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Restore balance after a day in a mask

Updated: Mar 1, 2022

Wearing masks all day is affecting us all. We feel more tired because we’re not breathing in the same way as usual and we have to listen and concentrate harder because people’s voices are muffled and we don’t get some of the usual facial cues.

This is even harder for young children who rely so much on facial expressions to make meaning of interpersonal communication.

But wearing masks doesn’t just affect children’s and our communication. It also affects our physiology and emotional wellbeing.

One of the keys to understanding this is through polyvagal theory. This is the relatively new idea that part of our nervous system – called the vagus nerve which leads directly into and out of the brain – supports social and emotional engagement with other people.

The science is still new and open to debate, but the argument is that vagal tone – how active and balanced our vagus nerve is – affects wellbeing. The vagus nerve links the gut, the heart and the lungs to activity in the brain. It’s deeply linked to our breathing, our gut health, and therefore to our emotional regulation and wellbeing.

There is a reason why we say we feel it in our gut: it’s true. If our gut is sending messages along the vagus nerve to our brain that it’s unsettled that’s how we will feel about the world. And gut understanding is not just about the balance of the bacteria and other flora and fauna that inhabit our gut. It’s also about our core strength and our ability to breathe deeply, to sustain and regulate our breathing to sensitise our internal organs and strengthen and balance them.

This is linked to our breath and our posture; and wearing masks all day changes the way we do this. Our breathing is shallower, our oxygen levels can drop, our bodies feel more tired, we do less and feel lower, and the cycle of a weakened nervous system affects our immune system. The very thing that’s keeping us safer during the pandemic – our masks – is also making things worse by affecting our physiological response to fighting Covid.

So what can we do to help reverse this process? Here at CreateCATT we have been advising parents to do lots of sensory play – particularly oral sensory play and vestibular play to strengthen vagal tone.

Firstly we recommend as soon as you or your children get home from a day in a mask, you should take a series of deep breaths: fill your lungs, reach to the skies and stretch your arms as you breath in and out allowing oxygenated blood to flow.

Singing is a great way to strengthen vagal tone – check out this short video.

Do sucking and blowing exercises, using assorted straws to suck different thicknesses of liquid. Drinking milkshakes and smoothies through thick straws really works your oral sensory system. So does blowing bubbles – it tightens the facial muscles and helps tone up all the muscles that are key to breathing. It restores focus and regulation of breathing.

Yoga and Pilates are both exercises that support this, too, because they work on core strength to open up the stomach and allow the internal organs to do their work, as well as focusing a lot on the breath.

Masks can keep us safe from the virus but they are also affecting our physiology, so to keep well we recommend lots of breath and core-related play in the safety of your own home.

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