Why some claustrophobics suffer from face mask anxiety

Published: Jun. 15, 2020 at 3:06 PM EDT
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To protect not just yourself, but those around you from the coronavirus, face masks are recommended. And in some businesses, they are required. But as our Olivia Lyons explains, for some people wearing a mask is very difficult, if not impossible.

"I'm not going to die if I put on a mask, but it certainly feels like I am," Lyra McMullen said.

For many people, wearing a mask can be seen as annoying or an inconvenience, but for others, it can cause anxiety and bring up past traumatic experiences. I spoke with one woman who has been known to have claustrophobia related to past traumatic events and abuse. Here is her story.

"I can keep a mask on my face for about 30 seconds and then the panic starts rising," McMullen said.

McMullen wants to be able to wear a mask but she just can't.

"Sometimes I hyperventilate," she said. "Sometimes I hold my breath instead of hyperventilating and I get this nausea deep in my stomach and it's not the kind of situation where if someone says tough it out, or get over it."

"For survivors of domestic or sexual violence that have experienced strangulation, confinement, it can be really triggering and to the point of creating this sort of panic, anxiety-type feeling," said Avaloy Lanning, the executive director at NewsStory Center in Rutland.

Lanning says for some people, they may be able to wear a mask for a short time but will focus on the feeling it's causing them rather than the task they're trying to do.

"I understand the reasoning behind the state requirements and I'm not one of these people who is just saying I want to not wear a mask because I don't want to wear a mask," McMullen said.

In fact, McMullen has been making masks for other people. She has also configured a face shield she feels comfortable wearing.

"The eyeglass frame is great. I can wear this eyeglass frame. I wear sunglasses all the time. But the plastic-- and a reviewer said this on Amazon-- it's so cloudy, I can't read a computer screen through it," she said.

Most stores have allowed McMullin to enter and she says she's had some positive interactions, but some have been difficult.

Lanning suggests for those who cannot wear a mask, know the requirements of a place before going there.

"Have an advance conversation with whomever you're going to go see about that rather than having to get there and in the moment have this really uncomfortable interaction," Lanning advised.

"I understand people right now are scared," McMullen said. "I would like a little bit more sensitivity in understanding that some of us who are not wearing masks right now have a reason why we're not wearing masks."

Throughout this entire pandemic, people have been debating whether or not masks are necessary. McMullen hopes a take away from her story is to stop judging people who are not wearing a mask because you don't always know what is going on in their heads.