Opinion: Is your face mask making you anxious?
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Uncomfortable is the new norm. Since early March, we’ve all had to embrace things we may not really like, such as not seeing friends and family, the cancellation of all of the fun Colorado festivals and, now the latest, having to wear a face mask while in a public indoor space.
Although we may understand that wearing a mask can help curtail the spread of COVID-19, that doesn’t make them any more comfortable. For some, wearing a mask can provoke anxiety. In fact, nearly 25% of people may be experiencing mask-wearing anxiety, and putting on a mask can trigger moments of panic and feeling like you just simply can’t breathe.
Understanding why we are feeling the way we do can help find insight and specific strategies to help with our particular anxiety triggers. Here are a few tips to help coping with wearing a mask:
• Reframe or replace negative thoughts. Masks can be associated with negative thoughts or a reminder of sickness or disease. Instead of thinking of negative thoughts when putting on your mask, reframe a negative thought to a positive one, such as “this mask is going to help protect me from getting sick.”
• Remind yourself that you can breathe. The immediate sensation that it is more difficult to breathe is mostly perception. While you feel like you are unable to breathe, the reality is you can. Moving from panicky mouth breathing to long, slow, nostril breathing automatically calms our central nervous system. Try to take a few deep breaths before putting on your mask to set your brain to “calm mode.” When you catch yourself mouth-breathing or starting to feel anxious or unsettled, take a deep breath long and slow, from the nostrils, again.
• Practice, practice, practice. Through the process of desensitization, try building up a tolerance to the discomfort by wearing a mask at home while you are in a comfortable, familiar environment. Listening to music or watching television while you’re learning to be comfortable with a mask can help provide some helpful distraction. You may start out wearing the mask for a few minutes, then build up to longer periods of time. This is a similar technique to one soldiers in the military use when in gas mask training.
• Take a break from your mask. If you have to wear a mask for a long period of time, such as the duration of an eight-hour workday, take a “breathing break” every now and then. Find a safe space where you can be alone or physically distant, such as your car or a restroom. Or, even better, take a quick walk outside.
• Embrace your mask and find one that suits you. Whether we like them or not, masks are likely here to stay until a vaccine is available for COVID-19. Since a mask may be part of your wardrobe well into 2021, find a mask that fits well. The area around our mouth and nose is very sensitive, especially to changes in temperature. A mask with a “bump out” over the nose that keeps the fabric away from your lips can help make a difference with your comfort level. Choose a mask that is made from fabric that suits your environment and climate. A flannel mask on a 90-degree day might not be the greatest choice; a synthetic, moisture-wicking fabric could be a better option. There are many companies producing cute masks with fun patterns. Find a few masks with different styles and colors to match your mood and have a little fun with your face coverings.
Miranda Botts is a licensed professional counselor and licensed addiction counselor with 15 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families in a variety of settings. She is a lifelong resident of the Western Slope of Colorado and a graduate of Western Colorado University and the University of Denver. As the regional youth suicide prevention coordinator with Mind Springs Health, Botts promotes mental health, recovery, resiliency and education with the goal of reducing youth suicide.
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