Return to on-site work

Mask anxiety: Calming yourself while staying safe

Wearing a mask at work remains a requirement at the University of Washington. While masking is important to keeping ourselves and our community healthy, it can have some unintended consequences, especially for those prone to anxiety.

Psychologists are reporting a rise in anxiety symptoms and even panic attacks as a result of mask requirements. Those same experts say that it is not surprising given the negative associations we have with masks in general, including illness or threat of violence, as well as the physical and psychological effects they have on wearers. Among the reasons for the rise in anxiety:

  • Wearing a mask in public is a novel situation for most people and such situations provoke anxious feelings in and of themselves.
  • Humans gain understanding from facial expressions, which are all but erased by masks. Without those non-verbal cues, we can become disoriented and uncomfortable.
  • People who have experienced trauma as a result of violent crime in which the perpetrator wore a mask are likely to experience that trauma anew when surrounded by people wearing masks.
  • With our natural anxiety levels elevated as a result of the pandemic, wearing a mask may further increase those anxiety levels. That’s because, for many people, masks mimic the feeling of being smothered. This in turn excites the “fight-or-flight” response, which raises heartbeat and blood pressure, both of which also happen when we’re anxious.

Whether the mask sparks panic for you, or just an uncomfortable feeling, experts suggest some steps you can take to ease the symptoms, including:

  • Wear the mask more often. The more time you spend wearing the mask the less novel the sensation and the lower the anxiety.
  • Try to ignore the minor discomfort and tell yourself it’s only temporary.
  • Think about positive thoughts and remember that you are wearing a mask to help protect the people around you as well as the people you love at home.

Reducing anxiety

Most of us are feeling higher anxiety and stress levels than normal. These are normal responses to tough times. Prolonged feelings of stress and anxiety, however, can have negative effects on our health and general well-being. Learning to relax by reducing stress and anxiety can improve your outlook and your long-term health. Try the following techniques:

Deep Breathing
Breathing from our chests or shoulders can create more tension and stress by preventing air from reaching the bottom of our lungs, increasing blood pressure and preparing the body for action. Deep breathing focuses on using the diaphragm (the spot just under your rib cage) to draw slow, deep breaths of air into the lungs and to release them slowly.

Stretching and Yoga
Stress often appears as tension in our necks, shoulders and head, what’s commonly referred to as the stress triangle. Stretching exercises can relieve tension, make your body more flexible and produce a calming effect. Yoga is a more formal method of stretching, but even just shrugging your shoulders, stretching your arms and rolling your neck a few times a day can have positive effects.

Physically, massage can help alleviate tense muscles, lower blood pressure, promote deep breathing and improve posture. Mental benefits of massage include reduced anxiety, increased body awareness and enhanced creativity. Remember, you don’t need anyone else to massage tight muscles. Foam rollers, muscle rollers or even a tennis ball can be used to relieve muscle tension.

Meditation and Visualization
Meditation involves “quieting the mind“ by blocking out sensory input and distraction, while visualization involves using the brain’s creative capacity to create a stress-free experience, much like daydreaming. Both meditation and visualization can be helpful in relieving stress.

With more people coping with stress from the COVID-19 pandemic, we are experiencing a massive wakeup call. More and more people have been heard saying, “Suddenly I have a new perspective on what really matters.”

Whenever life throws us off course, it presents an opportunity to pause, reassess and reflect on what we truly want to create. Then we can move forward feeling more on course and avoiding that uneasy feeling that we are just going through the motions with no feelings of accomplishment or satisfaction. One’s perspective about what’s happening is critical. With a job loss, troubled relationship or unplanned life change, one voice within us whines, “Why is this happening to me?” while another voice may ask, “What’s the lesson in this for me?” or “How do I use this experience to help me grow, and how might I take advantage of this chance for a fresh start?” While it is important to be realistic about the negative aspects of life transitions and to acknowledge feelings of sadness, anger, frustration and fear, your next
move is a crucial choice. Do you want to remain stuck in pain and stress, or are you ready to focus your energy forward, looking at what’s possible?

Making life changes can be scary and may leave you feeling overwhelmed. Follow the steps below to get started. It is dangerous to oversimplify the complex nature of any life transition, so tailor these suggestions to your own unique situation.

Acknowledge your feelings. Let yourself feel what you feel, and find a way to release some of the emotion. Physical activity, writing down your thoughts or talking with others can help let this energy out and prevent the distraction of negative thoughts and self-defeating behaviors.

Reflect and refocus. Take stock of what you still have, and express gratitude, such as “I still have my ability to think, my special talents and my aspirations. I’m grateful for relationships and for my family.” Take a walk, a bike ride or a longer hot shower than usual, and ask yourself some powerful questions, such as “How do I want to feel three months from now? What will it take to get there? What does my ideal week look like? What could I do to realize that? Who could help with that?”

Choose. Entertain the notion that everything is a choice. Decide what you want to choose as the next chapter of your life. Simply choosing doesn’t guarantee you’ll get it, however. The power of your intentions makes a huge difference. Feeling like you have a choice is certainly better than feeling like you have no influence, so why not adopt this philosophy? Choosing what matters most and what you’ll honor as authentic priorities is absolutely up to you. It is about being resilient and truly empowered to choose your life’s course rather than being a victim of circumstance and replaying old thought patterns.

Get into action. Start by visualizing how you want to feel or where you want to be, perhaps three months from now. Work backwards from this goal until you find something small enough that you can do the next day or the next week. Picking first steps and finding the right people for encouragement and support will help you realize your goal.

Utilize UW CareLink. Did you know that UW CareLink, our employee assistance program is a free, confidential service for you and your household family members that can take on your to-do list and provide you with the amount of time necessary to manage the changes around you? Examples of services include:

  • Personalized concierge resources including child-, elder- and pet-care solutions, transportation and local errand resources, low-cost home repair and utility assistance, etc.
  • Telephonic appointments with EAP attorneys and financial planners to assist with personal legal matters and financial issues that may have arisen during your time away from the workplace.
  • Confidential guidance from a local counselor to provide stress management assistance during the time of transition.

To find more UW CareLink return-to-work resources, visit the Guidance Resources COVID- 19 resources webpage. Use “UW” as the organization code for first-time registrations.