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Wearing mask causes “stress and anxiety” for people with claustrophobia

WINNIPEG (CityNews) – To mask or not to mask, that is the question for many before leaving the safety of their home during the global pandemic.

But for some, the decision to wear a mask isn’t as simple as yes or no. For some, it’s a full-on battle with their mental health.

Dawn Rowntree, a hair stylist, has suffered from claustrophobia her entire life. She has issues boarding airplanes and sitting in movie theatres. As Manitobans prepare for life after COVID-19, Rowntree is worried about having to wear a mask every day for work.

“It just causes lots of stress and anxiety,” she said. “And I have to go to work early, to do breathing exercises before I can put the mask on. I’m working with a counsellor to kind of get through it.”

Rowntree says working with a psychologist has helped a little. She practices wiggling her toes to shift her mental focus when she starts feeling anxious and tight-chested from wearing the mask.

However, Rowntree can’t do much to avoid the social stigma of not wearing a mask. She says she feels judged when out in public.

“I’ve been told that I’m disrespectful by not wearing a mask, that I’m putting people’s lives in danger by not wearing a mask,” she said. “And I understand that people need to feel safe. I get that. But what I find is people don’t understand how hard it is.

“It’s not that I don’t want to wear a mask. I can’t breathe. I start to cry. I get in a panic.”

As the entire world moves toward post-COVID-19 safety protocols, Rowntree’s biggest fear is that it becomes mandatory to wear masks moving forward. That would prevent her from visiting shopping centres and doing anything that involves public transportation and air travel.

“I’m pretty much stuck,” she said.

Manitobans will be able to start going out to bars and restaurants starting Monday, with limited capacity and social distancing protocols still in place.