On March 14, Rowland Hall became mask-optional after nearly two years of requiring face coverings to be worn by everyone in the buildings. That Monday you probably noticed that there was an even mix of people wearing masks and those opting not to. Students and faculty alike had to familiarize themselves with all the new faces that were once hiding behind scratchy KN95s. After wearing these coverings for so long, some people may be hesitant to take them off. Masks have become a shield of sorts, not only protecting us against COVID but from others seeing our perceived imperfections or flaws. With this policy change, some may get a feeling of anxiety when they think about revealing the face they’ve hidden behind a mask for so long. This brings up a question, does the mask help or exacerbate social anxiety?
To gauge how the Rowland Hall community is adapting to this large change, we asked some students how they feel, socially, without a mask. (Disclaimer: none of the people we interviewed have social anxiety, so these are not personal experiences of those who struggle with it.) Many said that wearing a mask eliminates the worry of having something in your teeth or having a lot of acne; however many find going without a mask refreshing. Max Jansen, a sophomore, said not wearing a mask gave him a self-confidence boost when talking to others and said that it was nice to not have to repeat himself all the time. Eli Borgenicht recalled his first time regularly not wearing a mask in public, which was in the summer of 2021. “It’s refreshing to see faces because I can smile and show that I’m not staring agonizingly at them,” he explained, “but that means I can’t make faces at people without them knowing anymore,” he added. However, some choose to keep the mask because they feel more comfortable in it for whatever reason, or if you’re Rodrigo, you wear one to make a political statement (he said it himself).
Masks offer a veil of anonymity from people seeing our flaws or expressions. Concealing cosmetic imperfections or acne are popular reasons why a person might want to continue wearing a mask. The chance of people misinterpreting our expressions seems insignificant in a time when half our faces are covered up. Therefore people who have anxiety over others being able to ‘read’ their emotions through their facial expressions may feel relief and comfort in wearing masks. According to Dr. Kevin Chapman from a Medium interview, “If no one can notice these physiological experiences that are manifested on my face, I’m going to be less anxious by default.”
People have all kinds of reasons for wearing or not wearing a mask, but in order to better understand the experience of someone with social anxiety, we interviewed Lauren Stivers, the upper school mental health counselor to ask her about what social anxiety is and how masks affect it. Social anxiety is a type of anxiety in which a person is constantly aware of other people and the perception that those people are constantly judging them. The level of judgment a person feels depends on the severity of the social anxiety they experience, and triggers vary depending on this factor as well. “Masks certainly have their benefits in this way, in terms of you're never going to get caught with food in your teeth. For people who are very aware of the judgment of others, being able to have that barrier can be really great,” Lauren pointed out.
She also acknowledged that social anxiety can be amplified by the mask: “I think that now that most people are not wearing them, my guess would be that wearing one would ‘other’ them in a way that would make them feel uncomfortable.” For a person with social anxiety, when others are wearing masks covering large parts of their faces, it becomes easier to assume you’re being judged because you can’t read people’s expressions as easily. Stivers adds that “when people aren’t receiving cues like a big smile…it becomes a lot harder to navigate social situations.” It was especially difficult at the beginning of the pandemic when masks seemed to be a source of anxiety rather than a shield from it. In an interview with David A. Moscovitch and Sidney A. Saint by PhyPost, they say: “We found that this [fear of making a mistake] may be amplified for people with higher social anxiety because shifting norms heighten the fear of…being judged negatively by others.” The article goes on to say that social anxiety tends to increase self-conscious ideas about one’s appearance and/or behavior, and failure to conform with social expectations draws unwanted attention to themselves. “Given the highly politicized nature of mask-wearing in some regions, this hypersensitivity to social norms might pressure some people to either wear a mask or forget wearing one,” Moscovitch and Sidney said. “Anytime there's sort of a hot button issue, people with social anxiety really struggle because what they're really desperately trying to do is sort-of create situations where people can't judge them,” Lauren added. When the politicization of masks is reduced, the anxiety is reduced as well, so mask mandates may have actually helped ease social anxiety caused by masks.
Masks are a drag to some of us and a unique thing to most of us, and whatever changes occur with them are likely to be turbulent. There is no definitive answer on whether or not masks help with social anxiety; it varies from person to person and with circumstance as well. Masks may offer some a sense of security but not everybody. Others may not have a preference. No one knows if masks are here to stay or will become a thing of the past, yet they can tell us a lot about social situations and how we perceive one another. As we begin to relax COVID restrictions, people with social anxiety might find it difficult to adjust to a maskless world again. But at the same time, it poses a unique opportunity for them to confront their anxiety. Those who have grown comfortable hiding behind this cloth covering might actually have something to gain by being vulnerable and removing their masks.