COVID-19 Re-Entry Anxiety: What Students Should Know

by Evan Thompson

Updated September 12, 2022

Most college students are eager to get back to campus after more than a year of being away due to COVID-19. No worries, no concerns — just pure excitement.

But for others, the thought of coming back this fall causes more mixed emotions.

"When I noticed that the pandemic was ending around May, I started to get those feelings of anxiety about going back to campus," said Tommy Pederson, a sophomore at North Hennepin Community College. "I was thinking, 'Well, it's finally over. That's good. But, I kind of wish I could keep distance learning.'"

Students who have complex feelings about reacclimating to normal life as the pandemic eases are experiencing what is known as "re-entry anxiety," which can have the same signs as generalized anxiety and affect people in different ways.

For Matthew Monroe, a senior at William Peace University, the return to campus is also a mixed bag. He's struggled with online learning and knows returning to in-person classes will make him a better student. But he's concerned his grades might slip while he tries to get reacquainted on campus.

"I'm worried that I won't be able to adjust like I need to in order for me to do well this school year," he said.

While it's natural to feel a wide range of emotions as a college student — excitement, anticipation, stress, uncertainty, fear, grief, hope — re-entry anxiety is a unique part of the COVID-19 experience.

Psychologists and psychiatrists believe students will benefit from understanding re-entry anxiety, how it affects students differently, and when it may be time to ask for help in dealing with it.

What Is Re-entry Anxiety?

Re-entry anxiety comes from the stress of life returning to normal. People have spent months in isolated environments, wearing masks in public, and social distancing. Going back to school full time is a huge change.

College students are more at risk for mental health issues, such as re-entry anxiety.

Donna Volpitta, founder and education director of Pathways to Empower, explains: "We have gone through this trauma where we have felt like we were in danger, where we've been kind of in this fight, flight, or freeze mode for a year and a half. And for kids, everything is magnified just because of the adolescent brain."

"We have been inundated with messages that the world is not safe," said Nicole Davis, director of William Peace's Wellness Center. "While these messages were necessary during a worldwide pandemic, returning to 'normal' and trusting our judgement that the world is safer will take time."

For students, re-entry anxiety goes even deeper. Students have felt additional stress and anxiety because of the shift to remote learning, being away from friends, losing traditional experiences, and time away from on-campus routines.

Robert Quigley, senior vice president and global medical director of International SOS, said it's perfectly normal for students to feel apprehensive about returning to campus in the fall.

"It's not unusual to have some hesitation around engaging in activities with others as our world begins to reopen," Quigley said. "Generally speaking, if you're not practicing something for a while, it'll become less comfortable."

The Impact of Re-entry Anxiety Will Vary

The effects of re-entry anxiety can vary from person to person, ranging from mild feelings of discomfort to more intense levels of post-traumatic stress, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.

Rebecca Wysoske, a psychiatrist from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said three groups of students would probably be the most anxious coming into this fall:

Each student's lived experience during the pandemic may also impact their ability to readjust. Wysoske said students who enjoyed remote learning might feel out of their comfort zones. Others who didn't mind being less social may be fearful of being around strangers again.

Some students may be struggling with what scientists have classified as COVID-19 anxiety syndrome. Quigley said the people most affected by the syndrome could also be among those who find it the most difficult to be back on campus.

"Many individuals who experience COVID-19 anxiety syndrome tend to avoid leaving the house, social situations, and people all together, likely for fear of contracting COVID-19, along with the uncertainty that the pandemic has brought about," Quigley said.

Others may be dealing with anticipation anxiety, which could potentially go away after they return to campus.

"Sometimes anticipation anxiety can be worse than an actual event," Davis said. "Our minds can allow us to believe things may not turn out well at all. We call this 'catastrophizing.'"

How Can You Tell if You're Struggling?

Most people will experience anxiety in their lifetimes, but can overcome the discomfort by making changes in their lives. Psychologists say re-entry anxiety is no different.

According to Larry Marks, a psychologist at the University of Central Florida, students can do many things to help manage their re-entry anxiety, such as:

He also said taking a more thoughtful approach to the school year can help.

"Start planning ahead for how things will be new and/or different in the fall: living arrangements, schedules, routines, responsibilities, etc.," Marks said. "Both thinking through what it will be like and taking practical steps to get ready will help with readjustment. In addition, students will need to be patient with themselves and others, as it may take time for everyone to readjust."

However, there are times when stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues can be too much to handle alone. Some telltale signs that indicate students should seek extra care for their anxiety include but are not limited to:

  • Physical symptoms: Upset stomach, rapid heartbeat, headache, trouble breathing.
  • Cognitive symptoms: Struggling with memory loss, concentration, and sleeping at night.
  • Other signs: Procrastination and avoidance of simple tasks, such as going to the grocery store; panic attacks; and constant worrying or feelings of agitation.

"For students experiencing any of these symptoms or [who] feel the need for support in managing their anxiety, campus resources — such as on-campus counseling, which is offered as a part of student health services — can be a good place to start," Quigley said. "Centers of higher learning, inclusive of universities, are encouraged to have their teachers and professors trained in the recognition [of mental health issues]."

Portrait of Evan Thompson

Evan Thompson

Evan Thompson is a Washington-based writer for TBS covering higher education. He has bylines in the Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Everett Herald, and others from his past life as a newspaper reporter.

Header Image Credit: Prostock-Studio, solarseven, chrispecoraro | Getty Images

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