Journal of the Plague Year 2020: How to Wear a Mask

I’ve been talking to a lot of people about mask-wearing — it’s one thing most people have in common now — and a number of them report feeling physical distress: Dizziness, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, and so on.

It’s rare to have a physical condition that prevents you from wearing a mask. Depending on the type of mask and how it’s worn, respiratory illness can improve if you wear one. They feel awkward and unfamiliar, obscure smiles, muffle voices, and can be uncomfortable if you’re exercising vigorously, but wearing a mask shouldn’t cause severe physical symptoms.

From listening to people’s descriptions of the problem, I think some of the effects are due to anxiety. I had panic attacks for years, so I can imagine it all too well: You put on a mask, your anxiety shoots up, your breathing gets shallow and rapid, and your heartbeat accelerates. You focus on any itching, discomfort or shortness of breath, and pretty soon you’re having a full panic attack. Everyone’s more anxious now. Wearing a mask — or not wearing one — can start arguments. And we’re all still figuring out how to get along when half of our faces are obscured. So I think anxiety is probably more of a culprit than any of us realizes.

That’s not to say the sensations aren’t real. They’re real and measurable, and can cause genuine suffering. When I had panic attacks, I was always convinced I was going to vomit. If I started to have a panic attack every time I put on a mask, I would balk and shy like a horse if you tried to mask me.

It’s not impossible, though. Surgeons and nurses routinely wear masks for 12-hour shifts. When I’m working with live energetics, I have to wear a mask, coat and wrist strap. The coat is hot and itchy, and never the right size. The wrist strap routinely gets tangled in any available lead, wire or connector. When you need to switch tools, you have to disconnect and reconnect from the wrist-strap monitor to fetch it. Your glasses keep fogging and your mask gets unpleasantly damp. So imagine sitting there with an itty-bitty, U-shaped metal shunt, and trying to read eensy-weensy pin numbers on a connector, and slipping the shunt onto two pins so that the wing deployment driver won’t blow. If you lose your temper, everyone in the lab is sad and nervous for the rest of the day. Remaining calm while dressed absurdly is one of the hardest parts of working on missile hardware.

I think it’s probably even more challenging for teachers. I was a college instructor for more than a decade, and have taught yoga off and on for five years. No matter what their age or condition, students will notice your behavior and imitate it. That sounds great until you start teaching and realize how imperfect your behavior is. If you push yourself to the point of injury, they’ll do the same. If you’re self-critical, abrupt, dismissive, tense — anything — those emotions will communicate themselves to your students.

So if a teacher puts on a mask and panics, or refuses to wear one at all, his students will follow his lead, and react with anxiety and anger at the restrictions around them. If he treats the mask as a minor inconvenience, and emphasizes how excited he is to see them, and how great it is to be together again, they’ll settle in and have a good semester.

Easily said. How do you do it?

There are hundreds of books on overcoming anxiety, but the principles are pretty simple.

First, when you feel shortness of breath and your heartbeat spikes, know might be because of anxiety, not because of the mask. Just knowing that can be a huge help.

For some people, it can be very helpful to focus on taking deep, slow breaths. This is particularly true if you have a yoga or meditation practice and are accustomed to working with your breath. So give it a shot. Wear the mask for short periods of time, and notice your breath. If it gets fast or shallow, deliberately shift to slow, deep breathing.

For some people, focusing on their breathing will make the situation worse. They’ll get fixated on the smell of their breath, or on the icky damp or itching, and will feel more anxious. To them I say, shift your attention away from the mask and your sensation, and pay attention to the task at hand. The unpleasant thoughts and sensations will ebb and flow, and eventually they’ll become familiar and tolerable.

This is how I learned to drive on the freeway. I would get on the freeway and panic, and force myself to stay on for a certain number of exits. At some point, you get stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic and you’re bored, or singing along with the radio, or thinking about sex. It takes time and practice, but eventually you get accustomed to the anxiety. After awhile, terror wanders off to find other prey. As a teacher, you treat it like you would any performance anxiety: Note that it’s present, and use the energy to fuel your performance.

It’s a good idea to dry-run this before actually debuting it in the classroom or boardroom. Wear the mask while cooking or walking the dog or playing a musical instrument. Keep it short at first. Notice what you’re thinking or feeling. If your family teases you, that’s great practice for skepticism you’ll encounter in your students. Stay lighthearted and matter-of-fact.

Also, accommodate your anxiety in small ways. It helps a lot to have a mask that’s comfortable and fits well, and that looks snazzy. I started wearing masks from Melodia Designs months ago, and they’re a miracle of design, engineering and good taste. Get multiples, so that you’re not forced to wear one that’s dirty or worn. Keep a spare on hand in case you sneeze into one, or somehow manage to stain it with anti-seize or enchilada sauce. And lay in a supply of mouthwash and mints. You’ll need it.

Be patient and kind with yourself throughout. To overcome anxiety, you have to face a lot of distasteful thoughts and sensations, and stay outwardly calm while doing it. It’s hard, and you’ll backslide and slip up. It’s a solvable problem. You just have to keep trying different things.

Finally, think about why you’re doing this. Not the laws or rules, or the possibility of getting a disease, or who’s ordering you to do it and why. You’re doing it for your students, or team members or friends. If you’re cheerful and calm and glad to see them, and you show them that they can do this, they’ll follow your lead, and feel comforted and reassured. When you feel impatient, frustrated, tired or angry, and you think you just can’t stand it, remember your students. Learning how to teach in a mask will help you the next time you’re faced with absurd circumstances that feel impossible. You can do it, and so can they.

And once you’ve learned to do wear a mask with style, you can help other people. You can empathize with them, and show them whatever little tricks and tips you pick up on the way. And that’s pretty neat, when you think about it.

The usual stats are below. The love is all around.


J.A. Thompson

The author, rocking a Betsey Johnson dress, and a mask by Melodia Designs. Tattoos by Empire Tattoo and Black Rose.

Confirmed Covid-19 cases in Arizona, as of 7/28: 165,934
Current hospitalizations: 2,564
Deaths: 3,408

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