Smiles masked by the pandemic

Hidden features can impact mental health


Laura Boifort

Caption: Despite not being able to show the smiles under their masks, three Miramonte students collectively grin for a photo at a club event.

Avoiding eye contact is the new norm. Glancing around, she locks eyes with an old classmate. A smile appears under her mask, but she immediately wonders, “Does he realize I smiled? Did he smile back?” Embarrassed by the awkward interaction, she quickly walks the other direction, asking herself, “Why does it seem like I forgot how to socially interact with other people I know?”

Over the past year of fighting the coronavirus, many students face severe mental health struggles, partly caused by social distancing protocols and mask wearing. 

In December 2020, Miramonte administrators sent all students a survey regarding their mental health. More than 50 percent listed anxiety as a concern, and nearly 30 percent marked isolation and disconnection as a relatable issue. 

Dr. Temre Uzuncan is the mother of a Miramonte junior and the chief psychologist at the Integrated Health Psychology Training Program. According to Uzuncan, an important factor of an individual’s mood depends on their natural interactions with other people, especially relations involving facial expressions. 

“We’re social beings. We’re made to attach to groups, our family, our friends. We look for social cues, or facial cues, in order to read for inclusion from a friend or a group,” Uzuncan said. 

While face coverings serve a vital role in defeating the virus, many students experience the detrimental effects of hiding behind a face shield or a mask. 

“I think one of the biggest challenges is that our brains and our bodies are wired to really look to people’s faces, to make sure that we’re safe or unsafe,” Uzuncan said. “If you’re smiling, or if you quickly turn away and ignore that person, or if you frown, or if you just have a blank expression, these social cues are what connect multiple individuals, allowing someone to know whether they are liked and feel included..” 

After gathering information from other researchers, Uzuncan acknowledges that when people cover up their natural, everyday expressions, these facial restrictions may inhibit people’s ability to connect with one another. 

Especially with facial cues, social interactions have the potential to initiate a flight or fight reaction. “Facial expressions have a large impact on my interactions with people. Whether they’re strangers or friends, it’s definitely more reassuring and welcoming when that person smiles or talks to me. But, it’s definitely important to continue staying safe and keeping others around us safe,” Miramonte junior Kiara Kofoed said.  

Although many believe covering up an individual’s lower face can cause isolation, Uzuncan and other researchers notice that connections do not solely depend on social cues covered by masks. In fact, according to Dr. Stephen Porges, a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, “All the information regarding the ability to co-regulate is conveyed in the muscles around the eye.” 

Porges also notes that body language also significantly conveys expressions that promote or impede relationships. Therefore, even while wearing masks, people still easily express themselves to others without speaking. 

While many believe face coverings can have damaging effects to one’s mental well-being, wearing masks may positively impact one’s mental health. 

“I think especially in adolescence, we’re all so worried about what we look like. And it’s easier to hide behind the mask so that you don’t have to worry so much about your appearance. We’re, in a sense, all in this together when we wear masks,” Uzuncan said.