Our primary mission is to empower our clients to take control of challenging/ difficult areas in their lives through the use of skill-based, present-focused, goal-oriented, and scientifically-proven treatments.
Masks. We know them, we don’t love them, but they’re a necessary part of our lives. While Dr. Fauci has said that he estimates we’ll be closer to “normal” in the fall, masks will probably be a part of our culture for the foreseeable future. We know now that they are useful for slowing or stopping the spread of all kinds of germs and have generally adapted to needing and wearing them. That said, we hear a lot about discomfort, anxiety, and physical distress when mask-wearing. Many people have said they feel like they can’t breathe. What’s actually happening when we have those physical experiences? Are you actually suffocating or unable to breathe? And, perhaps most importantly, can you do anything about it?
First, it’s important to note that humans CAN breathe while wearing masks. Surgeons perform 12-hour surgeries masked, construction workers wear them for hours outside; research has proven that masks do not actually inhibit our ability to breathe even if it feels like it. Now, masks are not the most comfortable experience. The physical experience can FEEL like it is inhibiting your breath and this feeling can trigger anxiety – or panic: Can I breathe? Am I getting enough air? Am I going to die? Am I going to pass out? Am I okay? Anxiety and panic have very physical manifestations and symptoms. Once you begin to get anxious, your heartbeat and breath may quicken, you might start sweating, you may feel increased feelings of dread or unease, and all of this then validates the anxious thought of, “masks impact my breathing!!”
So of course this cycle can really cause emotional distress around the experience. You are stuck in a self-fulfilling cycle of physical trigger (the mask) and anxiety symptoms that DO impact how you breathe that then can validate our fears and create an aversion.
To make mask-matters worse, odds are if you are experiencing extreme anxiety or panic from a stimulus, you will start to avoid it. When people avoid triggers, it decreases their ability to manage and tolerate them and increases the emotional distress when we DO have to engage with them. Plus, when you DO have to wear a mask, you will be on the lookout for discomfort and selectively attend to any little physical sensation that is aligned with the idea that you can’t breathe. We often say: if you’re looking for something, you are going to find it. For people who have experienced anxiety or panic disorder before, this might be a familiar process. Some of our clients have reflected that they are using the same exposure tools and skills they’ve learned for other triggers to decrease mask-related-stress. However, for those who have never experienced a panic attack, this cycle may be understandably very disarming! In an effort to decrease the discomfort, they may actually be doing things that make the overall mask wearing experience worse, not better (avoiding the mask altogether, seeking reassurance or validation about their mask wearing experiences, or just shutting down completely).
Okay – so we can see where mask aversion and mask panic might come from, but what can you do about it? Luckily, you have some control over these symptoms and can take steps to decrease your distress. When you identify a process and change your behaviors to it, over time, your feelings will shift too! In this scenario, just understanding what’s going on can make a huge difference. While insight alone doesn’t always help, in this particular issue, understanding what’s happening is a big part of the battle – similar to panic disorder, psychoeducation and understanding the cycle in a big chunk of the work! Then, once you cognitively understand what’s happening for you, try these things to help:
- Reality check. Remind that just because you feel like your breathing is difficult and causes discomfort know that masks aren’t going to make you pass out, you CAN breathe though your reaction and distress.
- Be self compassionate. Feeling uncomfortable and having a reaction abot whether or not you can breathe is natural and biological and evolutionairy! But, we can override that by staying calm, not giving it too much thought or engaging in it (because once you engage your anxiety goes up and you really can’t breathe!)
- Practice staying calm & don’t engage with the anxious thoughts. Remind yourself that nothing bad is actually going to happen to you and your anxious thoughts are just doing their job, but we don’t need to give them the weight or influence they are seeking. Once you start engaging with your anxious thoughts, you are in a losing battle! Note that you are feeling distressed and do your best to move on.
- Give yourself opportunities to practice! The more we avoid something, the bigger and more intense the reaction. Go to the grocery store, wear your mask for a whole walk, purposefully find ways to put that mask on and practice reframing, reality testing, and exposing yourself. We promise, it will get easier over time.
You are not alone if you are experiencing mask anxiety – honestly, most people have in some way these last 10 months! But with some psychoeducation, cognitive reframes, and practice/exposures, it can and will get easier. Humans are very cool, adaptive creatures. We can thank our body for trying to protect us and then teach it that we are safe – and be better in the long run for it! Even when mask wearing is over, having pushed yourself to address and shift your experiences about something that triggers anxiety or panic will give you a tool that you can use in all kinds of scenarios. Our brains are powerful things and we can change how we experience even the scariest of triggers. That’s pretty cool, if you ask us.