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How to breathe with a mask (and be comfortable)

Okay, just reading an article about wearing a mask might have made your body shift in a particular way. Did your shoulders tense up? Maybe you are unconsciously holding your breath?

A Mask & Your Nervous System Walk into a Public Place…

You are not alone if just thinking about wearing a mask made your nervous system switch to higher alert. It's understandable to feel uncomfortable in a mask, especially considering a mask's association with life and death, sacrifice, and a continued loss of freedom over a long period of time. (You're invited to check in with your shoulders and breath again.)

Wearing a mask can trigger all sorts of feelings, concerns for safety and wariness about invisible but real dangers (germs). Your nervous system registers that "Everything looks fine, but there might be hidden danger." Consider how long that deep, primordial fear has been with us through our evolution! Maybe add to that a dash of peer pressure and it’s easy to see how wearing a mask can seem like one more tiny cruel concession in a long line of grief-filled pandemic sacrifices.

Rationally we can know that wearing a mask is the right thing to do, a loving choice for you and others, and part of a global concerted effort to bring the extreme measures of this pandemic to a manageable state. However, every time you put the mask on, it might feel like you are publicly proclaiming “Danger; this isn’t over yet!”

Let’s Get Physical…with a Mask

Then there is the physical experience of the mask: a familiar slight claustrophobia, your warm humid exhales palpably rebounding off the mask onto your lips and face. It’s a little like camping in a hot humid tent in August, surrounded by mosquitos. The thought of exercising while wearing a mask is an automatic 'no' for many people when they feel this way.

I think much of our mask hesitancy arises from all this discomfort. These conditions foster the desire to escape. Your nervous system is most likely transitioning to fight or flight mode whenever you are obligated (cue irrational desire to scapegoat/blame) to wear a mask against an "invisible" threat (cue dissonance because everything looks safe but it might not be), surrounded by others who may or may not be vaccinated (cue again that irrational desire to scapegoat/blame). Add to this felt and worn restriction the very thing you need full access to in a dangerous situation: the sense of having enough air to breathe.

When your body gets aroused like this, it's easier to understand why wearing the mask "because it is the right thing to do" is a hard sell for some people. Especially if you 'did your part' and got vaccinated. It might feel like being punished for something you didn't do. Your brain can call forth every memory of personal slights when it perceives itself to be restricted, pressured and resentful like this. Your body is designed to call up those associations. It thinks it's helpful, so that you will do your best to get out of the situation as quickly as you can or be prepared to freeze, or flee or fight. This is not a good recipe for mask compliance.

The conundrum is that living together peacefully and successfully requires us to overcome these irrational impulses and tolerate discomfort. Coping is a major life practice. But did many of our parents or institutions offer much explanation for compliance beyond "do it because I said so" or “it’s the right thing to do”? When the body is uncomfortable, it can be a lot easier to manufacture arguments for why we shouldn't have to mask up, selectively seeking evidence to back up our insistent nervous systems. How do we resolve this internal friction? More fact debating?

WWYD? What Would a Yogi Do?

As a yoga therapist, I am deeply curious about why some ‘simple’ tasks are hard. For some people, raising their arms fully overhead is hard, or bending over to pick something up, backbending, or balancing on one leg. Of course, there are injuries and disuse that can lead to loss of function. Dig a little deeper and there is often a longstanding pattern of faulty movement mechanics and disrupted muscle synchronization patterns. The body's response? Anticipation of pain creates defensive body postures. The body tightens in anticipation of pain, stiffens in response to instability in the joints. The antidote? Make conscious the body’s physical responses to belief patterns and anticipation of pain or danger. Restore the healthier movement pattern. Reintroduce the body’s natural calming behaviors during a stressful act. Once the body feels stable, the tightness dissipates and the range of motion is granted. The negative associations are processed and dissipate.

Fake it Till You Make It

So, there is a little of “faking it till you make it” when we try to convince the body there is no danger here and now. Engage in some self-soothing behaviors: rock side to side, rub your arms, change your position. Do what bodies do when they are relaxed: soften, slow down or pause, look around, smile. Even just 1% in this direction can be enough to stem the tide. Notice if you sigh, burp, swallow, yawn after these movements. Those are signals that the body is transitioning to rest and digest mode.

Then there is mantra, a simple repeated phrase designed to stop spiraling judgmental thoughts, provide focus and reassure. It's been used by yogis for millennia. You could try the mantra “I am air,” or “I am enough.” I like “Soften” because it is a physical cue too. Experiment with “Spread your feet wide,” or “Pause.” Mantra can halt the runaway train of fight or flight.