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Five tips for coping with face mask anxiety

Onsite Mental Health Therapist for Bupa Clinics
31 July 2020

If wearing a face mask or face covering leaves you feeling anxious, you are not alone. As these new accessories are going to be part of our lives for some time, feeling comfortable with wearing them is important for us when moving into our ‘new normal’.

A growing body of evidence shows that face coverings can help reduce the spread of coronavirus, making it safer for us to begin easing out of lockdown. Wearing a face covering can protect you and those around you. While they don’t offer 100 per cent protection, they are certainly one of the ways we can help to reduce the spread of the virus.

Although face coverings can protect us and others from harm, wearing them can also make people feel uneasy. Whatever the reason behind this anxiety, there are some useful ways we can learn to cope with having to wear a face covering.

1. Focus on your breathing

Breathing exercises can trigger the body’s relaxation response by sending signals to your brain that you are ‘safe and well’. By practising breathing exercises, you manage the body’s response to stress. On a biological level, regulating your breathing helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which plays a role in creating a calm and relaxed state in the body. Here’s one three-minute breathing exercise you could try.

2. Increase your knowledge about face coverings

When we understand something, there is less mystery about it. By removing that sense of the unknown, we can help to lessen our fear and aanxiety. Are there particular questions you have about using face coverings? Maybe you’re not sure how to wear one safely, or perhaps you’re worried about getting enough oxygen into your body. Accurate information about face coverings can give us answers and help us feel safer and more comfortable. Being armed with such information will reduce the likelihood that we’ll pay attention to inaccurate, unhelpful information that could make our anxiety worse. You might find it reassuring and helpful to watch the World Health Organization video about safely using the kind of fabric masks that many of us now have at home.

3. Practise wearing your face covering

Like with most fears and anxieties, we have a natural tendency to want to avoid the thing triggering our anxiety. In this case, face coverings. Avoidance helps in the short term as it means we don’t have to encounter our fears. But this is often short-lived, and we often end up having to confront it at some point anyway. Avoidance can therefore often maintain our anxiety rather than help us overcome it. Over time, this can lead to unhealthy patterns of behaviour.

Exposure to our fears in a controlled and safe manner can help us get comfortable with them. Practising wearing a face covering can help us learn that the things we fear about them may well not be true. And it is only in exposing ourselves to our fears that we learn that we have the capacity to cope with them.

4. Get comfortable through consistency

Getting comfortable often requires consistency in our behaviour. It’s likely that the more we engage with wearing a face covering, the easier it will become. Like with anything new, time helps us develop comfort in our habits. Practising wearing your face covering regularly may help towards developing a new habit.

5. Talk to someone about your concerns

Some people are uneasy about wearing a face covering simply because it is a new experience. For others, these worries may well be attached to concerns about other things such as:

  • having an underlying respiratory condition
  • masks being a reminder of the COVID-19 pandemic
  • feelings of claustrophobia
  • previous personal experiences

Whatever the reason for face mask or face covering anxiety, talking to others can help you overcome it. This could be with either a qualified counsellor or therapist, or simply other people. But opening up could help you develop strategies to manage the anxiety and could help change your perspective on it. After all, our own thoughts can be just as anxiety-provoking as having to wear the mask itself.

Carly Francis
Onsite Mental Health Therapist for Bupa Clinics

    • University of California San Francisco. Still confused about masks? Here’s the science behind how face masks prevent coronavirus. ucsf.edu, published 26 June 2020
    • Mind. Mask anxiety, face coverings and mental health. www.mind.org.uk, published 23 July 2020
    • Russo MA, Santarelli DM, O'Rourke D. The physiological effects of slow breathing in the healthy human. Breathe (Sheff) 2017;13(4):298-309. doi:10.1183/20734735.009817

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