If You Have Mask Anxiety and Pandemic Panic Attacks, You’re Not Alone

Tim Ebl

Let’s get through this

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“I can’t go shopping for food this week,” she said. “I can’t take the stress.”

“Why, what’s wrong?” I asked.

“It’s the masks. It’s just getting worse. I have anxiety attacks in the store. I was trapped in Walmart and had to leave my cart and go back to the car last time.”

“I didn’t know that! Why?”

“Because I can’t see men’s faces, and I imagine they’re the guys from that night.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“It was the time I told you about. I was roofied and gang-raped, and I don’t know who did it. I’m always worried I might run into them in public, and I won't recognize them, but they’ll know me. With these masks, it’s even worse.”

Oh.

We Need To Wear Masks, But It Isn’t Easy For Everyone

If you’re one of the lucky ones, you can put on a face covering and go shopping or to work carefree, without a worry. But what if masks induced fear, anxiety attacks, and paranoia in you?

Many parts of the world require us to mask up to go into an indoor space or even walk outside. This is because there’s plenty of evidence showing masks help to make us safer for Covid 19. And for most of the population, putting a covering over our faces doesn’t cause a harmful emotional reaction. It’s an inconvenience, but we can manage it and go about our lives.

But there are a lot who have a different reality. These people might still put on the mask and go out into the world, but they quietly suffer.

Do you have any of these feelings about masks?

  • Anxious, panicky, or trapped.
  • You can’t breathe freely, and your breathing speeds up.
  • You have a negative self-image while wearing a mask.
  • People around you seem scary, dehumanized, or angry when their faces aren’t visible.
  • Your prescription glasses steam up, making you confused and disoriented.
  • Masks remind you of medical emergencies or traumatic experiences from the past, and you feel sick inside.
  • You can’t trust a stranger if you can’t see the whole face.

You need to know that these feelings are real, and you aren’t alone. Dr. Jessica Gold, MD, MS stresses how important it is to have compassion for ourselves and others in these situations.

“Most people who have anxiety about it are wearing their mask anyway, but I think it’s important to remember that there are valid reasons why people may be struggling, and when we shame people and get angry, we should take a beat.”

Social media has told us that masks can hurt you. You might be worried that wearing a mask is unsafe. This doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, this study found no evidence that mask-wearing will cause you damage. They discovered that there were “no clinically significant changes in oxygen or carbon dioxide levels.”

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Some of Us Spend All Day at Work Behind a Mask

If you work in health care or the service industry and have to be masked up for hours daily, you deserve a medal for sticking it out.

My daughter does six-hour shifts cutting hair with her face covered. Her glasses fog up, and she feels tense and ready to explode by the end of the day. Her customers are cranky about masks and the economy, and there’s no end in sight.

It’s important to take care of yourself and de-stress after your hard days working in these situations. Have compassion for yourself.

If you know someone who is masked every day, help. You’re part of their support system. Let them know you care.

Resources to help work with a mask on:

  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration FAQ’s
  • Tips for wearing a mask at work

Masks Remind Me of Dying Relatives

Whenever I see a disposable paper mask on someone’s face, I’m right back in a hospital waiting for a loved one to pass away.

All the pain from those times comes back. It makes shopping at Walmart an unnerving experience. As I see older people pushing shopping carts and wearing masks I associate with death, I can’t help but imagine them getting sick and dying.

That’s why I prefer everyone to use custom cloth masks. At least that way, they are showing choice, life, and proactivity.

My mask feelings make me uncomfortable but they don’t stop me. So what can you do if masks are preventing you from having a life?

Tips For Coping With Masks or Face Coverings

  • Relaxation exercises can head off a panic attack. There are some simple techniques you could learn to use before wearing a mask and after you can take it off, to help you start the experience calmly and de-stress afterward.
  • Some people choose a loose-fitting mask. If it’s too tight it will add to the problem. You could try one like a neck gaiter. This will keep you from feeling as closed in and will make it easier to get plenty of air, as well as keep your mask from steaming up your glasses as quickly if you wear those.
  • Focus on your breathing. Keep it slow and deep. Notice if it gets faster and shallow, consciously slowing it back down.
  • Challenge your negative thinking. Remind yourself that even though it isn’t ideal, you can do this.
  • Plan your trips to reduce the time you need to be wearing a mask. Make shopping lists and combine stops.
  • Get fresh air before you need to mask up. Spend a few minutes outdoors and soak in the oxygen to prepare yourself.
  • Make sure your face covering is clean and has a fresh smell to it.

More resources:

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Change the Narrative

What story are you telling yourself about going out in public? This is your narrative, and it lives inside your head. It isn’t real, although it seems like it.

“What are you yacking about, Tim? This can’t help!”

Sure it does.

You can imagine your shopping trip however you want, and notice whatever you want. It just takes some practice. Let’s look.

You see a lady wearing a mask pushing a shopping cart down the aisle at you. You get to choose one of the following:

  • She’s smiling at you.
  • She’s scowling at you.

Guess what: She’s wearing a mask, so unless she says something, you can have it whichever way you want!

This is what I do whenever I get anxious, frustrated, impatient, annoyed or angry in this pandemic bullshit shopping experience. I imagine every single person has their tongue sticking out weird behind their mask and a goofy expression on their face. These crazies are just whacked!

It never fails to reboot my brain and make me smile.

Reframe your narrative. Tell yourself a different story about what’s going on.

That guy over there? He just escaped from the loony bin. He collects dust bunnies and keeps them in the back seat of his car.

That mother with two little boys? She’s the princess in hiding from the tiny nation of Youbetchastan. Her government would pay over $100 for news of her whereabouts.

That old dude? He invented Crocs. I have no idea why a guy that loaded would be buying hotdogs and canned stew, but it’s his life!

They are all wearing masks. They can be whoever you want them to be.

Takeaways

This is a hard time to live. We all have different challenges.

Be compassionate and kind. Don’t make the world a worse place.

We can choose to be harmful in life, or harmless. Don’t attack anyone in public for wearing or not wearing a mask. Ask yourself, what good will this do? If it doesn’t do any good, then mind your own business.

If you know someone who is struggling, help them out. Offer to run errands once in a while, or accompany them if you can. Be understanding of their issues with mask-wearing. They didn’t pick this problem.

If you feel isolated, get help. Talk to your friends or family. If that isn’t possible, professional online counseling is an option that might work for you. The National Institute of Mental Health has a list of emergency resources and crisis lines.

We aren’t done with masks yet. Let’s do our best and find ways to cope.

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I'm an author, yoga enthusiast, and meditation instructor. I spend a lot of time outdoors with activities like running, hiking and camping. My writing is all about the humorous side of life and personal growth, habits ,mindfulness, and outdoor adventures.

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