The Psychology Behind Your Back-To-School Anxiety

It’s normal to have mixed feelings about ‘post-pandemic’ life.

Many university students are returning to campus for the first time in a long time. Whether you feel eager to return or apprehensive- both feelings are absolutely valid!

This is especially true when we consider that the pandemic continues to be a traumatic experience for a number of us. Many are still feeling higher levels of stress and social isolation and dealing with the experience of having survived COVID-19, or even losing someone to it.

It’s also okay if you are eager to bounce back and cannot wait for this time to become a memory already.

So why are some students experiencing more anxiety than usual about the 2021-2022 school year? After all, the return to school in September is a process which at least resembles the ‘normal’ of pre-pandemic life.

The truth is that the psychological impact of the pandemic lingers

We also know that students are not returning to campus in a ‘post-pandemic world’. As talks of a fourth wave of COVID-19 intensify, students are realizing that they will still be required to adapt to change, despite the once unthinkable adaptations they already made over the past 1.5 years.

The disruption to campus life was significant. It’s no wonder students will go through an adjustment period, much like people returning to their offices or learning how to be comfortable at restaurants and movie theatres again.

In this post, we will explore some of the psychological factors to consider as you plan your return to school. It can feel validating to know that others share your experience too! 

We also share three game-changing tips on planning your transition back to school.

Let’s get into it.

Post-Pandemic Social Withdrawal

In 2020, we were encouraged to make our lockdown situation as comfortable as possible.

This was important for our mental wellbeing! 

However, now we may be collectively experiencing hesitation to leave our houses. 

Have you heard of ‘cave syndrome’? ‘Cave syndrome’ is not an actual diagnosis. Instead, it captures a specific type of anxiety that makes it harder to venture out into the world after months of being strongly encouraged to leave the house only when necessary.

Hikikomori is a more severe form of social withdrawal lasting six months or longer that was once exclusively recognized in Japan but is now becoming prevalent in other countries. Syndromes like hikikomori may become more common as we are faced with the possibility of resuming pre-pandemic routines- and therefore abandoning all the pandemic adaptations we are now used to.

If you are feeling particularly anxious about the idea of in-person classes after several semesters of virtual learning, we encourage you to be being curious about the root of that anxiety.

Is it the in-person nature of the classes themselves, or the idea of leaving home regularly? We have seen more options and flexibility from nearly all institutions during the pandemic- could you be having a hard time letting go of this?

This response makes sense, and you are certainly not alone.

The Long-term Mental Health Impact of The Pandemic On Students

We can’t reflect on back-to-school anxiety without acknowledging the significant mental health burden the pandemic has brought on students.

According to research conducted by McMaster University, students are facing a “sustained and unprecedented” wave of mental health issues.

Here are but a few of the mental health impacts students are facing:

·  Those with existing mental health issues may have found their mental health declining significantly more throughout the pandemic

  • A lack of access to usual coping mechanisms removes a sense of control and agency over life
  • Economic burden and difficulty finding part-time job to cover tuition or limited options for childcare
  • Post-secondary students are already vulnerable to mental health concerns caused by the unique stressors and pressures of student life- the pandemic worsens exacerbates the stressors students already face

With all this in mind, how can students approach their return to classes or campus in a way that prioritizes their wellbeing? We will address this next!

How To Plan Your Return to School

Something to remember as you plan your return to school is that the experience will be different for everyone.

For those who have been comfortable with in-person learning thus far, the flood of people on campus may be anxiety-inducing. Then there are those of us who may be eager to return to the routine of walking to classes, studying at the library, and socializing on campus. Some of us may also be dreading the experience to the point of opting for virtual learning again.

The point is that every one of these perspectives is valid! More likely than not, you share your back-to-school sentiment with hundreds of other people.

Here are a few tips to ease you into your back-to-school planning.

Frame Your Return To School As A Time of Transition

Transitions in life are usually marked by learning curves, adjustment periods, and some level of uncertainty. Think of your return to school this year as a transitional period- challenges come with the territory!

Why is this important? Well, how we frame challenges in our life can determine the actions we take. By framing back-to-school as a time of transition, you recognize that:

  • The challenges are temporary- as you adjust to them, life DOES become easier
  • The challenges are to be expected- transitions involve change, and adapting to change is not always easy or intuitive
  • You have gone through countless transitional periods in life and survived each one- including the monumental one you experienced at the beginning of the pandemic

Once you frame returning to school as a transitional time where challenges and uncertainty are to be expected, you can act on the specific concerns you are anticipating.

For example, perhaps virtual learning has been helpful in accommodating your disability. If you are concerned about transitioning back to in-person learning, it may be helpful to address this with your professor or Accessibility Services by discussing how they can continue to meet your needs.

Furthermore, transitions take time. Give yourself the patience and grace to cope with the changes. You may find that your reactions to the changes are not consistent, and some will even surprise you.

This is a completely normal experience in any time of transition!

Take The Pressure Off

This pandemic has taught us that everyone deals with a crisis differently. If you feel pressured to make decisions according to what most people around you are doing, it may add to your feelings of anxiety!

You have time to understand what your needs are and what decisions are best suited to address those needs.

Take a few moments to reflect on what specific situations you are feeling pressure around. Pinpointing the source of our anxiety can help us understand how exactly to prepare and manage it.

For example, you may be worried about feeling pressured to socialize, in which case you can prepare what you might say to turn down invitations you don’t feel ready to accept just yet.

Work towards being transparent yet non-imposing in your choices. As mentioned earlier, we all manage adversity differently and your way may not be the right way for everyone.

Check In With Each Other

Anxiety can make us feel isolated. The one thing you can be sure of this September is that you are not alone in your discomfort or even excitement to be back on campus.

It’s impossible that thousands of people will have the same feelings about returning to campus. Take this as an opportunity to check in with people around you and ask how they are handling the transition.

We often assume that others are coping better than we are. Challenge this assumption and you may find that many people have a similar fear of change or level of excitement as you.


Here are a list of resources to explore as you transition back to school this September:

Gerstein Crisis Centre: 416-929-5200

Good2Talk: 1-866-925-5454 or text GOOD2TALKON to 686868

LGBT Youthline: 647-694-4275

Stella’s Place (young adult mental health support)

Before You Go- You Have The Potential to Grow From Trauma

As anxiety-inducing a transition as returning to classes or campus may be, remember that our minds and bodies are remarkable at adapting. With time, it will get easier.

If you are tired of the constant need for adapting to change, we hear you and want to offer a perspective that focuses on your resilience.

The past 1.5 of trauma has unlocked a rare potential for growth within us all. Researchers call this ‘post-traumatic growth’. Post-traumatic growth captures the idea that traumatic experiences can have positive effects on us.

A study on post-traumatic growth tells us that that approximately 77% of participants reported “moderate to high growth” during COVID-19 in at least one of these areas:  a deeper appreciation for the value of life, increased appreciation for friends and family, re-structuring of priorities, and great feelings of independence.

As you move into the new school year, we encourage you to make your own inventory of ‘post-traumatic growth points’- or silver linings, if you will.

For example, did you reap the benefits of slowing down? Did you find yourself more motivated to stay in touch with friends and family? Did you benefit from studying at home and would like to carry that on?

These points of growth can act as your anchor during a challenging transition.

I want to hear from you: How are you mentally preparing for a possible return to campus?

Until next time!

Sarah Ahmed

WellNest Psychotherapy Services