How to cope with face mask anxiety

England is making face masks and coverings compulsory in shops and supermarkets from 24 July. This rule is already in effect in other parts of the UK and EU. 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. However, 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.

Here is some information on why face masks may make some of us so uncomfortable, and what you can do to cope once face coverings become mandatory.

Why do face masks make some people uncomfortable?

Some of the reasons can include:

Changing government advice has left people feeling uncertain

On both a country and worldwide scale, we have seen shifts in the advice surrounding wearing a mask. During the early days of the pandemic, many governments warned the public against them. However, this was widely due to a fear that panic-buying masks may leave frontline health workers without the supplies they needed, as well as worry that the presence of a mask may 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 or mute

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 become something that have 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.

“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 carry out 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!” — Kat

It’s 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 past 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. With many fearing that the spread of misinformation may cause more of us to worry about masks and any misconceived dangers, 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. There are many breathing exercises that you can try to help you manage physiological sensations and emotional feelings of anxiety, find your focus, and relax. We have added an example of one below to help get you started - Try and match your breathing to the movement of the triangle.

Try 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.

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, these techniques can take some practice to allow you to most effectively see the benefits of them, so keep trying.

Increase your knowledge and exposure to decrease your fear

The better we understand something, the less mystery surrounds it. By removing that sense of the unknown, it can help to lessen our fear and anxiety. 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. 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 that’s someone you are close to and care about, or it’s an outsider who can help you subjectively work through your worries and fears, speaking about your anxiety can help you to overcome it. 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.

Try to create consistent habits

Counselling Directory member and Lead Partner at The Practice, Beverley Hills, explains how consistency can help both adults and children to feel less anxious and form positive habits.

“Getting a child to put on their shoes can sometimes be a battle let alone a face mask, but consistency helps form good habits so with children you might want to think about offering them an incentive like a sticker or more screen time. You can let them decorate their masks or decorate yours, it won’t be long before superhero masks hit the stores!

“For adults, it’s less exciting but once again consistency forms good habits and reminding the adult that there was a time when s/he didn’t like wearing clothes but those are the rules, they soon got used to it! Like with anything new to us, time is the saving grace here.

“When you worry, you probably think of worst-case scenarios. We call this catastrophising. Instead, try thinking of what actually happens most of the time. Explore your anxiety by asking what’s the worst that could happen, what’s the best that could happen and what’s the most likely thing to happen if you do or don’t wear a mask.”

Above all else, Beverley reminds us that wearing a mask could possibly save your life.

It’s important to remember that anxieties and fear aren’t always logical or rational

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.

Wearing a face mask can protect both ourselves, and those around us. By recognising you are feeling anxious, and by proactively looking for a way to tackle that anxiety, you’re already making the first step to changing how you react to that automatic feeling and taking positive action to help improve your wellbeing during these unprecedented times.

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