Overcoming mask anxiety
Let’s start by acknowledging the importance of wearing a mask during this unprecedented pandemic. While they may be inconvenient and uncomfortable, they are a crucial tool to help slow the spread of COVID-19. A recent NPR article pointed to research from around the world that found the following:
- N95 respirators, which are designed to fit tightly on the face block 95% of airborne particles
- Surgical mask, the looser fitting type doctors wear, block 75% of airborne particles
- Cloth masks, depending on the fit and material, block up to 50% of airborne particles
Mask wearing has become a controversial issue for some, and it’s become a source of stress and anxiety for others. Living through a pandemic is stressful enough…not to mention the anxiety and pain of losing a job or health coverage or even a loved one. Those stressors are exacerbated for many people who have a fear of being able to breathe while donning a mask.
According to Kiranmayi Korimerla, M.D. at Kadlec in Richland, WA, the anxiety of wearing a mask is a growing concern for ensuring patient safety. “We are seeing patients who understand the importance of wearing masks but cannot due to increased anxiety related to wearing masks. One of things that seems to have helped is relaxation exercises and practicing wearing a mask.” Getting comfortable wearing a mask, for many people, is a process that takes time. Below are some exercises recommended by our medical staff to help people overcome the anxiety of wearing a mask:
- Practice up to 1 hour a day and monitor anxiety levels of a 1 to 10 scale (1 being the lowest anxiety and 10 being the highest).
- When anxiety rating remains below a 4/10 by the end for 3 days in a row, you are ready to move on to the next step.
- Practice the diaphragmatic circle breathing technique by doing the following:
- Sit comfortably with head and neck relaxed
- Place one hand on your chest and one on your stomach
- Slowly breathe through your nose so your stomach extends
- Tighten your stomach muscles and let the move inward as you exhale through your mouth.
Exercises (in progressive order)
- 30-minutes of diaphragmatic circle breathing: breathe into the count of 4, breathe out to the count of 6, which soft sagging shoulders and legs out loose and relaxed – do that daily for one week while holding the mask in your lap;
- Same breathing techniques as above, now holding mask up to face;
- Same breathing techniques as above, now wearing mask with straps over the ears;
- Same breathing techniques as above, now practicing walking around your home while wearing the mask;
- Practice wearing mask while talking to people inside your home;
- Progress to wearing mask outside of the home environment for walks, trips to the stores, etc.
Progress through each step after being able to tolerate each step for at least 45-minutes with limited anxiety or discomfort (4/10 or below).
Beyond overcoming the anxiety of wearing a mask is knowing the proper way to put on and take off a mask. In this 0:44 second video, Swedish Provider Elizabeth Meade demonstrates the proper process for donning and doffing a mask.
Masks have been a staple accessory of doctors forever, but for the rest of us it’s a new – and, to some, stressful – new reality. The next time you or a loved one gets anxious about wearing a mask, we hope you’ll consider giving these exercises a try. The more we normalize mask-wearing the safer we all will be and the easier it will become.