How I’m Handling Panic and Anxiety from Wearing a Face Mask in Public

Last Updated: 29 Oct 2020
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Bipolar disorder can complicate our response to stress, but sometimes anxiety is a normal response. Wearing a mask in public is a new experience for many of us, and if it’s triggering anxiety for you—you’re not alone!


Sudden Cultural Changes & Unexpected Anxiety

I lived in Japan for over three years in the 1990s and regularly saw people wearing masks in public. It’s a part of the Asian culture and has been for decades.

When the flu would hit the schools, all of the masks would come out on the trains. I was always told that people wear masks to prevent spreading their own illness to others.

And if you love K-pop as much as I do, you know that it’s very common for dancers to wear masks as a part of a stage costume during a performance.

Masks have now come to Western culture, and I wish I could say that I find wearing one to be easy.

Nope. It has not been easy at all!

My desire to wear a mask is there. I don’t want to get sick or make anyone else sick, but I can tell you that as a person with bipolar who also lives with severe anxiety, wearing a mask in public has been a nightmare!

In case this is the same for you, I’ve come up with a way for us to learn to wear masks without increasing our anxiety.

How to Handle Mask Anxiety

#1 Know That You Are Not Alone!

I thought I was the only one going through this struggle—until I asked my Facebook community if anyone else had the mask/anxiety problem.

People replied within minutes:

  • “Julie, I feel suffocated!”
  • “My normal claustrophobia is now a lot worse.”
  • “I get hot and sweaty and can’t breathe!”

I feel so much better knowing it’s not just me!

I recently had to return an item at a UPS store. It was a simple procedure, but when combined with wearing the mask that my anxiety responds to by making me act as if I can’t breathe, it was a disaster!

This was when I realized I have to find a way to live with masks.

#2 Anxiety Is a Breathing Issue.

The number 1 way to reduce anxiety is to regulate our breathing. So, if while wearing a mask, say, in a store, we begin to panic and feel as if we cannot catch our breath or inhale and exhale properly, we have a few options. Here are two:

  • We can walk back into the parking lot for a few minutes, breathe normally, and spend some time talking to ourselves about how to keep our breathing stable when we walk back into the store.
  • We can also pause in the moment, while inside the store, and say to ourselves: “I can breathe just fine. The mask doesn’t prevent breathing. This is anxiety. All of this mask-wearing is new in my culture. I will adapt. Right now, I am going to self-regulate my breathing!” 

#3 Give Yourself Time.

Please don’t avoid going places if the only reason you fear doing so is that the mask makes you anxious! Masks will be a part of our future now. We need to learn to wear them without experiencing anxiety.

If you stop going out during the first round of required facial coverings, it will affect your movement if we are asked to wear masks again in the future! Going out is healthy. Addressing anxiety now is best.

Let’s prepare in advance for a life of using masks on a regular basis.

When Your Bipolar Brain Has a Mind of Its Own

Writing this blog led to my thinking about change in general. People all over the world had to change behaviors overnight; and, in many cases, people lost their work and even their income.

We were then asked to put a mask over our face in order to protect society.

These changes were stressful for stable people—people who don’t live with brain-based illnesses like bipolar. Of course, it’s pretty obvious to me now that these changes might create absolute havoc in the bipolar brain. And yet I didn’t see it this way in the moment.

Instead, I was hard on myself for being “WEAK” and unable to “just BREATHE!”

It took me much longer than you would expect to connect the dots and see that wearing the mask was creating intense anxiety. Why?

My mind was in one place:

  • I want to wear this mask, and I will wear this mask to keep myself and everyone else safe during a pandemic.

But my brain? Oh, it had a mind of its own: 

  • What is on my face!
  • I can’t breathe!
  • Danger! Danger!

Preparing for and Countering Anxiety Before It Strikes

Anxiety is complex. It’s a combination of physical and mental experiences. It can take over the mind and body in seconds.

The way to counteract an overwhelming anxiety response is to prepare ahead. Anxiety responds really well to natural processes, such as breathing and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Living with Bipolar Means Experiencing Things Differently

… and that’s OK.

I know that I definitely have to work on my mask-wearing ability. 

I asked my mother if she had any breathing problems, stress, or anxiety due to wearing the mask. She said, “No! Do you?” 

I’m so glad I asked. It’s a reminder that my bipolar/anxious brain simply isn’t like a regular brain.

I need to remind myself constantly that I am different, and I might need more help in new situations—such as suddenly having to cover my mouth in order to go into the grocery store!


Originally posted June 16, 2020.

About the author
Julie A. Fast is the author of Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder, Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder, Get It Done When You’re Depressed, and The Health Cards Treatment System for Bipolar Disorder. She is a columnist and blogger for bp Magazine, and she won the Mental Health America journalism award for the best mental health column in the US. Julie was also the recipient of the Eli Lilly Reintegration Achievement Award for her work in bipolar disorder advocacy. Julie is a bipolar disorder expert for ShareCare, a site created by Dr. Oz and Oprah. Julie is CEU certified and regularly trains health care professionals, including psychiatric residents, social workers, therapists, and general practitioners, on bipolar disorder management skills. She was the original consultant for Claire Danes for the show Homeland and is on the mental health expert registry for People magazine. She works as a coach for parents and partners of people with bipolar disorder. Julie is currently writing a book for children called "Hortensia and the Magical Brain: Poems for Kids with Bipolar, Anxiety, Psychosis, and Depression." You can find more about her work at and
1 Comment
  1. I love this read. Thank you for sharing your story. It was educational and well written. Great work.

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