Masks have become an integral part of life due to Covid-19. However, people who struggle with social anxiety might experience increased distress related to mask-wearing during and even after the pandemic, finds a study.
Social anxiety is characterized by negative self-perception and fear that one’s appearance or behaviour will fail to conform with social expectations and norms. Social anxiety disorder is an extreme manifestation that affects up to 13 per cent of the population.
The study by researchers from the University of Waterloo also has implications for those who haven’t necessarily suffered from social anxiety in the past.
“It is also possible that many people who didn’t struggle with social anxiety before the pandemic may find themselves feeling more anxious than usual as we emerge out of the pandemic and into a more uncertain future — especially within social situations where our social skills are rusty and the new rules for social engagement are yet to be written,” said David Moscovitch, Professor of clinical psychology at the varsity’s Department of Psychology.
For the study, published in the journal Anxiety, Stress and Coping, the researchers reviewed existing literature addressing three factors that they hypothesized might contribute to social anxiety associated with mask-wearing: hypersensitivity to social norms, bias in the detection of social and emotional facial cues, and propensity for self-concealment as a form of safety behaviour.
“We found that mask-wearing by people with social anxiety is likely to be influenced by their perception of social norms and expectations, which may or may not be consistent with public-health guidelines and can vary widely by region and context,” said lead author Sidney Saint, an undergraduate psychology student at Waterloo.
The study also highlights that people with social anxiety have difficulty detecting ambiguous social cues and are likely to interpret them negatively. These individuals also tend to worry about sounding incomprehensible or awkward.
Another impact is that masks can function as a type of self-concealment strategy that enables people with social anxiety to hide their self-perceived flaws. Therefore, the desire for self-concealment may motivate their use of masks over and above their desire to protect themselves from contagion.
“Due to their self-concealing function, masks may be difficult for some people to discard even when mask-wearing is no longer required by public health mandates,” Saint said.