Feeling Anxious About Returning to College During Covid-19? Here’s How to Cope

After shutting down campuses in the Spring of 2020 due to COVID-19, universities have decided to continue with the fall semester in a variety of ways. Students are receiving an influx of emails from their universities delineating the complex, sometimes confusing plans for reopening. From random temperature checks, mandatory mask enforcement, scattered housing arrangements, physical distancing, and remote classes, it is needless to say that the coming semester will be vastly different than what students are accustomed to. Campuses will be transformed and the college experience will be fundamentally altered.

Some schools, like George Washington University are still hoping for a hybrid structure of in-person and online courses, while others, such as Harvard and the University of Southern California are working to move classes completely online. “Given the continuing safety restrictions and limited densities permissible on campus, our undergraduate students primarily or exclusively will be taking their courses online in the fall term,” the University of Southern California announced in an email to their student body.

Other schools, such as Stanford, are employing a different approach and scheduling a four quarter academic year. In an email to students, Stanford explained that half of the undergraduate population would return to campus for the fall quarter and switch off with others for the subsequent quarters. “…the four-quarter year would allow all Stanford undergraduates to complete two quarters of instruction in residence on the Stanford campus in 2020-21, and require most to complete at least one quarter remotely.”

When I received an update from Emory University, explaining that hardly any students would be allowed on campus, courses would be remote, and students were discouraged from returning to Atlanta, I was gutted. This is definitely not the way I had planned on going into my senior year of college.

While students might be feeling excitement, or relief, about returning to classes and reclaiming structure to their days, it’s normal to also feel a level of anxiety and nervousness about returning to college during this unprecedented, dangerous time.

If you find yourself overwhelmed and struggling to comprehend these myriad changes, or if you’re experiencing heightened levels of anxiety around all of this uncertainty, know that you’re not alone. Here are a few tips to help process the emotions of potentially returning to campus.

Are You Anxious About Returning to Campus?

Anxiety is often referred to as the fear of the unknown; it is a feeling of worry, or nervousness frequently brought about by a stressful event or an uncertain outcome. As we are living through an incredibly uncertain time, it is completely normal to be feeling anxious right now — about returning to campus, future prospects, even your own health. If you’ve been uneasy, or particularly nervous and stressed out about next semester, you’re likely dealing with anxiety.

Anticipatory anxiety, more specifically, refers to the anxiety that arises from thinking about what may happen, most often imagined to have a negative outcome. Students are aware that nothing is set in stone while the world struggles to contain coronavirus; our universities can change their minds about every decision at a moment’s notice. We don’t know if anything will go according to plan, or if another surge of the virus will return in the fall. It’s easy to lose yourself in a spiral of negativity while you try and speculate about the future. The important thing to remember, however, is that no one can know the future and spending time feeling anxious won’t positively influence outcomes.

How to Reduce Your Anxiety About Next Semester

Anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling that sometimes feels uncontrollable. If you’re struggling with anxiety, or feeling particularly overwhelmed, hopefully these tips will help you keep it all in perspective and deal with the difficult emotions.

  • Recognize the discomfort as anxiety: Acknowledge that the discomfort you’re feeling is anxiety — naming the emotion and being able to sit with the discomfort will help you validate your emotions.
  • Practice physical and cognitive grounding techniques: Focus your attention on the present with boxed breathing, stretching, and mindfulness exercises. You can also distract yourself by phoning a friend, reading, or going for a walk to reduce your stress and anxiety.
  • Accept that things are going to be different and are beyond your control: As we have seen, the virus isn’t interested in our plans — it has no regard for weddings, vacations, even births. The best we can do is protect ourselves and our loved ones and follow the advice from healthcare experts. We are living through history, remember that you’re not the only one going through this.
  • Limit your news intake: As Talkspace therapist Catherine Richardson, LPC recommends, “Choose 2-3 reputable new sources that you trust and keep yourself informed. Be aware of what your capacity for information is. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by the amount of content you’re taking in each day, reduce the volume and frequency to which you are consuming media.”
  • Consider journaling as a way to process your thoughts: Journaling is effective in helping you slow down and hash out your feelings. It will also be a fascinating document to look back on in years to come, when coronavirus is but a distant memory.
  • Try to rationally analyze your thoughts and imagine positive outcomes instead of negative ones: This technique is especially helpful for those dealing with anticipatory anxiety. It will help you replace your worry with excitement and encourage you to realize that some anticipatory worries might be unrealistic.

Deciding About Returning to Campus

If your university has decided to reopen with a modified format, you might be contemplating whether to go back to campus, take your courses online remotely, or take a gap semester. Some students are planning to return to their college towns just to hold on to a sense of normalcy and see their friends again. Others, such as international students, have to grapple with visa requirements and weigh the pros and cons of leaving their families and support systems during this uncertain time. Those who are immuno-compromised might already know that returning to campus is unrealistic and that it would jeopardize their health.

If you decide you would feel safer not returning, then stick to the decision that makes the most sense for you, and don’t let peer pressure get to you. As Talkspace therapist Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, says, “Not everyone functions the same, and if you need some time off, it is OK to take it as long as there is a plan to return so you can graduate.”

Consider your mental health

It’s not only important to consider how your physical health will be affected by returning to campus during the pandemic, but your mental health as well. Catchings reminds students that “One of the primary considerations should be the level of stress and anxiety before COVID-19. If there were symptoms of one or both, most likely, these will increase.” Think about where your mental health will be the strongest.

Richardson also encourages students to think about their personality type when making this decision. “Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Do you feel motivated when you’re around others or do you need alone time to think and process? If you lean more toward extroversion and feel energized when you’re surrounded by others, completing online classes solitarily may be draining for you. On the other hand, if you lean more towards introversion, being surrounded by lots of people during a pandemic may be too distracting for you to be productive,” she says. This is a very personal decision, so think about which scenario you’d feel the most comfortable in.

If you do decide to return to campus, Catchings recommends creating a list of what can trigger your individual stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms. “If you are aware of what can affect you, most likely, you will be able to respond better.” Safeguarding yourself against some of these negative forces, will also help reduce your anxiety about next semester.

How to Move Forward

The first step in moving forward should be working to reduce your anxiety and stress about next semester so you can think clearly about the situation and your particular needs. For those considering returning to campus, Richardson notes that it would be helpful to know whether you can change your mind should your comfort level or environment change. “Knowing that you can decide to transition back home with ease, can help reduce the weight of the decision,” she says.

Students should focus on making the best decision for themselves. It is a fraught, fragile time and it’s important to support your friends in their decisions, even if they aren’t the same as yours. Know that you are able to make the most of whatever you choose to do during this time and that life will eventually return to normal. As Catchings says, “This is a temporary situation. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Remind yourself that this will not last forever and whatever option you are given, you are in control of deciding what works best for you.”

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