Facing Mask Anxiety
Updated: Oct 7
It’s official, face masks are a part of everyday life. For some people, particularly in the medical or beauty professions, wearing a mask on a regular basis is second nature. For others the associated thoughts and physical sensations of wearing this particular face covering are completely new and can be extremely anxiety inducing. Here are some ideas and tips for facing mask anxiety.
Understand the anxiety
Speaking with a friend in the UK, who has been wearing face masks on public transport for some weeks now, shared that initially she hated wearing one but she couldn’t understand why. She understood the need for the mask and was quite happy with the patterned cloth one she’d bought online so what was it that was filling her with such dread? Upon reflection she realised it reminded her of her early childhood having been newly diagnosed with asthma. When she was still learning what triggered an attack and how hard her body could work before she needed her inhaler. She was feeling out of control.
My friend's initial anxiety of wearing a mask for the first time is not uncommon. In a study in 2012 by Roberge, Kim and Benson, it was found that the face, in particular the area of the face covered by the mask, is quite sensitive to heat and some people can misinterpret the temperature increase as a sign of danger. Even although you are not, it can feel as though you are in a closed space. The wearing of a mask can also be anxiety-provoking due to what it has come to represent in this pandemic. The discomfort of uncertainty and fear of illness have arisen in light of Covid-19 and our masks may remind us of these uncomfortable feelings.
Even although the fearmongering presented by those who oppose the wearing of a face mask would have you believing otherwise, there is no evidence that face masks are dangerous. Remind yourself that face masks are safe. Remind yourself that they do allow for adequate airflow around the nose and mouth. Remind yourself that you can breathe whilst wearing a face mask. Studies have shown that the use of a face mask shows no significant changes in carbon dioxide or oxygen levels and that healthcare professionals have been wearing masks to protect themselves and others for years.
Challenge your thoughts
On those occasions where you find yourself thinking negatively towards wearing your mask try challenging those thoughts. If you find yourself thinking “I can’t wear this!” notice the thought and say to yourself “It might not be enjoyable, but I am wearing my mask and I am OK.” If you think “Wearing this mask makes me anxious” you could try to look at the action differently by saying “Whilst wearing my mask makes me nervous I am glad that I can do something to keep others, as well as myself, safe.”
Focus on your breathing
Just like many other skills, breathing exercises and techniques can take some practice in order for you to effectively see the benefits of them. Focussing on your breathing and participating in breathing exercises almost tricks your body into feeling relaxed when you are feeling overwhelmed or anxious. One technique is mindful breathing. Before even putting on your mask try the 4-7-8 breathing practice. To do this you inhale for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds and then exhale for 8 seconds. This type of breathing will not only help slow down your breathing but also strengthen your chest muscles making your breathing more efficient.
Practice makes… it tolerable!
If wearing a mask causes you significant anxiety try practicing wearing it. Wear it for a short time in your own safe space at home where you have no time pressure or peer pressure from others, whether that be the general public or those you know. Show yourself, show your body that you can breathe whilst wearing the mask. Take long, big breaths to show yourself you can breathe. Watch yourself in the mirror taking in breaths, showing yourself you can breathe in your mask. If you begin to respond anxiously towards wearing the mask tell yourself “I am safe, I am wearing a mask and I am breathing.” If it does feel too much you can always take the mask off, remind yourself that you are in a safe place and try again or, maybe today that’s the practice you can manage and you can try again tomorrow.
Plan your day
Especially if you feel significant anxiety when wearing a mask, or you are supporting someone else who is still adjusting to wearing one, it is important to have breaks from the face covering. When looking ahead to your day try to find the points where you can safely take a break from wearing a mask. Knowing when you can safely be mask-free can provide a focus and positive self dialogue when you may be having anxious thoughts, you can tell yourself “I know I will take off my mask in twenty minutes when I get off the bus.”
Find the right fit for you
Whilst each mask works to protect you and others in the same way, by covering your nose and mouth. Not all masks are the same and not all masks will work for every person. Which part of a mask gives you anxiety? Some masks may feel too thick or too heavy. Perhaps you’d rather a mask that goes round your head rather than on your ears. Or perhaps the cloth masks make you too hot so the disposable, lighter ones are better suited for you. Experiment with different styles of mask and different fabrics until you find one that is somewhat comfortable for you. It is also important to find ways to have a positive association with your mask rather than a negative. One great way to do this is by choosing one with patterned fabric in your favourite colour or one that compliments your favourite item of clothing. Remember you can control the choice of mask for you and the first mask you have does not necessarily have to be your last. Read more about how COVID has disrupted day to day living.