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]

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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.

Why I Started Wearing a Bra: A COVID-19 Tale

It’s day 25 on the alien planet. I counted. 25 days since DC Public Schools announced their temporary closure. 25 Days since I stopped living in denial about the reality of COVID-19. As long as I had work to get up and go to everyday, I could keep telling myself that my world was still normal. Sure, COVID had put China on lock down over a month prior–as an online ESL teacher, I felt I was more aware of this than others, given that I was seeing first hand how the lock down was affecting my own students during each of our classes together. Sure, COVID was making its presence known on the West Coast of the United States, particularly in Washington State. Sure, there were a few confirmed cases of in DC and the surrounding area…but I was still getting up and going to work and going about my daily life as usual, and that made my life feel normal, unaffected by this illness that was ravaging the lives of so many. There were a few signs of concern here and there–the Sunday prior (my birthday of all days), I was refused a for-here cup at a coffee shop; due to concerns about the virus, the coffee shop in question was only giving its customers disposable cups. It had become more common place to see friends and acquaintances and hear, “Are you good to hug?” before embracing. The reminder to wash hands and be more vigilant about cleanliness was everywhere–on the Metro, at work, on the internet. Yet, until DC schools announced their closure on March 13, I was still happily living in denial.

Denial is easier than acceptance, of course. It’s why it’s so challenging for teachers to convince some parents that their child actually has a problem, whether it be a behavioral issue or a learning disorder. I thought I was too smart for denial, too aware of myself and the world around me. Yet, here I was, knee deep into my own denial about COVID.

The past few weeks, then, have been a journey towards acceptance. Accepting where I am in life–with COVID and with other aspects of myself as well. It’s been realizing that sometimes I focus so damn much on the positive that I fail to see the reality sitting right in front of me. It’s been learning to understand that as beneficial as positivity is in life–I’m an optimist for a reason, after all–sometimes it’s necessary to take a step back and take stock of the whole picture. To pay attention to the details, the facts spelling out the nature of our reality. I’ve learned in the past few weeks that positivity should be balanced and well-rounded. A healthy positivity comes from embracing and acknowledging the negative and still choosing to find the light in the world.

I’m a big picture person, see. My worldview is largely built around my (often) razor sharp intuition, which I gather largely by my big picture ability to make connections and see possibilities in those connections. My intuition guides me and, I’m discovering, sometimes its blinds me–sometimes I get so focused on my gut, that I lose sight of what’s going on around me in the present. I identify as an MBTI INFJ, and if you know anything about INFJs, it’s that we like to run to the internet and lament about how misunderstood we feel in life. Seriously. Go look up INFJ on Google, and you will find dozens upon dozens of websites and forums and YouTube videos devoted to INFJ self help. INFJs are frequently cited as the 1% in MBTI literature–the least common of the 16 personalities, the weirdly mystical, highly intuitive of the 16 personalities, and thus, the most misunderstood. A once-frequent visitor of those sites myself, who hugely identified with the INFJ stereotype of being misunderstood, I grew tired of the pity party a few years ago. “This is stupid” I thought. “I’m not going to waste my time pitying myself. I’m going to find myself instead” (Cue this song). I had already developed an excessive amount of trust and pride in my intuition, and I decided to further develop my trust and pride in it, because I saw it as an integral part of myself. In finding myself, I believed I had to follow my intuition. And I relied on it to make me happy when nothing else was. And I relied on it. And I relied on it. And instead of acknowledging my loneliness and unhappiness, instead of taking measurable steps in the present to offset that loneliness and unhappiness, I tried to micromanage my intuition. And I’ve been trying to micromanage it for years. And here’s the thing: it doesn’t work.

Now, this may seem to be getting a bit off topic–what the hell do my personal struggles have to do with a global pandemic? Well, apparently it takes a global pandemic for me to lose my shit just enough to recognize that I have some inner healing of my own to do.

See, COVID-19 wasn’t part of my intuition. I didn’t see this coming. And accepting COVID-19 as a reality has helped me to see that for the longest time, I haven’t been trusting my intuition at all. I still do believe that the best way to stay true to myself is by following my gut–I feel most at peace and at home when I live my life through my gut feelings. Yet, these past few years, though I’ve felt my intuition and I’ve believed in it, I’ve been too afraid to actually trust it; instead of trusting it, I tried to use my intuition to control my world. And, recently, that left me in tears, curled up in a fetal position on my bedroom floor, overwhelmed at my current reality and angry at myself for being so stupid. It left me sobbing to a friend over the phone a few weeks back, wondering what the hell I’ve been doing with my life for the past few years.

COVID-19 has been a much needed reminder that my intuition is finite. It cannot foresee a global pandemic, particularly if I’m too busy trying to control my life to see all the signs leading up to that global pandemic. It’s been humbling for me: My intuition may often be razor sharp, but it isn’t the end all be all of my world, particularly my current reality. I don’t know everything. I can’t control everything. Real vulnerability comes from loosening ones reins on the world. It comes from trusting, not controlling. In the words of Susan David, “Courage is fear walking“. Real courage is choosing to be vulnerable, even when it hurts. It’s laying in that fetal position and sobbing not because it feels good–but because feeling those feelings is the only way to truly move forward.

And you know what: that’s incredibly scary, but also strangely freeing. Letting go of my control has been terrifying for me. Yet, I also feel like a huge weight has been pulled off my chest. Like wow, why have I been trying so hard? It feels so good to shed all the expectations control brings and give the future freedom to unfold on its own.

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So, what does all of this have to do with putting a bra on?

The past few weeks have been weird. They’ve been freeing–not having to get up and go to work every morning is actually kind of nice. I have way more time on my hands. As an introvert, I feel a bit like I’ve hit the jack pot in not feeling the usual pressure of our largely extroverted society to go out and be social–both from others and from myself, as this has helped me realize how I put a huge amount of pressure on myself to go out and engage with the world. I think this is teaching me to be kinder to myself in that regard–there’s nothing wrong with staying home when I just want to stay home. In a strange way, I also feel more connected now than I did before COVID, since all my friends and family are so readily available to Zoom or Skype. It’s easier to find time to connect with people when everyone is suddenly left with an excess amount of free time at home. And even though I’d prefer in person connection to virtual connection, I’ll happily take what I get.

Yet it’s also been challenging–there have been tears, there have been prolonged moments where I’ve felt depressed and anxious. What do I do with my life now that I have all this free time? How do I make sure I stay connected when it’s so easy to slip into a depressed funk given the state of our world? How do I make the most of the free time I have while trying to process all my feelings and accept the fact that I have to make a new normal out of this pandemic that will in all likely hood be around for a while? How long will we have to practice social distancing? The Mayor of DC announced Stay at Home orders on March 30–how long will those be in place? Will COVID get as bad in DC as it is in New York?

There are so many things we as a society have had to figure out in the last few weeks. There are so many unasked questions. What is one to do?

Meditation. Yoga. Reaching out to loved ones. Listening to music. Reading. Writing. Having meaningful moments of connection. Feeling my feelings. Accepting my feelings. Practicing self-compassion. Dancing. Reading the news enough to stay informed, but staying away from it otherwise. These have all been incredibly useful ways for me to keep my mental health up. We all have our ways to decompress and keep our mental health in check, and I think its important we find what works for us.

Yet, I’ve still struggled with feeling productive these past few weeks. Grad school work has been so hard to complete. Keeping up with work has felt like a burden, even though I don’t even have a whole lot on my plate as an assistant teacher. I was scrolling through blog posts the other day when I came across an amazing tip: “Get Dressed” (Thank you, thank you Quelcy for this!). At first, I brushed this tip aside: my sports bra and yoga pants are so comfortable. Why would I wear anything else in quarantine? Until I thought about it more. Eventually, the idea of getting dressed started to make sense.

There is so much outside of my control right now, and control is something I like. I thrive on it. Sometimes a little bit too much. That said, I think control can be healthy in appropriate amounts. When I’m at my worst, my penchant for control leads me to micromanage my life and the lives of others. At my best, though, my penchant for control helps me get shit done. And you know, that’s something I’m proud of…that I can put my mind to something and accomplish a task. I wouldn’t be where I am today–living in the city I love, pursing a career I’m passionate about–if I wasn’t one to jump in and take the reins. Someone’s gotta control my life. It might as well be me.

Getting dressed, then, is one way I can take control of my life right now. Getting dressed into the clothes I’d usually wear to go to work. For the past few days, I’ve finished my morning online teaching (in my yoga pants and baggy VIPKID shirt, per usual) and put on a bra and jeans. Sure, they’re not as comfortable as my yoga pants and sports bra, but comfort isn’t the point of it. Getting dressed helps me feel prepared for the day. Since I started putting on a jeans and a bra, I feel more ready for the day. I feel more willing to accomplish things. I feel a little bit more control of my world right now, even if it’s just a little bit, but it’s a healthy little bit and that’s better than trying to micromanage something or someone.

I still feel a lot of fear about the future. What’s to come with COVID-19? I still feel the anxiety of growth and change–both in myself and for the world, as this pandemic will surely pave the way for changes on a global level. I still feel a little bit of guilt that I’m still gainfully employed in a career that will not damage my health, while there are others who have lost their jobs, and still others–the healthcare workers on the frontlines–who sacrifice their health by going to work everyday and caring for all those who are sick. Yet, I strongly believe that this pandemic, this time of social distancing and staying at home, can be a time of change, of growth, and of regrouping at a societal level if we allow it to be. I’m trying my best to view it as such in my day-to-day life. Some days are more successful than others in moving forward with this belief, but I’m trying none-the-less.

And, for the time being, I’m going to get up and put a bra on each morning. Not because bras are comfortable–any bra-wearing person out there will tell you that wire bras suck–but because doing so is part of my normal getting dressed ritual, because getting dressed helps me feel ready for the day and ready to get stuff done. The world we live in right now is nothing like the normal we took for granted a few weeks back–and two months back for those in many Asian countries–but if there’s anything we as individuals can do to make our lives feel a bit more manageable, to keep our mental health as balanced as possible during this global pandemic, we should be doing those things. I know I am.