Changing mask norms may impact social anxiety

Waterloo researchers identified three factors they felt might amplify mask-related social anxiety.

Dave Yasvinski 3 minute read June 21, 2021
face mask anxiety

People who have issues with social cues and anxiety may find their worries amplified amid the shifting rules of the pandemic. Getty

People who suffer from social anxiety may struggle to put the pandemic in the past, according to a new study that says shifting norms surrounding mask use — and human interaction itself — will make maneuvering through life more challenging than ever.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Waterloo’s Department of Psychology and Centre for Mental Health Research and Treatment, said a future full of unknowns, with rapidly evolving social cues, will present challenges to people who rely on such cues to navigate everyday life.

“The adverse effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health outcomes, including anxiety and depression, have been well-documented,” said David Moscovitch, co-author of the study and a professor of clinical psychology. “However, little is known about effects of increased mask-wearing on social interactions, social anxiety or overall mental health.

“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.”

Social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, is rooted in a fear of situations that hold the potential for a person to embarrass oneself in front of others, according to Statistics Canada. There are two subtypes of social anxiety, which has a lifetime prevalence of between 8 and 13 per cent among Canadians. The first is a fear of speaking in front of people; the second is a more complex and generalized anxiety that can involve everyday actions, such as eating in common areas or using public washrooms. Even people who realize their fears are excessive or unfounded are unable to move past them and typically avoid situations that present the slightest risk of being judged or humiliated in front of others.

Waterloo researchers identified three factors they felt might amplify mask-related social anxiety: hypersensitivity to social norms, bias in identifying social and emotional facial cues and a tendency to self-conceal as a type of defense mechanism. “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 Sidney Saint, lead author of the study and an undergraduate psychology student at UW.

Because people with this form of anxiety often interpret ambiguous social cues negatively — and are afraid of appearing awkward — rejoining society may present additional challenges not experienced by others. “We believe that both issues are likely to be magnified during interactions with masks,” Saint said.

Masks have also proved helpful for some people with social anxiety, researchers noted, providing an easy way to hide any self-perceived flaws that they may be hesitant to abandon in the post-COVID era. “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.

As people with such disorders have difficulty coping when social norms are in a state of flux, researchers hope their findings will help clinicians identify and provide timely care to patients during a period in which they will be particularly vulnerable.

Dave Yasvinski is a writer


Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our community guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.