask itself.
- Not all face masks are created equal. Most of us don’t have access to the medical grade face masks so we’re buying cloth masks. You might have to try a few duds before you find the right fit, the right material for you, the right size and the right type of ear loops.
- Remind yourself the physical sensations you get from wearing a face mask are just that … physical sensations … they are not anxiety. We are all getting these same sensations. Identify and name what is happening in your body. The sensations. Your emotions. They’re not something to be afraid of or try to push away. Realize they are normal and most people are feeling the same way. Be clear. Call them what they are. I feel scared. I feel hot. Write them down if necessary.
- Take a deep sigh every now and then. That deep sigh reminds your body and mind that you are safe and can relax.
- Use an affirmation or positive phrase to tell yourself when you wear your face mask. “Even if this feels uncomfortable right now, it will soon pass.”
- If your anxiety becomes overwhelming, you may need to remove yourself from the situation to calm down, but then return as soon as you safely can. Take a break in your car or somewhere secluded. Calm yourself down and go back into the situation when you feel a little better.
- Humming a tune to yourself is a self-soothing strategy helping you to feel more relaxed, reduce blood pressure and calm physical sensations. Look at the lyrics of ‘Whistle a Happy Tune’ and replace whistle with hum and it perfectly explains how this works (Babbel, 2018).
- Before you put on your face mask remind yourself of all the people you are helping by wearing this covering. Not only yourself and others being protected from Covid-19 but all those other people who will see you wearing one and it feels more normal for them. I have created a 5-minute meditation to help you feel more confident about wearing a face mask by cherishing others.
- Slow down your breath. Inhale to the count of four … exhale for six counts.
- Notice if you are holding tension in your body and then soften your muscles. We hold tension in our muscles when feeling stressed or anxious, particularly in your jaw, tummy and shoulders. You can find out more about that here.
- See if you can run errands with a friend to feel more comfortable. Being in a group of people wearing face masks can feel more comfortable than being the only one wearing one.Socially distanced, of course.
- Put a drop of essential oil on a cotton ball which you can then rub on your face mask before wearing it. Lavender or peppermint are good ones.The fragrance can calm you down.
- Practice wearing the mask at home before going out in it.
- Use mindfulness when you feel yourself getting distracted by the unpleasant physical sensations and thoughts. Gently guide your attention back to the room … other people around you … the seat you’re on … what someone is saying.
If you find yourself getting anxious about wearing a face covering, please explore these options. And talk to friends and family members about how they’re coping with it. Trying out different face masks, taking note of your thoughts, reminding yourself that the sensations you get will soon pass.
But if you are getting panic attacks please reach out to a local counselor or therapist. It’s easier than ever before to start therapy now that video calls are normal practice. And CBT services have been shown to be just as effective, if not, more effective when done online.
Let’s accept that for now, face masks are uncomfortable and by the time we get used to them we probably won’t need to wear one anymore.
If you like this blog post, pop on over to my YouTube channel and check out my video about wearing a face mask.
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