Wearing a face mask has recently been employed as both a personal and public health control measure against the spread of Covid-19. But months into the pandemic, it appears that there are two groups of people who emerged relative to wearing a face mask: those who want to wear face coverings and those who do not. There is also a subgroup of people who unintentionally benefited from the public health measure of wearing a face mask as it helped reduce their social anxiety, published Inverse.
One Reddit user shares that he or she feels more comfortable talking to people and being in public while wearing a face mask. It also makes him or her worry about when we need to stop wearing masks. “Wearing a mask gives me comfort knowing not as many people will be able to see me,” the Reddit user wrote.
Social anxiety and a desire for anonymity
University of Waterloo’s professor of psychology David Moscovitch, whose research is focused on the nature of social anxiety and its treatment, explains that he and his student is currently working on a study about the potential effects of mask-wearing on people with social anxiety.
He finds it not surprising that those with social anxiety would feel more comfortable wearing a face mask since their core issue in social anxiety is about self-exposure. Wearing a mask helped fulfill their desire to self-conceal, especially those who believe that a face mask could hide their imagined flaws in their physical appearance or those who are showing signs of anxiety when with other people. Thus, they believe that wearing a mask prevents a negative evaluation on them.
Psychologist Vaile Wright, senior director of Health Care Innovation in the Practice Directorate at the American Psychological Association, also told Inverse that such situation resembles the social media. It has been shown that social media lessens social anxiety in people. Just like a social media profile, a face mask provides people the option to obscure themselves.
How it allows people to feel freer
Wright added that the mask allows people with social anxiety to feel freer and they can express themselves without fear of being criticized or being judged by others. The question remains, though, whether face coverings do provide real benefits to those with social phobia or social anxiety disorder. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), social phobia is the second most commonly diagnosed anxiety disorder following specific phobia. It also affects about 15 million US adults.
Although they know that their fear is unreasonable or excessive, people with social phobia usually feel powerless against their social anxiety. Thus, their mental health condition can wreak havoc in their lives. For instance, some may decline a job opportunity that needs frequent interaction with new people as well as avoid going out to eat with friends because of fear that their hand will shake when drinking or eating. Their symptoms could be so extreme that it can interfere or disrupt their daily routine, social life, and occupational performance.
In 2009, a position paper written by Moscovitch said that although people with a social anxiety disorder may experience the nuances of their condition differently, they are still primarily and uniquely concerned about the characteristics of the self that they think being deficient or one that is contrary to societal norms. This could be why masks help them because they don’t feel self-conscious or are not judged by others when they employ soothing techniques, such as big breaths, when in public.
Mask-wearing and safety behavior
However, Moscovitch added that the relief felt by those with social anxiety serves not as a solution to their condition but a safety behavior. It is an emotional action tendency that people rely on in an attempt to avoid the happening of a fear consequence. He said that mask-wearing can only lessen their social anxiety in the short-term but it can have unexpected negative consequences in the long term. It could be an issue when wearing face masks are no longer considered socially acceptable as a necessary norm, such as post-pandemic.
The long-term negative consequences of wearing masks can extend to interpersonal relations, wherein it could prevent them from forming deeper connections with other people. This does not mean that wearing a mask is bad for people with social anxiety. The issue is when they develop a dependency on it. Wright likens wearing masks to taking the first step into a pool when one is nervous about swimming. In the beginning, it helped them gain the confidence they need to interact with people. Yet, they must credit their success not on the mask but their ability to engage. In the end, it would be about exposure and countering the negative thoughts and worries that accompany social anxiety, such as the fear of saying the wrong thing in front of others.
Mindful Searching shares that anxiety is more common among women (23.4%) than men (14.3%). Of the different types of anxiety, social anxiety affects 6.8% of the US population or 15 million people. The most anxious generation is the Millennials. Those with social anxiety may want to establish a bond and make friends but they are afraid of being perceived as shy, unfriendly, disinterested, nervous, or quiet. They also have trouble being criticized, making phone calls in public, being the center of attention, taking, or meeting authority figures or important people.
In a recent YouGov poll, it also found people in the UK continue to be far more reluctant than people in other countries to wear a face mask to protect against Covid-19. More than eight in ten or 83% of UK respondents said they felt better protected wearing a face mask. However, the most common physical complaints among mask wearers are feeling too hot (39%), difficulty communicating (38%), and steamed-up glasses (39%). Some 52% also feel self-conscious about the reason why they don’t wear a mask while 47% said they feel embarrassed.
So, while it is important to wear a mask for public health reasons because of the pandemic, it could prevent those with social anxiety to recognize that they can be their authentic self and the world will still accept them as they are.