When breathing increases in response to any stimulus, it can create stress which can lead to negative physical reactions in susceptible people.
Wearing a mask creates a slight reduction in airflow, which causes a compensatory response of over-breathing (hyperventilation).
Hyperventilation is a well documented cause of many diverse symptoms in all humans. With people who have the functional and adaptive ability breathe normally, (i.e. nasally most of the time); the adjustment to mask wearing does not cause any symptoms because their breathing is able to functionally adapt to reduced air flow without exerting too much effort.
In people who naturally hyperventilate (like breathing orally when they speak, for example), this adaptation will not be as easy; as the natural reaction in most people will be to try and (often orally!) breathe more air through the mask.
This increased effort of breathing can activate stress responses, causing more breathing as a compensation and reaction; and this can create more symptoms.
Most of us are completely unaware of our stressed breathing patterns, and how we already over-breathe and how this already contributes to symptoms we find hard to understand. However, when the mask is on, stressed breathing patterns become far more apparent.
Obligate nasal breathing becomes more important, and in order to stay comfortable with a face mask on, people in other cultures and professions that use masks as protective gear; have learned to breathe less air by breathing nasally during all activities; and not becoming anxious at the feeling of reduced airflow.
In Buteyko’s methodology; a number of “tools” are utilized to help clients associate reduced airflow with increased breathing responses; so that they can recognize when they are likely to over-breathe and can positively and pro-actively respond to changes in their breathing, and make adjustments in time before hyperventilation gets out of control. You can change your responses and reactions to stressors and stimuli when you understand why they are happening; can predict their onsets and outcomes better; and take steps to interrupt these reactions so that they do not cascade into illness.
But when clients try using these tools or techniques that they find online; without a Buteyko Educator’s guidance and without the understanding that breathing, memory and fear are all connected in the brain; they run the risk of triggering old traumatic memory and fear responses and creating additional hyperventilation compensations to their breathing patterns that can cause worsening symptoms. It could be possible that mask wearing may be triggering these old trauma and fear responses in the subconscious mind, creating responses in breathing that we are not educated to cope with effectively.
Alongside every emotion is a reaction and a compensation to breathing patterns. The memory is a powerful tool which stores a recognition of this “pattern” for future instant reactivity – possibly to prevent or prepare better for trauma.
When breathing patterns are “re-activated”, the potential to trigger the subconscious memory is heightened. When fear is present; the potential for heightened responses and self-protective reactivity is increased even more.
This creates stress responses which cause further changes to breathing.
These changes are not always noticed when a person is continually stressed. Modern lifestyles provide sufficient daily chronic stressors for us to warrant unprecedented use of chronic medicines just to keep us going.
Chronic stress creates chronically stressed breathing, which is both a compensation for and a driver of stress reactions. Until we can harness the power of our breathing to enable self regulation and self healing, our breathing patterns are likely to be sabotaging our best efforts to be well.
Putting a mask on our faces is a new behaviour that many Westerners are unaccustomed to. Feeling “obligated” to do this is also a negative association in many people. But in the East, face-masks have become almost essential daily accessories – for reduction of inhaled pollution and airborne particles – and not only to reduce transmission of viral load.
In South Africa and many other parts of Africa, Tuberculosis is an epidemic that we have become so accustomed to; that we hardly pay it any attention. And yet, we can do so much more to prevent transmission of this and many other diseases which are reducing our immunity as a nation. Pollution levels have increased and air quality is reduced leading to potential increases in respiratory disease. This is already a good and logical reason to encourage mask wearing.
Certain professions should wear masks to reduce inhaled particle load – like hair stylists and nail technicians. Westerners seem to have simply ignored the evidence because the mask is too uncomfortable an adaptation to make to our daily behaviour. The changes go beyond the physical too. Modern cultures and lifestyles mean we are accustomed to expressing ourselves with our facial expressions. Many of us obviously identify with our faces! We can feel “identity-less” or “unnoticed” when we wear masks. These are all issues that need to be explored for us to become comfortable with this concept.
If mask wearing can save lives – we should encourage it as a positive new behaviour. Just like handwashing and using tissues, these are all behaviours that have prevented transmission of illness and have also become normalised into our culture. Mask wearing may be a new life saving behaviour adaptation that we are going to have to make for the future. It need not be stressful. There is a technique to everything. How well you breathe makes a difference to how well you live.
©M.Mitchell, Buteyko South Africa
Further reading / understanding / references:
A Comparison Between Patients With Dysfunctional Breathing and Patients With Asthma https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20298312/
The prevalence of dysfunctional breathing in adults in the community with and without asthma https://www.nature.com/articles/pcrj2004107
Primary Hyperventilation in the Emergency Department: A First Overview https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4482441/
Out of thin air: Hyperventilation-triggered seizures https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6546426/
Effect of respiratory pattern on automated clinical blood pressure measurement: an observational study with normotensive subjects https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5514537/
Changes in visual-evoked potential habituation induced by hyperventilation in migraine https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3476226/
Hyperventilation and exhaustion syndrome https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4282474/
Respiratory virus shedding in exhaled breath and efficacy of face masks https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0843-2
Professional and Home-Made Face Masks Reduce Exposure to Respiratory Infections among the General Population https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2440799/
Mouth Breathing, “Nasal Disuse,” and Pediatric Sleep-Disordered Breathing https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25877805
It Takes a Mouth to Eat and a Nose to Breathe: Abnormal Oral Respiration Affects Neonates’ Oral Competence and Systemic Adaptation https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3397177/
Effects of Short Term Forced Oral Breathing: Physiological Changes and Structural Adaptation of Diaphragm and Orofacial Muscles in Rats https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21741618/
Effects of Short Term Forced Oral Breathing in Rat Pups on Weight Gain, Hydration and Stress https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21035477/
Association between Mouth Breathing and Atopic Dermatitis in Japanese Children 2–6 years Old: A Population-Based Cross-Sectional Study https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4411141/
Dust Mites Living in Human Lungs–The Cause of Asthma? https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15236774
Stress: Neurobiology, consequences and management https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3697199/
A Study of Effects of Buteyko Breathing Technique on Asthmatic Patients http://www.i-scholar.in/index.php/ijpot/article/view/49837
Airborne Spread of Infectious Agents in the Indoor Environment https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27590694/
Exhaled droplets due to talking and coughing https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2843952/
Oral vs Nasal breathing https://www.facebook.com/269557456421089/videos/2509393432437469/
Breathing is linked to memory and fear https://www.facebook.com/269557456421089/videos/313020822586921/
Breathing Behaviour and recurring childhood infections: https://www.facebook.com/269557456421089/videos/1666534746723346/