By Julie-Ann Sherlock

It’s not all in your head. Trust me on this. As a fellow sufferer of the “I am going to smother in this mask” syndrome, I feel your pain.

Having a bad nut allergy (not that any nut allergy is good), flying is scary and stressful for me, even if airlines aren’t serving nuts. To try to calm my panicked thoughts of going into full-blown anaphylaxis thousands of miles above the Indian Ocean, I try to take control.

I contact the airline weeks before I travel to ask if they require any extra documentation, I book a seat in the last row of the plane so no one can sit behind me eating nuts and breathing the dust on me, and I request that they do not serve nuts on the flight or at least to the rows near me. 

Then, I check in at a desk rather than online so that I can reiterate my potentially death-inducing allergy. I also ask for pre-boarding, so I have time to wipe down my area with disinfectant wipes, removing, hopefully, any traces of nuts, thus avoiding an emergency landing. Then, once seated, I pull out my worst enemy: a face mask. 

I hate wearing one! But, recently when a couple near me opened and started to munch on some peanut M&Ms about an hour from landing in Kuala Lumpur, it may just have saved my life. 

Breathing Is Still In Fashion

With my face covered, I struggle to breathe. In all honesty, as an asthmatic, struggling to breathe is kinda my default mode. But this brings it to a new level. Despite my love of travel, my enjoyment of being on airplanes wearing a mask dampens my enthusiasm. 

Since the outbreak of the dreaded Coronavirus, I have had to embrace my trusty enemy when I step out of my apartment door. It has made taking the trash out a little more pleasant, so I’m warming to it. 

Everywhere we look nowadays, people are wearing masks. Protecting ourselves from COVID-19 by covering our faces is not something that everyone is comfortable with though. Some feel more protected from the virus, but for others, it’s increasing their anxiety levels

So far, studies into how effective wearing a mask for combating the Coronavirus are inconclusive. Some therapists believe that wearing one may offer comfort to people as it gives the illusion that you have some degree of control of the situation. So even if they may not be protecting you, you may feel protected and find mental strength from that. 

And then there is me, and I am sure some others experience the same emotions. With a mask on, I do feel confident I am protecting myself from illness, but then I can’t breathe, and I feel panicked making me anxious. I’m caught in a vicious circle of trying to fight anxiety using an anxiety-inducing method. 

I Need Help!

So how do you get around this catch-22 scenario? Some therapists suggest trying some deep breathing from your diaphragm. Since Wheezy McWheezerson here is usually breathing deeper than someone making an anonymous call, I don’t find that helpful. But you might. 

Another suggestion is to try repeating mantras or exercising mindfulness. Focus on words or objects, and your body will relax. My mind, however, is like a playground full of 4-year-olds all screeching for attention. I find it almost impossible to wrangle them into a well-behaved line of children going into class. Trying to do this while imagining I am breathing for the last time, for me, is anything but relaxing. Hopefully, you are more zen. 

So what do I do? I tell myself that I am on a stunning tropical island beach, and it is just a little too warm to take a deep breath. I tell myself that the cute waiter will be bringing me my vodka and watermelon cocktail any minute now. Then I can almost hear the waves crashing and the reggae music playing, and I am calm. 

Bonus tip: This also works for me in the dentist chair. I imagine the intense light shining on my face is the sun, and they usually give me a pair of “cool” sunglasses to complete the illusion. I once fell asleep while getting a filling, that’s how good I am at wishing myself away onto beaches. 

What I am really trying to say is that you are not alone if you feel like you are being smothered while wearing a mask. Most of us aren’t used to restricting our breathing like this. We are already anxious and more strung out with all that is going on, and wearing a mask doesn’t help. So try a few techniques to relax, find one that works for you so you can stay calm, and eventually, one day (hopefully!), we won’t need to wear masks again.