Masks are a necessity right now in high-risk situations. While most people can wear a mask with no problem, many children, teens, and even adults who suffer from trauma, anxiety, panic disorder, or sensory processing issues find mask-wearing to be an extremely distressful experience. Of course, everyone understands that the COVID-19 pandemic has severely affected the lives of virtually every person in the nation, but as the pressure (and necessity) to wear masks continues to increase, more and more people are finding that they suffer from mask-induced anxiety or panic attacks.
Panic attacks cause shortness of breath, which can be made worse if a person is wearing a mask in the middle of an episode. Furthermore, mask-wearing can make people with panic disorder feel trapped and send their bodies into a fight-or-flight response. At the same time, wearing something that covers these individuals’ mouths and noses feels restrictive and claustrophobic, causing them to panic. People who have been through a traumatic experience, like being mugged or attacked, may feel suffocated and experience flashbacks. There are many reasons why mask-wearing provokes anxiety, but there are also ways to cope with it.
Whether you’re someone who suffers from mask-induced anxiety, panic attacks, or sensory processing issues, know that it’s completely normal to feel uncomfortable in a mask - and there are techniques you can use to help deal with this anxiety.
Practice Breathing Techniques
According to Evolve Treatment Center and Dr. Robyn Koslowitz, Ph.D. and director of the Targeted Parenting Institute, simple breathing techniques can actually think your brain into thinking you are getting enough oxygen even if you feel like you aren’t. As a result, these techniques are useful if you are already hyperventilating or having a panic attack. Similarly, these techniques are also useful for people who believe wearing a mask makes them feel like they can’t breathe. Here’s what Dr. Koslowitz suggests:
- Breathe in for a count of 4 seconds
- Hold your breath for a count of 4 seconds
- Exhale slowly, for as long as you can
The reason this simple breathing technique can help ease mask-induced anxiety is because breathing slowly and holding in your breath actually signals to your brain that you have more oxygen than you think. This can help people not only breathe easier in masks but also prevent a brewing panic attack.
Any time a person feels anxious, one of the best things they can do is try to ground themselves. According to UW Health, the first thing you should do when feeling anxious about wearing a mask is to identify what you’re feeling and accept that the emotions you feel are a normal response. Say phrases to yourself like, “I am safe and this will pass.” At the same time, it can be helpful to focus on the present moment. Identify your senses, like sound, smell, sight, or touch to take your mind off of your mask and your anxiety.
If needed, you can give yourself some space by stepping outside or into a bathroom stall. It’s perfectly okay to excuse yourself some situations that make you feel uncomfortable. Remember, anxiety is normal - and it will pass. Lastly, try to remember why you’re wearing the mask in the first place. Wearing a mask is a gesture of respect and kindness to others and remembering this may help you feel better about wearing one.
Ask for Help
Anytime anxiety strikes, talking about it with a trusted friend or family member can help relieve some of the power that this feeling has over you. You may even find that others can relate to you. As with any difficult emotion, talking about it is a vital step in processing the feeling and coping with it.
If you need to go somewhere and are anticipating a panic attack or anxiety, it can also be helpful to take a friend with you. They can provide a sense of comfort, support, and even comical relief during a stressful venture. If you’re at the store and start feeling a panic coming on, let your friend know that you are overwhelmed so they can help support you.
And, finally, if your anxiety or panic disorder is too much to handle, never hesitate to seek support from a licensed therapist regarding your mental health concerns. Remember, even though you should still wear a mask in public, there are simple steps to take to reduce these anxious feelings and improve your mask-wearing experience.