Face Masks Are Alleviating Social Anxiety
People are reporting that wearing masks make them feel less anxious and more confident
For as long as she can remember, Betsy O’Donnell, a Delray Beach, Florida-based UX designer, has lived with social anxiety. As a child, this usually manifested as a fear of using public bathrooms and talking to other kids. Now 31, O’Donnell goes to therapy and takes medication to manage her anxiety but she still experiences unpleasant pangs of stress before giving presentations at work or when meeting new people.
But this spring while waiting in line to check out at the grocery store, O’Donnell noticed she suddenly wasn’t fixating on what to do with her hands, whether she was unintentionally scowling at a stranger, or if she was being judged from afar. The inner monologue of potential stressors was quieted simply because she, like other shoppers, was wearing a face mask. “I feel more myself,” O’Donnell says. “I definitely don’t smile as much to be polite, which is very nice, and I don’t get [self] conscious about my ‘resting bitch face.’”
Mandated in most states, facial coverings have become part of the daily wardrobe and an essential tool, supported by scientific evidence, in slowing the spread of Covid-19. But for some people with social anxiety, face masks can also be a veil of anonymity, offering a temporary reprieve from the unease of interacting with others. A Polish study published in May examined the psychological and behavioral responses to mask-wearing and found that masking resulted in lower levels of anxiety and “might reinforce people’s sense of personal control and… mitigate helplessness and moderate anxiety,” the study’s authors wrote. The presence of a bit of fabric obscuring the face could potentially improve mental well-being, they suggested.
“People with social anxiety have an unhealthy, and not very rational, level of self-consciousness where they think people are paying inordinate amounts of attention to them and judging them for whatever they’re doing,” says Vaile Wright, PhD, the senior director of health care innovation at the American Psychological Association. “To have that removed has the potential to put people at ease.”