In August, my sister had the back-to-school blues as she prepared for another semester in college. However, her worries weren’t about class schedules or waking up early for the dreaded 8 a.m. courses. She was concerned about being surrounded by classmates again amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. All summer, she was consumed by daily updates from her school. All in-person extracurricular activities would have to be virtual. Limited seating in the dining hall changed to takeout only. One day she felt nervous about going to class only to discover that the course was changed to an online platform the next day.
Students and staff at colleges and universities aren’t the only ones experiencing the challenges of constantly evolving plans and the uncertainty about what kinds of activities are safe enough to do. Whether it be going back to the workplace and sending children to school or daycare, or socializing with friends and family members, people are unsure how to best prepare for resuming more in-person activities knowing that some risk for COVID-19 may still be part of life for a while.
So, what can be done to tackle these worries? When it comes to changing situations and guidelines, take things one day at a time, according to Thea Gallagher, PsyD, a director at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety in Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine. “We get worked up about reentry, and then it may not happen,” Gallagher said. “Everything’s rolled out minute by minute, so take your time and assess what you feel comfortable with.”
While many colleges and universities remained adamant about holding in-person courses when the fall semester began, a trend of shutdowns quickly took place after exposure to the virus on campuses across the U.S., leading to a switch to virtual learning.
“It’s this iterative process that leaves a lot of people in a state of uncertainty, and then they’re trying to make an informed decision based on their level of risk,” Gallagher said. “Anxiety can really be defined as intolerance of uncertainty and fear of the unknown, and we’re currently living out a situation that exemplifies both of those fears.”
Safety concerns have been a primary fear of the pandemic. While vulnerable populations, like essential workers and people who are at risk for severe illness from COVID-19, have understandable reasons to be fearful at times, anybody who as a history of anxiety, OCD, or depression is vulnerable to the mental health side of the pandemic. People are overwhelmed with thoughts about contracting the virus, dying, or contaminating those around them.
Gallagher described the worries of one of her patients who lives with an immunosuppressed person: Anytime she does anything with slight risk, like going to the grocery store, she thinks she could be bringing the virus into her home, making her anxiety worsen. “The scary thing about sickness and germs is that they’re invisible which is causing people a lot of anxiety,” Gallagher said.
These anxious thoughts tend to affect people’s ability to maintain healthy routines and their engagement with others, which is when it can be problematic, Gallagher explained. This can include irregular eating and sleeping habits, inability to engage in activities that were once enjoyed, feelings of heightened physiological anxiety like heart racing, and a decrease in work productivity. This can also relate to the time you’re spending on the Internet searching for information on COVID or just talking about the virus with others. “Look at how much of your life is being consumed by this and think of what you can and cannot control,” Gallagher said. “Focus on what you can control a little bit more.”
To start, you can decide if there are practical ways to start living parts of your life again that were put on pause during the earlier phase of the pandemic. Activities like going on a hike or grabbing a drink or meal with a friend outside still follow social distancing protocols and allow yourself to slowly reconnect with in-person activities at relatively low risk. Interacting with other people, through a phone or video call, or outside at a distance, also allows you to have a break from constant COVID content. Asking other people questions about their lives that are unrelated to the pandemic, like inquiring about hobbies they have or a show they may be watching, can help take your mind off of the topic and ease your anxiety. “Try to challenge yourself to say you can’t live in a complete bubble forever, but still think of what’s reasonable and within the guidelines,” Gallagher said.
If you’re struggling with your mental health, or know someone who is struggling, there are options for virtual therapy. “If you’re someone who’s never really struggled with your mental health before and you don’t know what that feels like, now is a really good time to try and find a therapist,” Gallagher said. Penn Medicine’s Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety has been offering remote therapy sessions via telehealth for the full spectrum of anxiety-related disorders, providing video conferences for patients. Penn Medicine staff, faculty, and students can also seek help through PennCOBALT.
“The pandemic has been a trying situation for many people,” Gallagher said. “It’s important to give yourself that permission to seek help.”