Mask Anxiety Is Real. Let’s Talk About It.

When I was a baby, I hated pacifiers. My parents say that the moment they put one in my mouth, I’d spit it across the room. My mom claims I could make those pacifiers fly far. Olympic gold medal far (or maybe my head is getting a bit big in considering my supposed infant capabilities). My parents gave up trying with the pacifier eventually. There was no way I was keeping one in my mouth.

Little Britta circa her pacifier spitting out days

I’ve been thinking about infant-Britta’s dislike of pacifiers a lot lately. It’s a useful comparison to the present. Why? Because upon donning a mask in these pandemic days, I usually find myself angrily desiring to tear it off my face and scream out my disgust as I fling it across the room in a way that is only socially acceptable in young children throwing temper tantrums. To put it bluntly, I hate masks. I don’t say that in a playful, “this is a mildly uncomfortable hatred but I’ll take one for the team” kind of way. Nope. This is full blown, anger fueled hatred. I despise masks. I loathe masks. In the days of COVID-19, I want to f-ing burn all the masks. Even the cute homemade ones. #sorrynotsorry cute homemade mask makers. I don’t discriminate in my hatred.

I’ve been trying to grapple with this anger in the past few weeks, because I know enough about psychology to know that anger is usually a mask–no pun intended–for deep pain. I’m not a licensed psychologist, mind you, so please don’t take my armchair psychology as gold. I am, however, a teacher, and I do think that gives me some brownie points in Basic Understanding of the Human Psyche 101.

So yes, I hate masks. And I’m angry about masks. And last weekend, as I donned my required mask before heading into the grocery store, my anger abruptly dissolved into full blown anxiety as I started hyperventilating…

…and I commenced to have a panic attack in public.[1]

— — —

In the wake of this anxiety and anger, I went to the internet. Because where else do we twenty-first century dwellers go when we have questions? Particularly when all the libraries are closed…

There are nearly 8 billion people on this planet, and I knew I couldn’t be the only one with mask anxiety. I delved the depths of the internet and was disappointed to come across only a few articles and a chat thread regarding this issue. The large majority of the little I saw referred to people with PTSD struggling to wear masks.

Okay, well I don’t have PTSD that would inflict an anxiety-induced reaction to objects covering my nose and mouth. However, I do have a history of being sensitive to any outside stimuli interacting with my body–perhaps owing to the fact that I identify as a highly sensitive person (HSP). HSPs often have very strong, visceral reactions to stimuli that non-HSP’s barely notice. For instance, my parents had to cut off all the tags on my clothing when I was growing up, because I would constantly scratch at them. I’ve grown out of that sensitivity and have no problem with tags as an adult, but my body has always had strong reactions to various outside stimuli. Baby Britta spitting out pacifiers is a clear testimony to this. Strep tests are the bane of my existence, because those two seconds the doctor is swiping the back of my throat from bodily fluids are two seconds of intense claustrophobia. Even covering my head completely with a blanket in bed is intense and uncomfortable. God, I hope I’m never in a situation where I’m bound and gagged. The anxiety of being bound and gagged would only be intensified by the claustrophobic feeling of not being able to breathe properly.

I also know that there’s a lot of mask shaming out there happening right now. And that is not helping my anger and anxiety. In classic grade school fashion, the moment I feel shame, the more I want to be defiant (I’m a teacher remember…you can’t not work with nine year olds and have at least a basic understanding of the shame/defiance dichotomy). Furthermore, the more I feel the mask shaming, the more I feel anxious. I ask myself–do I really have to wear a mask on a walk in my neighborhood when I know I will make sure to stay safely stay six feet a part from anyone I encounter at all times? I don’t think I do, but I’m also not a mask expert. The mask shamers would claim I do, but they’re not mask experts, either. I wonder–is it okay if I don’t cover my nose when I wear my mask? That is literally the only way I won’t hyperventilate. I feel guilty not following protocol completely, but I also don’t want to have a panic attack in the middle of Giant.

There is so much we don’t know yet about the Coronavirus, and that is causing people to act in extreme ways–I believe the people who shame others for not wearing masks are one side of that extreme. The other side of the extreme are those people protesting business closures and government restrictions, paying no heed to social distancing as if there is no pandemic at all. There is also so much contradictory advice about masks out there, too. The CDC contradicts WHO. Some medical professionals advise wearing masks anytime you leave your house. Other medical professionals think masks are only necessary in busy areas. With so many contradictory statements going on, it can be hard for people to make up their minds. Many have decided that, amidst a lack of consistent data, wearing masks at all times is the safest measure. Others are of the opinion that a lack of convincing data is the very reason to stay unmasked unless required. Because of my own mask anxiety, I have opted to wear a mask only when it is necessary/required. If the District of Columbia declares that masks are required for leaving the house, I will comply with that. However, that is not the case now, so I will use my own judgement about when to mask.

What we need more than ever now in the U.S., is Empathy. This is all so new and scary for everyone. We as a society don’t know what we’re doing and are making it up as we go. There’s still so much to learn about COVID-19, and it’s particularly challenging to learn about something while it’s wreaking havoc on society. The New York Times published an article a few weeks back entitled: “Children May be Afraid of Masks: Here’s How to Help“. Yeah, but I’m a grown ass adult and I’m afraid of masks, too. And I know I’m not the only one. Not out of 8 billion people.

It looks like masks are going to become the new normal for the forseebale future. Which I hate. Yes, I still want to burn the masks. And yes, I know that feeling of hatred says more about me than the mask itself. But, hatred aside, I do wonder and worry if people are becoming a little too dependent on them. I do truly worry that masking gives some people the illusion that they can go out and do normal, non-pandemic activities as long as they have a mask on.

Still, in the vein of being realistic, I understand that I’m likely going to have to begrudgingly accept the mask. And I know that that (begrudging) acceptance is not going to come overnight. Growth of any kind takes time, and that includes not feeling the intense anger and like I’m going to hyperventilate every time I cover my face.

My plea to humanity during this time, then, is this: some of you may derive a sense of safety from wearing a mask. You may valiantly feel like your saving your fellow humans by covering yourself. And that’s fair and valid. That’s why we’re told to wear masks, after all–to to protect others. But please know that some people feel even more unsafe wearing the mask. For whatever reason–whether it be from PTSD, because they’re particularly sensitive to outside stimuli on their body, or because they feel a lack of control by donning it (this is definitely me, too, not just the outside stimuli part). That person going on a walk or run without a mask on probably isn’t out to infect their neighbors with COVID-19. It’s possible they don’t see the value of covering up if they know they’re going to be staying six feet a part from the people they encounter (this is me) or they have such severe mask anxiety that they choose to put one on only in places where they know it’s required (this is also me). Or, they have unresolved anger/pain about other things that they are directing towards the mask–because it’s always easier to place blame than look inside (definitely me).

Everyone has a story. These are scary times. Empathy is of the essence. Understanding that mask anxiety is out there and empathizing with it is one more way we can come together as a society, one more way that we can navigate and get through this new reality together.

[1] I was, thankfully, able to manage my panic attack on my own. I removed my mask, which was the source of my hyperventilation, and found a place away from others to call my mom, who helped me calm down.

4 Replies to “Mask Anxiety Is Real. Let’s Talk About It.”

  1. Yes, regulations on masks is pretty bad in Britain as well. I decided that I’ll be wearing it all the time when I’m outside, which is frankly difficult to do in glasses, but it is better than getting the virus #anexiety. Reticently, I also came aware of people with hearing difficulties and their problems in regards to masks. The thing is, many of these people won’t be able to communicate with others as they did before – partly by lipreading. In UK they are offering face shields as an alternative to masks that are transparent but cover pretty much all of your face as if you’re going to space or something. It’s silly, but isn’t there an alternative to masks in US?

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    1. Yes, I heard about people with hearing difficulties struggling. In the U.S., there’s also been concern among People of Color not feeling comfortable wearing cloth masks due to the rampant negative stereotype of black people with face coverings being perceived as dangerous or a threat.

      Yes, face shields are available here, though they aren’t very common. I’ve taken to using a gaiter scarf that I wear around my neck and put up on my face before entering busy areas. It’s less triggering for me and easy to take off my face when I leave crowded areas.

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  2. OMG, love little you! Adorable then, adorable now.

    I don’t think that you need to wear a mask when you walk your neighborhood and keep a safe physical distance. But then I am not a mask expert either. These are scary times, and between the discomfort with the mask and turbulence of the moment, it is no wonder that you had a panic attack. Hopefully, mask-wearing will only be temporary, and you can burn all of yours soon, but in the meantime, you’ve already shown that you can work through them. So proud of you for facing the last one down with your Mom and for sharing your experience so openly here.

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    1. Thanks Lisa.<3

      Yes, I'm trying to practice compassion towards myself–it's okay to be uncomfortable and have negative reactions to all that is going on. A lot of repressed anger and pain that I have is coming out due to COVID, and I'm trying my best to embrace and accept that instead of pushing it down.

      Ah, I do hope masks don't become a long term solution. I've heard talk of that, and the thought of it makes me even more sad and angry. While I do see the logic in masking, a little voice in my head keeps whispering, "But is this the life we're going to resign ourselves to?" There has to be a better way. Expressing and sharing emotion is part of what it means to be human, and how are we supposed to do that when hiding behind masks?

      Liked by 1 person

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