SENIOR SPOTLIGHT: Conquering face-mask anxiety

JOED VIERA/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER-Lockport, NY- Front row: Angie Hahn, Meg Wager, Maureen Wendt, David Mellor, Tim Mulvey. Back row: Paul Siejak, Cheryl Antkowiak, Mark Crocker and Pat DuFour cut the ribbon marking the opening of the new Dale Association's offices on Lock Street. Wednesday, October, 29 2014.

Masks are officially part of our everyday lives. For some, they can be anxiety-provoking. Here are some tips for people of all ages to help you if wearing a mask makes you anxious.

Understand anxiety. Anxiety is not uncommon in those wearing a mask for the first time. It can be worse in people with a history of an anxiety disorder, especially panic disorder or claustrophobia. Although you are not in a closed space, wearing a face mask can make it feel that way. The area of the face covered by the face mask is also quite sensitive to heat. When we sense an illusion of breathing difficulty, this can often trigger our flight-or-fight response, which can induce anxiety. The mask may also create anxiety due to what it represents: The fear of illness and the uncertainty of the pandemic.

Remind yourself that masks are safe. There is no evidence that face masks are dangerous. Face masks are not intended to be air tight. Instead, they are designed to allow adequate airflow around your mouth and nose. Multiple research studies have shown there is no significant change in oxygen or carbon dioxide levels due to wearing a mask. Health care professionals have been utilizing masks since the 1920s with no evidence that masks are a threat to those who wear them.

Challenge negative thoughts.  If you have the thought, "I cannot stand wearing this!," notice that thought and try to tell yourself, "It might not be pleasant, but I'm wearing my mask right now and I'm OK." If you have the thought, "This mask is making me so anxious!" you could reframe by saying, "This mask may be making me nervous, but I am glad I can do something to keep others and myself safe."

Focus on your breathing. Avoid rapid, shallow breathing when you have a mask on. Instead, try using your diaphragm to breathe from your belly (your belly should rise and fall with your breath, rather than your chest rising and falling). Take long, slow breaths with the exhale lasting longer than the inhale. Counting the breath can help, as can practicing these sorts of breathing techniques when you aren't wearing your mask.

Practice mindfulness. Continually work on bringing yourself to the present. When we become anxious, we often think of things about the future or past, which can lead us to thinking scary possibilities. When you have drifted your thinking into the future/past, bring yourself back to the present moment. You may also find it helpful to use various grounding techniques. You can look around the room for a specific color or notice smells that surround you.

Desensitize yourself. Practice makes perfect, even when it comes to wearing a mask. If at first you are only able to wear your mask briefly, you will find longer periods more tolerable over time. Until you build up this tolerance, try limiting time spent wearing your mask outside your home. For example, complete your errands in two shorter spurts rather than one long trip. When you begin to practice, even if you can only wear the mask briefly, you will be able to increase your time wearing the mask and it will be more tolerable.

Make it more fun and relaxing. Personalizing or decorating your face mask can make it seem less sterile and scary. Personalizing your mask can help relieve anxiety. Some individuals find using aromatherapy helpful while wearing a mask. You can spray your mask with a scent you enjoy or relaxes you (just do not make the scent too overpowering).

Choose a style less likely to provoke anxiety. If you find masks made of thicker material to be more anxiety-provoking, it may help to purchase a lighter one. Ultimately, if you find that you are unable to tolerate a mask, you can ask your doctor about using a face shield instead, as recent research has shown that these can be effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19 without making you feel as restricted. Note that different mask styles may provide different levels of protection, so discuss your mask choice with your doctor if you have questions or concerns.

Masks are now part of our "new normal." I hope these tips are helpful to you because it is essential that we keep ourselves and others around us safe.

Maureen A. Wendt is president and CEO of The Dale Association, a non-profit organization that provides senior, mental health, in-home care, caregiver support services and enrichment activities for adults. For more information, call 433-1937 or visit www.daleassociation.com .

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