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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.

Breathing is at the Center of it All

Yoga has even more practices to improve coping and transcend suffering. Interestingly, Yoga's most notable practices involve BREATHING. Why? The state of your nervous system is reflected by the state of the breath. When you are upset, your breathing reflects that. Or, some argue, when your breathing gets rapid, shallow and agitated, your thoughts and emotions follow and you feel upset.

The cool thing is that breathing is both involuntary and voluntary, so it offers a "way in" to affect our nervous systems. You can change how you feel (more calm, more energized or even more agitated) by changing the pace, texture, and depth of the breath. You can change how you feel quite profoundly by deciding to breathe just through your nose, or even just through one nostril, as some yoga practices do, instead of breathing through the mouth.

Breathing in a calm way (more slowly, deeply down so the belly and abdomen move out with the inhale, and only through the nose) can calm you, even when you are in an upsetting situation. Breathing in an agitated way (more shallowly and quickly, raising your shoulders to take an inhale, and breathing through your mouth) will quickly agitate your nervous system and trigger a fight or flight response. Which way do you breathe with a mask on?

Most people revert to several bad breathing habits when they wear a mask. They open their mouths to breathe, anticipating that feeling of "not having enough oxygen." They take larger gulps of air, raise their shoulders to pull the inhale in, and breathe faster. This is a phenomenon known as overbreathing. Overbreathing is a direct path to anxiety, dizziness, brain fog or even a panic attack. No wonder you can't wait to rip that mask off!

It's not the Mask's Fault

A mask simply reveals our breathing habits. Think of it as neutral. Let it be the obstacle that forces you to find a better way to breathe. Remember that your body is responding automatically. Even if you are completely intellectually okay with wearing a mask, your body has decided to be uncomfortable. Good breathing is the yogis' way to interrupt this automatic process.

Once we are aware that there are physical responses to donning a mask, we can initiate our own physical actions to mitigate those responses. Change the body and the mind follows. You are on your way to changing your experience.

How to Breathe Comfortably While Wearing a Mask

So, BEFORE you put on a mask, PAUSE. Notice how you feel, notice your breath.

Close your mouth, and breathe just through your nose, in the most effortless way you can.

Slow your breath down by 1%.

Sit up a little taller and draw your throat and head back as your chest lifts.

Soften your shoulders.

Widen your eyes towards your ears. Look around the room slowly. Notice colors and shapes. Smile slightly.

THEN choose to put on your mask. Be conscious of choosing to do this versus being forced to. Allow your breathing to remain the same. Surrender to the mask. You don't need to breathe any faster or deeper. There is always enough oxygen when you breathe through your nose. Be curious about any bodily or breathing changes that do occur (rate, depth, texture, length).

PAUSE, and say your mantra. Note how you feel. Notice your thoughts.

Build tolerance. Wear the mask around the house while doing chores or outside while gardening. Practice keeping your lips closed! Whenever you feel out of breath, pause, and slow down until you can easily and calmly breathe through your nose again. You are building a new habit that will improve almost every aspect of your life. Slow breathing through the nose has enormous health benefits: deeper more restful sleep, more energy, better sex drive, less fatigue, less anxiety, diminished perception of pain, and improved vagus nerve function.

That pesky little mask is calling upon each of us to train ourselves to exit a chronic fight or flight state. The stress of the pandemic has so many of us stuck there. As citizens, family members and friends, we have a responsibility to get unstuck, to change and grow for the better. May the mask help you find your way.

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