Wearing masks may increase discomfort in people with social anxiety

Wearing masks may increase discomfort in people with social anxiety

The findings of a recent study suggest that individuals who have social anxiety might experience increased distress because of mask-wearing during and even after the coronavirus pandemic.

The paper authored by researchers from the University of Waterloo's Department of Psychology and Centre for psychological state Research and Treatment also has implications for those that haven't necessarily suffered from social anxiety within the past. The study was published within the journal Anxiety, Stress and Coping.

"The adverse effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on psychological state outcomes, including anxiety and depression, are well-documented," said David Moscovitch, professor of psychotherapy and co-author of the paper. "However, little is understood about effects of increased mask-wearing on social interactions, social anxiety, or overall psychological state ."

Moscovitch added, "It is additionally possible that a lot of people that 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 therefore the new rules for social engagement are yet to be written."

Social anxiety is characterized by negative self-perception and fear that one's appearance or behaviour will fail to evolve with social expectations and norms. Social mental disorder is an extreme manifestation that affects up to 13 per cent of the population.

The researchers reviewed existing literature addressing three factors that they hypothesized might contribute to social anxiety related to mask-wearing: hypersensitivity to social norms, bias within the detection of social and emotional facial cues, and propensity for self-concealment as a sort of safety behaviour.

"We found that mask-wearing by people with social anxiety is probably going to be influenced by their perception of social norms and expectations, which can or might not be according to public-health guidelines and may vary widely by region and context," said Sidney Saint, an undergraduate psychology student at Waterloo and lead author of the paper.

The paper also highlights that folks with social anxiety have difficulty detecting ambiguous social cues and are likely to interpret them negatively. These individuals also tend to stress about sounding incomprehensible or awkward. "We believe that both issues are likely to be magnified during interactions with masks," Saint said.

Another highlighted impact is that masks can function as a kind of self-concealment strategy that permits people with social anxiety to cover their self-perceived flaws. Therefore, the will for self-concealment may motivate their use of masks over and above their desire to guard themselves from contagion. "Due to their self-concealing function, masks could also be difficult for a few people to discard even when mask-wearing is not any longer required by public health mandates," Saint said.

In addition to contributing insights to guide clinicians toward effective assessment and treatment, the paper shows that folks with social anxiety could also be particularly susceptible to periods of norm transitions where expectations for mask-wearing are in flux or become a matter of private choice.

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