The Face Mask: Your Breathing Friend and Filter
The COVID-19 pandemic has made the whole planet far more aware of their breathing. For many, this has caused a great deal of fear and anxiety. The virus itself attacks our respiratory system making it hard to breathe – and when breathing feels limited, difficult or scary, so does everything else.
The way we breathe can affect our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, and conversely these states can also change how we experience our breath. It is well documented that chronic stress, anxiety, our posture, and movement can all impact the mechanics and chemistry of our breathing. Conscious breathing practices support us to become aware of our breathing behaviours and shift them, empowering us to shift our mental and emotional states.
Many people are concerned about the impact of mask wearing on optimum breathing and thus on their physical and mental health. Mask wearing is now mandatory in public spaces and in the work environment in many countries to curb the spread of the Corona virus. This article discusses these concerns and offers a conscious approach to breathing in relation to mask wearing.
Why should I wear a mask?
COVID-19 is spread through respiratory droplets. Breathing, speaking, singing, laughing, coughing or sneezing can all push the virus into the air. In the air the virus can travel around one metre (further if you are moving fast, coughing or sneezing), dropping and settling on anything with which it comes into contact. We know that we can get the virus on our hands by touching infected surfaces. We can also transfer the virus between surfaces by touching them with our contaminated hands. This is why we are all washing our hands and being mindful about the things that we touch.
A large percentage of people who are infected with the virus are asymptomatic and not aware that they are infectious. The rationale for wearing a mask in public is to curb the spread of the virus by preventing you from spreading it to other people. Wearing a mask also prevents you from touching your nose or mouth and infecting yourself with the virus that you may encounter while out and about.
What is the concern about wearing a mask?
There have been numerous reports in the media from people claiming feelings of dizziness, fatigue and headaches while wearing a mask. While this phenomenon has not been formally researched, there could be various reasons for it.
Why might I get symptoms while wearing a mask?
The ideal mask will allow for the easy flow of air (breathable) but will prevent the spread of droplets through it (impermeable).
- If your mask does not allow air to flow through it, this could have negative effects on your health and wellbeing.
But there are other reasons why you might get symptoms while wearing a mask:
- Wearing any mask can trigger a feeling of not getting enough air and cause you to breathe differently.
- If you are concerned about being outside and being at risk of getting the virus, you might breathe differently.
- If you are anxious or stressed, you will breathe differently.
- If you HAVE the virus, you will breathe differently.
Typically, when we are worried or anxious, adrenaline causes us to take faster and shallower breaths. This leads to lower levels of carbon dioxide in the blood which in turn can cause dizziness, fatigue, headaches, chest pain, breathlessness, numbness and tingling, a feeling of disorientation or confusion, and increased emotionality.
- If your mask is adequately breathable, it is more likely that symptoms experienced are related to your own breathing rather than the mask itself.
Does my mask limit the amount of oxygen I get?
Medical grade masks are specifically designed to offer high level protection (impermeability) and adequate oxygenation (breathability) while undertaking highly skilled and high-risk tasks.
While the general public do not require medical grade masks, manufactured and home-made masks should offer the same level of breathability and reasonable impermeability.
- A recent study done in Illinois demonstrated that a mask made with double layered T- shirt material (cotton or cotton/polyester blends) balances the best breathability with a 98% impermeability to droplet spread which performs equally to medical masks.
- The only difference is that household materials will retain droplets rather than repel them, so it is important to hot wash (or dispose of) them after each use.
Should I breathe through my nose or my mouth when wearing a mask?
Breathing through the nose provides the benefit of the air being moistened and filtered. Nasal breathing also produces Nitric Oxide which kills viruses and bacteria. Breathing through the nose is preferable when wearing a mask.
How can I optimise my breathing while wearing a mask?
Mask wearing can be great training for conscious breathing. Take this opportunity to be mindful of your breathing by seeing the mask as an extra filter.
- Breathe through your nose.
- Notice how your breathing is changing in reaction to your experience and environment.
- Consciously take slower and deeper breaths if you feel overwhelmed.
- Add a drop of essential oil such as peppermint or orange to keep your airways feeling open and to bring sensory enjoyment.
- When you take your mask off, spend a few minutes taking some full conscious breaths or practise the box breathing technique to bring calm energy and balance back to your system.
Dr. Ela Manga is an integrative medical doctor and leading voice in the field of mind-body medicine. She has dedicated her career to using breathing as medicine and as a tool for personal growth and transformation. Ela is a sought-after speaker, both locally and internationally, and has a revolutionary way of facilitating groups for profound transformation. She is the founder of Breathwork Africa and author of BREATHE: Strategising Energy in the Age of Burnout. She lives and works in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Dr. Philippa Wheble is a medical doctor, specialising in General Practice and Performing Arts Medicine in the UK and is a Certified Transformational Breath Facilitator and Trainer™. She is dedicated to the science and research of conscious breathing modalities and to improving breathwork education. Pippa is an international lecturer and public speaker, passionate about promoting mental health and resilience through conscious breathing. She is creating scientific articles and an online anatomy and physiology course for Breathworkers to support best practice in this evolving profession.
© Dr Philippa Wheble and Dr Ela Manga, 2020
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Disclaimer: Any information contained here is merely a guideline. Always visit your healthcare practitioner for any health-related advice or diagnosis.