Panic and Anxiety from Wearing a Mask in Public

I lived in Japan for over three years in the ‘90s and regularly saw people wearing masks. It’s a part of the Asian culture and has been for decades. When the flu would hit the schools, all of the masks would come out on the trains.  I was always told that people wore masks to prevent from spreading their own illness to others. If you love K-Pop as I do, masks being worn by dancers during a performance as a part of a stage costume is very common.
Masks have now come to our culture and I wish I could say I find wearing one easy.  Nope. It has not been easy at all!  My desire to wear a mask is there.  I don’t want to get sick or make anyone else sick, but I can tell you that as a person with bipolar who also lives with severe anxiety, wearing a mask in public has been a nightmare!
In case this is the same for you, I’ve come up with a way for us to learn to wear masks without increasing our anxiety.
1. Know that you’re not alone! I thought I was the only one going through this until I asked my Facebook community if anyone else had the anxiety problem.  People replied within minutes:
Julie, I feel suffocated! 
My normal claustrophobia is now a lot worse. 
I get hot and sweaty and can’t breathe!
I feel so much better knowing it’s not just me! I recently had to return an item at a UPS store. It was a simple procedure, but when combined with wearing the mask that always makes me act as though I can’t breathe, it was a disaster! This was when I realized I have to find a way to live with masks.
2. Regulate your breathing. Anxiety is a breathing issue. Regulating breathing is the number one way to reduce anxiety. We have a few options while wearing a mask in a store. One, walk back into the parking lot for a few minutes and breathe normally while talking to ourselves about keeping the breathing stable when we walk back into the store. We can also pause in the moment inside the store and say to ourselves, “I can breathe just fine. The mask doesn’t prevent breathing. This is anxiety. All of this mask wearing is new in my culture. I will adapt. Right now, I am going to self regulate my breathing!”
3. Give yourself time. Please don’t avoid going places if the mask makes you anxious!  Masks will be a part of our future now. We do need to learn to wear them without anxiety. If you stop going out during the first round of wearing these masks, it will affect your movement if we are asked to wear masks again in the future! Going out is healthy.
Let’s prepare ahead for a life of using masks.
Writing this blog led to my thinking about change in general.  People all over the world had to change behaviors over night and in many cases, people lost their work and even their income. We were then asked to put a mask over our face in order to protect society. These changes were stressful for stable people – it’s pretty obvious to me now that these changes might create absolutely havoc in the bipolar brain. And yet, I didn’t see it this way in the moment. Instead, I was hard on myself for being WEAK and unable to just BREATHE! It took me much longer than you would expect to connect the dots that wearing the mask was creating intense anxiety.  My mind was in one place- I want to wear this mask and I will wear this mask to keep myself and everyone else safe during a pandemic, but my brain? Oh, it had a mind of its own.
What is on my face!
I can’t breathe!
Danger! Danger!
Anxiety is complex. It’s a combination of the physical as well as the mental. It can take over the mind and body in seconds. The way to counteract this anxiety reaction is to prepare ahead. Anxiety responds really well to natural treatments such as breathing and cognitive behavioral therapy.  I definitely have to work on my mask wearing ability.
 I asked my mother if she had any breathing problems or anxiety due to wearing the mask. She said, “No! Do you?”
I’m glad I asked. It’s a reminder that my bipolar/anxious brain simply isn’t like a regular brain. I need to remind myself constantly that I am different and might need more help in new situations, such as suddenly having to cover my mouth in order to go into the grocery store!


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