Leaving Your Home: Coping with Re-Entry Anxiety on Campus
The University of Manitoba is returning to largely pre-Covid-19 pandemic operations in September 2022 and while many students are excited and happy about being on campus more, some students are worried and concerned. Whether you’re excited and happy, worried and concerned, or somewhere in between, we want you to know YOUR REACTIONS ARE NORMAL.
Re-Entry Anxiety is anxiety or stress resulting from re-entering social life after spending a lot of time in isolation. For many students, it was as though they were in a closed bubble during the Covid-19 pandemic – they have not attended any classes in-person, did not write exams in-person, did not work in-person with others, did not attend or attended few in-person social events. Even when restrictions eased, many students continued to do all they could to limit their exposure to the virus by spending time alone. While this helped protect them from contracting Covid-19, it also likely hurt their overall mental health as the pandemic continued.
We know that stress, anxiety and depression can develop and increase when we isolate ourselves and engage less in previously highly valued, rewarding and important activities. Even those students who have gradually increased their in-person experiences and resumed engaging in life activities may experience a negative reaction when back on campus more. The fear or discomfort about letting go of safeguards that you feel have protected you, having to sit in a classroom daily with a lot of other students, and needing to re-connect with a world changed by the virus, can be overwhelming for many.
Common re-entry anxiety symptoms
- Irrational and excessive fear;
- Nervousness and restlessness;
- Feelings of dread
- Very emotionally reactive
- Unable to focus or concentrate on studies
- More forgetful
- Memory lapses or difficulties
- More self-critical
- Fear of impending doom; the return of Covid “waves”
- Over-emphasize negatives or the bad and minimize positives or the good
- Obsessional thinking about Covid and risk
- Feeling short of breath
- Headaches, body aches
- Racing heart
- Stomach pain/problems
- Physical illness
- Isolation and avoidance
- Negative change in eating behaviours
- Increased use of substances to cope
- Unrestful sleep
- Overall poor personal hygiene
- More conflicts with others
Managing re-entry anxiety
Normalize and practice self-compassion
- Many students and people are struggling with some re-entry anxiety as health restrictions are relaxed and a return to pre-pandemic life happens. This is NORMAL and to be expected.
- We are all connected in some way through our experience with the pandemic and through any suffering we have experienced. Remind yourself that feelings of fear, worry, self-doubt are shared by all. There is a common humanity to the suffering in our lives.
- Our common humanity, along with self-kindness and mindfulness, are the core components of self-compassion.
- Hold your thoughts and emotions in mindful awareness – write about what you are feeling, describe and simply feel it. Do not avoid your feelings and thoughts or criticize yourself.
- Remind yourself that experiencing pain is part of the shared human experience – write down the ways in which your experience is connected to other students in the larger human experience. Remember that people are not perfect and that everyone has painful times.
- Give yourself kindness and care – write yourself some kind, understanding words of comfort. Let yourself know that you care about yourself, adopting a gentle reassuring tone. Imagine what you would say to a close friend, young child or family member to provide support and use those words to support yourself.
- If you don’t want to write, talk with a friend or family member.
- Consider attending the Self Compassion workshop that we’re offering to learn more about how to be kind to yourself.
Connect with others and develop your community on campus
Social behaviours and activities we did prior to the pandemic without concern have become intimidating or scary for many students because we learned during the pandemic that close social contact increased the risk of getting Covid. It is therefore only natural that many students are struggling with the idea that they can resume closer social contact – our brains learned that leaving home is dangerous and haven’t adjusted. Increased in-person social contact has also become worrisome for some students because they are unsure of how to interact with others and fear criticism or ridicule.
Despite these concerns, it is very important for students to re-engage with in-person activities and develop a community on campus because doing so has been shown to improve student mental health as well as academic performance. But………what if you’re so scared and worried that you’re avoiding in-person activities? The only way to get over these concerns is to face the fear directly and not avoid. Avoidance will only increase the fear and worry you have. Start by taking small daily steps to expose yourself to more and more in-person social situations. Your brain will start to change as you recognize that you can manage some distress and that you are doing okay. Slowly, gradually, you will become more and more comfortable with in-person activities and you’ll start to feel that you can do this.
Below are some suggestions for gradually facing social anxiety:
- Attend a social event for a short period of time and leave if it becomes overwhelming;
- Try walking around campus to become more familiar with everything;
- Meet with a friend or family member you haven’t seen for a while, say for a walk or a coffee, to catch up;
- Sit in a less crowded space when studying and gradually work your way toward being in more crowded spaces;
- Sit near the exit of a classroom and gradually move toward the front and middle of the class;
- Look for opportunities to talk in class that are less intimidating – perhaps during small group discussions or after class;
- Keep positive momentum going and don’t stop – anxiety and worry can return quickly if you don’t!
Suggestions for Developing Your Sense of Community on Campus
- Begin by looking for opportunities to spend time on campus outside of classes and labs. Don’t just go home immediately after every on-campus academic event!
- Greet other students in class and ask about their interest in the class, how they’re doing, what the return has been like for them;
- Consider creating a small study group in one of your classes or accept an invitation to join a study group or other small student gathering;
- Review the many opportunities for getting involved on campus.
- Check out the different “REC” clubs or intramural sports and consider joining one.
- Review the many student groups on campus sponsored by the University of Manitoba Student Union (UMSU). These groups have academic, environmental, health and wellness, political, faith and recreation focuses – to name a few.
- Look for volunteer and work opportunities at the University of Manitoba, with assistance from Career Services.
Suggestions for International Students
As an international student you may have arrived in Winnipeg sometime during the pandemic to begin your studies but have not yet been on campus or haven’t been on campus very much. You may be dealing with re-entry anxiety but you also may be dealing with a sense of loneliness, social isolation, homesickness and culture shock once you begin your studies on campus.
The International Centre (IC) at the University of Manitoba offers many valuable services to help students adjust to their new life in Winnipeg. This office offers a variety of events throughout the year that can help you to meet other students and they have knowledgeable advisors who can help ease your transition into your studies. For more information you can call the IC at (204) 474-8501.
Living with Uncertainty
Uncertainty was and continues to be one of the greatest challenges of the pandemic. While uncertainty has always existed in live and will continue to always exist, few of us dealt with as much uncertainty as we had these past few years. Uncertainty about health and the course of the pandemic. Uncertainty about finances. Uncertainty about health restrictions. Uncertainty about in-person versus remote classes. Uncertainty about travel.
Many students fear uncertainty and many more at least worry about it. Some believe that intolerance of uncertainty results from negative beliefs about uncertainty (Dugas, Buhr, and Ladouceur, 2004). There is a tendency to only remember when uncertainty resulted in pain, failure, or other negatives. This is physiologically helpful – it is important to pay more attention to what is not ok or going well in order to survive. However, this biased perception of uncertainty creates other problems.
Living easier with uncertainty.
- Remind yourself that you have lived with uncertainty before and gotten through that. For example, whenever you’ve had to write an exam there is uncertainty about what information will be covered. Whenever you’ve started a new class you were uncertain of who would be in the class.
- Remember when uncertainty has worked out well for you – not just when it hasn’t. For example, you may have formed a good friendship with a classmate in a class despite not knowing anyone in that class at the start.
- When uncertainty exists, look for what you do know. It is rare that everything about a situation is uncertain.
- When uncertainty exists, look for what you can control and focus on that. It is very rare for you to have no control in a situation. For example, you cannot control where people decide to sit in a lecture hall but you can control where you sit.
- Accept what is out of your control. Focusing on what you have no control over will leave you feeling frustrated and exhausted. There will always be circumstances that are not in your power to control. Try to “let go of them.” Mindfulness practices can help you to let go. Consider attending the Midday Mindfulness program at the SCC.
- When uncertainty hasn’t worked out well for you, consider what you can learn from that and how you can do different things next time you face a similar situation. This can strengthen you.
- Work to not avoid uncertainty. Instead, approach uncertainty in life with curiosity and in a gradual fashion. This might create an opportunity you can take advantage of that wasn’t there before such as meeting a new friend. Start small to develop more comfort. For example, let someone else choose where you eat and just go with that.
Practice Forgiveness…of other and self
Forgiveness can be difficult. Especially of ourselves. Each of us knows our own vulnerabilities and this makes it easy to be critical rather than compassionate. We often hold ourselves to a higher standard than we do others and this can lead to very critical, unforgiving thoughts.
Some view forgiveness as the “peace and understanding that come from blaming that which has hurt you less, taking the life experience less personally, and changing your grievance story.” (Learningtoforgive.com)
- View forgiveness as being for you and not for anyone else
- Forgiveness of others is not always necessary and it is not always possible to forgive. Give yourself permission to not forgive.
- Forgiveness does not mean reconciliation with the other person and it doesn’t mean that you’re saying what they did is okay.
- Remember that you’re human and that means you will make mistakes. Everyone does. That is part of our common humanity.
- Dr. Kristin Neff suggests forgiving others or self by:
- Considering what was going on in the life of the person or yourself. Were you or the other person “not at their best” because of life stressors? What was going on for them or you when things happened? For example, were you really worried about your health and the health for a close family member who had covid when you forgot to get back to a friend to help them? Was your friend exhausted from studying a lot when they didn’t respond to you?
- Is there anything about the person’s past or your past that can give you a different understanding and even partially explain why they or you did what you did or what happened? For example, you had a very serious case of covid and were hospitalized and therefore react very strongly when other students minimize the risk of the disease.
- If you believe that you or someone is “just mean” or bad, consider whether that is really true and what may have happened in life to influence that happening. Our histories have a major influence over how we are.
- Finally, consider whether it is a little easier to let go of some of your anger at yourself or others once you’ve done the above steps.
Hope and more strategies
Hope is a very strong predictor of success. If we want things to change we have to believe things can change. Daily reminders such as: “things can get better”, “I can move forward”, “there is help available if I need it”, are great ways to quiet anxiety, worries and fears.
We recommend attending the Stress and Distress Management workshop to learn many strategies for calming the body, thoughts and emotions. This workshop introduces research supported strategies that are used in individual counselling to help students reduce feelings of anxiety.
- When stressed or anxious……move your body. Your body’s physiological reaction to re-entry anxiety is asking you to physically move in some way. Consider engaging in a physical activity that gets your heart rate up (but only if safe to do so – please check with a medical physician if you have a pre-existing health concern or are worried about this). 3 to 5 minutes of physical activity will usually be enough. Walk stairs, jog in place, dance, do sit-ups or push-ups. Anything that increases your heart rate will help.
- Practice mindfulness. To learn more about mindfulness, watch this short video or attend our midday mindfulness sessions at the SCC.
- Develop a healthy routine. If you’re like most students, you will have to develop a new routine now that most classes are returning to in-person instruction. Consider how you can get enough sleep, eat well, remain physically active as you think about your routine. Not thinking about what routine you want may result in a routine that isn’t helping you.
- Answer honestly if you’re having a difficult time and someone asks you how you are. You will likely feel supported and less alone. If talking with friends and family are not enough or not possible, come by the SCC to connect with our services. Or, if talking with others about your feelings is difficult, consider attending the Empowerment Workshop Series or the Communication and Conflict workshop.
- Finally, consider finding gratitude in your life. Remind yourself of what is good in your life and what’s important. Once a week, write down five things you’re grateful for and indicate why you’re grateful for them. For example,
- “I’m grateful to be back on campus more because I really miss being in class with people and being able to talk with them after class.”
- “I’m grateful that I can work again because I enjoy my job and the people I work with.”
- “I’m grateful for my dog because she’s always so happy to see me when I get home and loves to curl in next to me when I study.”
Social Anxiety and Negative Thinking
According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Canada (camh), social anxiety is “marked by an anxiety about situations where a person feels that they may be humiliated or scrutinized by others”. Many university students struggled with social anxiety prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and there are indications that the pandemic and subsequent health restrictions have increased this number. The previous section on creating community includes information on how health restrictions impacted social anxiety as well as suggestions for making positive changes to help yourself. Changing your thinking is another way that you can reduce social anxiety.
Thinking traps are negative and unhelpful thinking patterns that can contribute to social anxiety, depression and other mental health problems. Research has demonstrated that there are common thinking traps that can impact anyone and many of these have flourished during the pandemic and as we work to return to more in-person activities.
For help with negative thinking and thinking traps, consider attending a workshop or group at the SCC. We recommend the Learning to Cope workshops series, the Self-Compassion workshop, the Stress and Distress Management Workshop series and the Mastery of Anxiety group.
Which of the following thinking traps do you get caught in? Click through the thinking traps below to learn more about them, and how to challenge your negative thinking!
The Mental Filter thinking trap:
You filter out, don’t remember or acknowledge positive or even neutral experiences and information and instead only remember negative experiences. For example, you remember being made very uncomfortable by the teaching style of one professor and forget all the positive classroom experiences you’ve had with other professors.
Challenge your negative thinking!
Consider everything about a situation or experience. Are you taking into account everything? Is there anything you’re ignoring? For example, “I have to remember that I’ve been comfortable in every class except this one so it isn’t me. Besides, most students have at least one class that they don’t like.”
The Magnification/Minimization thinking trap:
You exaggerate and emphasize any negative experience, feeling, thought you have about an activity and minimize or de-emphasize any positive. For example, you remember pausing and forgetting what to say for 5 seconds during a 15 minute presentation and subsequently believe and feel that your presentation was awful and others think you’re stupid. You remember you covered all the material you prepared, finished on time and answered questions well but think and feel that that doesn’t matter because of the one pause you had.
Challenge your negative thinking!
Pause and consider if you’re considering everything about a situation and whether or not you’re exaggerating the bad and disqualifying positives. For example, “Yes I did pause for about 5 seconds and felt pretty nervous about but…..I covered everything else well, finished on time and receive positive feedback overall. Most everyone has a pause during a presentation.”
The Mind Reading thinking trap:
We believe we know what other people are thinking and their feelings about us based on how they look at us or what they do or don’t do. We strongly believe our assumptions are correct despite very little evidence. For example, a classmate is over 20 minutes late for a study meeting with you and you interpret that as a sign that they don’t like you or don’t want to study with you.
Challenge your negative thinking!
Can you really mind read? How do you know what you think you know? What are alternative explanations? If your first thought is a negative…….come up with at least two additional theories. Then, look at what the evidence supports. For example, “there are many reasons why my classmate might be late. Their bus might not have come. They might just tend to be late like some people are. They might have got caught up with something important. I really don’t know why they’re late.”
The Overgeneralization thinking trap:
We remember one instance in the past or present and use that to characterize everything about ourselves, an activity or another person. This usually involves using phrases such as “I always…….”, “Everyone…..”, or “I never………” For example, after feeling awkward and uncomfortable talking in-person with another student, you think “I’ll never be comfortable on campus again!”
Challenge your negative thinking!
Does what I’m thinking apply to every situation or am I overgeneralizing? What are the facts as opposed to my beliefs? For example, “Am I really awkward with everyone I talk to? I remember many times being fine talking with others. Besides…I remember being totally comfortable on campus most of the time before the pandemic. I can get back to that if I work at it.”
The Catastrophizing thinking trap:
This occurs when we “blow things out of proportion.” We view a situation as terrible, awful, dreadful or horrible – regardless of what the reality indicates. For example, “I’ll probably throw up and faint if I have to talk in class. They’ll need to call an ambulance and I’ll be so embarrassed I’ll have to drop out of university and never have a good job.”
Challenge your negative thinking!
Put into perspective and consider all possible outcomes. Best, worst, likely. How important will whatever happened be in the scheme of things? Will you remember this a week from now? A month from now? A year from now? For example, “Will I really throw up and faint? I haven’t in the past, despite feeling pretty anxious. Nobody remembers what most people say in class after a few days and I can’t remember saying anything outrageous in the past.”