Dealing with face mask anxiety

If wearing a face mask leaves you feeling anxious, you’re not alone. Happiful share tips on how you can feel calmer, and in control, whilst wearing a face mask

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Happiful
Face masks. They’ve become a divisive debate over recent months, with neither side willing to give much leeway. 
But why is there so much debate and high emotion running around face masks? And why are so many threads on social media and articles alike filled with intolerance and anger from both sides? At times it feels like we have become focused on polarized arguments about personal freedom versus selfishness or stupidity – whereas the real issues we are really worried about – the safety of loved ones, our own safety, and our anxieties around this uncertain, ever-changing situation – are becoming drowned out by vitriol.
Whether you experience anxiety around face masks yourself, or are looking to better understand and support a loved one, it’s great that you are seeking help and trying to find a way to manage how you are feeling. Here’s a little bit more info about face masks, why they’re important, why they make some of us so uncomfortable, and what we can do to cope once face coverings become mandatory.
Why should we be wearing them?
Introduced, in part, to protect and prevent the spread of COVID-19 amongst the general public, and also to protect retail workers as figures have revealed that the death rate amongst sales and retail assistants is 75% higher amongst men, and 60% higher amongst women than in the general population. Shops will be soon able to refuse entry to those who are unwilling to wear a facemask, though the chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, Martin Hewitt, has said that police should only be involved as a ‘last resort’. The new regulation will not affect places where it’s impractical to wear a mask, such as in a restaurant, pub, or café.
A growing body of evidence suggests that face masks can help reduce the spread of COVID-19. Studies have shown that the use of face masks can stop respiratory droplets from travelling between 20 to 500 micrometres away from us whilst speaking. Another study found that those infected with the common cold or influenza emitted significantly reduced amounts of these respiratory viruses whilst wearing a mask.
“This is why wearing a face mask can contribute to protecting yourself and others from COVID-19. The masks create a shield from any infected droplets and protect your respiratory system to varying degrees. The level of protection provided will depend on the mask type that you have. It’s important to note that face masks do not guarantee 100% protection from viruses though and you should still follow best hygiene practices, such as hand-washing.”
It’s thought that as many as 80% of cases are mild or asymptomatic – meaning you could be infected without knowing it. By wearing a mask in public, you are helping to protect everyone around you – from fellow shoppers to essential workers who may be unable to stay home. 
Wearing a face mask can protect both ourselves and those around us – so why do face masks make some people uncomfortable? Knowing the health benefits doesn’t necessarily make us feel more comfortable about face masks, as the reasons behind our anxiety or feelings of caution can vary greatly. Some of these reasons include:
Changing government advice has left people feeling uncertain
On both a country and worldwide scale, we have seen shifts in the advice surrounding the wearing of masks. During the early days of the pandemic many governments warned the public against them; however, this was widely due to a fear that the panic-buying of masks might leave frontline health workers without the supplies they needed, as well as worry that the presence of a mask could give some people a false sense of security, leading to them ignoring other best practices – such as social distancing, hand-washing, avoiding touching your face, and avoiding touching others outside of your household.
Face masks can make communication difficult for those who are hard of hearing 
For the deaf community, and those who have trouble with their hearing, face masks can present a whole new set of challenges. By masking the individual’s ability to read lips and facial expressions, it can impact some people’s ability to communicate more easily and effectively in public. While some clear face masks have been proposed, with many resorting to homemade face masks due to demand or cost, these have not been widely introduced.
Some experience feelings of claustrophobia
Phobias can develop at any point during our lifetime, and can be triggered by any number of different factors. Claustrophobia – the fear of confined spaces – can lead some to experience mild to severe symptoms of anxiety, and even panic attacks. For some, these feelings can be triggered by wearing a face mask.
Happiful senior writer, Kat, has experience of face mask anxiety. “The first time I wore a face mask was to do our weekly food shop, an activity that has become very stressful since lockdown began. I struggle with anxiety from time-to-time and found wearing a mask intensified these feelings.
“I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and got claustrophobic, but I also knew wearing the mask was keeping people safe. Thankfully I managed to slow down my breathing and complete the shop, but it always feels like a battle when I need to put it on – and I will definitely be glad when wearing masks is no longer necessary!”
Its a visual reminder of the pandemic
Let’s face it, we’ve all needed a break from the news cycle at some point during 2020. Rarely has a day gone by without a new piece of bad news dominating headlines. For some, the physical presence of a face mask can act as an added reminder of all of those worries and fears – but, unlike with news headlines and social media, it’s not something they can opt out of or switch off.
Fear surrounding breathing difficulties and oxygen saturation levels
Social media has been rife with people sharing their worries that face masks can expose us to harmful levels of carbon dioxide, depriving our bodies of oxygen. The good news is that there is no evidence of this. However, for those who have read the claims, and seen them spreading widely on social media, the fear can still remain.
Healthcare professionals, including doctors, surgeons, and nurses, wear face coverings for extended periods of time each day and doctors have taken to sharing videos of themselves, with and without masks, hooked up to machinery that can monitor their oxygen levels, in an effort to ease our fears.
How can I cope with face mask anxiety?
Focus on your breathing
Breathing exercises can help you to trick your body into a state of relaxation when you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Psychotherapist Anne-Marie Alger from Counselling Directory shares five common breathing exercises that you can try right now to help you manage physiological sensations and emotional feelings of anxiety, find your focus, and relax.
“Positive affirmation and deep breathing. This technique is easy to achieve in 60 seconds. It uses deep breathing and a positive affirmation to aid relaxation and reduce anxiety within the mind and body.” Anne-Marie explains.
“Choose your own affirmation to use such as ‘I am at peace’, ‘I am relaxed’ or ‘I am in control’. Take a few slow, deep breaths. As you breathe in, quietly say the first part of your affirmation to yourself. Pause for three seconds. As you breathe out, quietly say the second part of your affirmation. Repeat this cycle three times, and gradually relax your body, releasing tension.”
As with many skills, breathing techniques can take some practice before you see the benefits, so keep trying.
Increase your knowledge and exposure to decrease your fear
The better we understand something, the less mystery surrounds it; removing that sense of the unknown can help to lessen our fear and anxiety. As explained by the Mental Health Foundation, when we begin to avoid situations or things that scare us, we aren’t able to experience situations where things aren’t as bad (or scary) as we expect them to be. This means we miss opportunities to work out how we can manage our fears and anxiety and, over time, this can lead to unhealthy patterns, and can even worsen how we feel about something.
Keeping a record of how you are feeling, and any specific instances which have triggered feelings of greater (or lesser) anxiety, can help you to track any specific causes.
Talk it through with someone
Whether this is someone you are close to, and care about, or it’s an outsider who can help you work through your worries and fears, speaking about your anxiety can help you to overcome them. Working with a qualified therapist or counsellor can help you to assess how you are feeling, recognise any symptoms, and find ways you can reduce these.
Methods to reduce anxiety, such as cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness exercises can help you to gain clarity, recognise triggers, and learn new ways of coping.
There are also some great resources out there to help you learn more about the best ways to safely wear and care for fabric face masks. By learning more, you can begin to regain a sense of control.
It’s important to remember that anxieties and fears aren’t always logical. There may not be a clear reason why we are feeling anxiety – but that doesn’t make it any less real, or any easier for us to cope with. By recognising you are feeling anxious, and looking for a way to tackle that anxiety, you’re already making the first step to changing how you react to that automatic feeling.
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