I hate wearing a face mask.
It itches. it makes me feel claustrophobic. And it’s just one more thing I have to deal with. “Where is my mask?!”, “Ugh, I forgot my mask!”, “Dang, I broke my mask!”….
I know I’m not alone. No matter how cute or clever the design, who likes to wear these things?!
But we wear it anyway. We wear it because it reduces the risk of spreading COVID, most states require it, and, knowing what we know, it’s the responsible thing to do in enclosed public places.
In addition to the fact that wearing a mask is uncomfortable, there are health consequences.
These are (possibly):
1) Reduced airflow. There is this papery thing standing between you and your air.
2) Increased respiratory rate. We breathe in and out faster when we sense we are not getting enough air.
3) Chest breathing. We breathe with our chests, instead of using our diaphragm effectively. This results in neck and shoulder tension, nervous system strain and is an inefficient way to breathe.
4) Skin irritation. Moist air pooling under a mask can lead to breakouts, itchy skin and irritation.
5) A feeling of suffocation. When we feel constant air hunger, this perpetuates hyperventilation and the associated stress responses. (The added C02 we breath in may also perpetuate this feeling.)
6)Aggravated preexisting conditions. If you have any underlying condition: asthma, allergies, panic, rhinitis, etc., these symptoms may feel worse when your nose and mouth are covered.
But there’s hope!
“Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it” Helen Keller
Suggestions to reduce the negative effects of wearing a mask
These may sound negligible, but what you do during the course of the day adds up. Minor tweaks can improve your comfort and overall sense of wellness throughout the day.
1) Moisturize your skin. Use a non-oily face moisturizer daily (or prescription skin cream if needed) to mitigate skin irritation. Avoid the neoprene type masks that trap sweat and moisture in the mask.
2) Take multiple breaks during the day. Remove the mask safely and breathe softly, slowly and deeply through the nose. Add some neck stretches, shoulder rolls, or just walk outside to check ‘mental health break’ off your to-do list.
2) Breathe through your nose. Nose breathing is a natural way to breathe. Our nose filters, warms, moistens and slows down the air, which helps move it deeper into the lungs. When we inhale slowly through the nose, the nose releases nitric oxide (NO) into the lungs which improve vasodilation and helps distribute oxygen throughout our lungs more effectively.
If you are a mouth breather during normal situations, there may be health reasons. It could also be a habit, and one you don’t want to start because of wearing a mask! The N95 masks have more space to breathe and are less likely to fog glasses because of the metal nose-clench thingy. Finding the right mask may help you feel more comfortable.
3) Maintain a normal pace of breathing. A “normal” breath rate for adults is considered 12 breaths-per-minute, but half of that is better and will offer more long term health benefits. If you find your respiratory rate increasing, or you’re having difficulty breathing through the nose while wearing a mask, take frequent breaks. Remove your mask at every safe opportunity to reestablish a normal rate of breathing through the nose.
If your job is physical, the added exertion will make slow, controlled nose breathing more difficult. You may also notice the mask feels restrictive, triggering a faster breath rate. For you, it’s important to slow down enough that slow, nasal breathing is possible. If you talk all day, the same thing. Resting a few minutes may be all that’s needed to restore more optimal breathing.
If you breathe fast, shallow, and through the mouth, you will adopt a pattern called dysfunctional breathing. By the end of the day, you’ll notice agitation in your nervous system — exhaustion, irritation and lack of focus, especially if left unchecked.
The science behind the breath
Biochemical. Hyperventilating, or breathing in too much air and blowing off too much air may lower your carbon dioxide levels (C02) just enough that your body will feel the need to breathe more, perpetuating the breathe fast, blow off too much C02, cycle.
Imagine a panic attack. We offer a paper bag to people experiencing these attacks to get more C02 into their body and normalize chemical balance and homeostasis.
Over time, if you continue to take in more air than you need, and blow off more C02 than you should, this delicate chemical balance goes wonky encouraging you to breathe more. Should this pattern continue, you won’t tolerate exercise well, climb mountains without panting, or hold your breath very long without feeling like — you — will — die — at — any — moment.
There are many reason’s people feel the need to breathe faster or gasp for air. Some may be addressed with professional guidance and training. Others may require medication or surgery. (The added C02 you breathe in through a mask may trigger faster, shallow breathing in everyone. You may mitigate this phenomenon through concerted effort, and necessary breaks throughout the day.)
Biomechanics. Mouth breathing may irritate your throat and often goes hand-in-hand with chest or shallow breathing. If the air you breathe fills only the upper half of your lungs, each breath will be less effective and you may feel the urge to breathe faster. The alveoli, where oxygen exchange takes place, are deep in your lungs.
Breath rate. Slowing down the rate of breathing, especially the speed you exhale, can positively influence your nervous system. If you breathe in too much air too quickly, you may start to feel frazzled. Likewise, if you feel frazzled, or stressed, you may breathe in excess air too quickly.
Think of the symptoms of a fight-or-flight state: fast breathing, shallow breathing, hard breathing. And aim for the opposite.
We can’t fake smile in a mask. People see only our eyes and look to them for reassurance. It all starts with the breath.
Psychosocial. Wearing a mask hides our face, blunts expression, and hinders our breath. It represents more than an inconvenience. It has become the symbol of pain we have all felt this last year. The division in our country — mask wearers versus non-mask wearers — highlights the fact that our ability to move past difficult times swiftly is only as strong as our union.
The effects of social distancing, lack of touch and limited in-person gatherings have left their imprint on our lives and well-being. Facial expression offers us comfort, humor, and a way of communicating that words alone can’t touch. We miss that during our interactions with clerks, healthcare workers, and service providers world-wide.
The mask-wearing phase in our history will come to an end. Until then, you can limit the negative effects through daily mask meditations, self-care, and savoring every precious breath.
I wish you happier times ahead, hope, and effortless breathing as we get through this phase in our history together. If you’d like more guidance, or just to connect, I’ll be here – behind my mask.