Masks of Fear 1: Suffocating Panic

John Bailey
3 min readOct 6, 2020

If wearing a mask makes you feel short of breath or light-headed, it’s NOT because it’s “reducing your oxygen” or because it’s “trapping the CO2”. (Masks don’t actually do those things.)

The symptoms are most probably due to a panic attack being brought on by having something over your face. It’s really very common.

It may be aggravated by the many fears about the virus that some people are repressing in order to maintain rapport with their tribal / political group.

The symptoms may also be aggravated by hyperventilating that is sometimes part of a panic attack.

The remedy for hyperventilation — and the symptoms from it — is breathing into a paper bag — something that actually traps the CO2 (the mask doesn’t) to restore the proper level of CO2 in the blood: (

It is common for people with phobic or panic responses to attempt to rationalize them in various ways — which will over time make them even more difficult to deal with, and may in some cases generalize the stimulus that can trigger them (make them more common / frequent — and maybe not require a mask to trigger them).

If seeing others wearing masks (a thing that actually protects you) is “triggering” for you, you may be having a phobic response to people in masks. This may be related to another phobia that is far more common than most people realize: coulrophobia, or the fear of clowns.

It may be related to the fact that we’ve been bombarded with scary news about “terrorists” for the past 20 years. It may even be related to the amount of information we’re used to gathering instantly and unconsciously about the people around us — that their faces are friendly and welcoming — or at least not angry and threatening. Suddenly being unable to tell whether the people around you are hostile might trigger a fearful response.

When such things happen, people don’t always realize they’re having a panic attack or phobic response. And, experiencing this doesn’t mean a person is “crazy”, “broken”, or “weak”. Even though these emotional hiccups are quite common, people are often embarrassed by them — which is one of the reasons they live and suffer in denial rather than just seeking help for them.

Panic attacks and phobia-like responses are not usually dangerous to the people who suffer them. However, when they interfere with medically necessary safety precautions from deadly disease, they can contribute to both personal and public health problems.

If wearing a mask — or seeing people in masks — feels triggering, or leads to light-headedness, dizziness, or hyperventilating, contact a professional for some assistance to resolve what is likely a simple issue, but in these times one that might lead to really serious outcomes — for you or for someone you care about.

A quick-fix you might try for yourself is picking a mask that represents a group or team you support — from a sporting team, to a political organization, a flag — or even a superhero costume. While this might seem silly or simple it actually works wonders sometimes. And, it costs very little to just try it.

If you aren’t experiencing these kinds of problems, try to be understanding of others who are triggered into fear (which is naturally followed by protective anger) at being asked to wear a mask or at seeing others in masks. Realize that they may not be aware of the specific thing that’s triggering them. Try to be understanding that denial of the realities of the pandemic might be their way of trying to avoid or to rationalize the non-rational but very real fear they’re experiencing.

Give them space, speak in a calm and reassuring, rather than angry or demanding tone. Don’t shame them for being stupid — that’s likely to worsen their response. If there is sufficient social distance, consider showing them your (calm and reassuring) face.

If you or someone you know is experiencing intense fearful or angry responses to wearing masks or seeing people wearing them, consider getting some professional assistance for relief, comfort, and safety.