UW News

September 22, 2021

Feeling anxious about in-person work, school? Here’s how to ease the transition

UW News


students walking across campus in the fall

The return to in-person campus life may prompt some anxiety, but a few tips from University of Washington psychology professor Jane Simoni can help.Dennis Wise/U. of Washington


With the gradual return to on-campus work and the start of in-person fall quarter classes, there is an adjustment for everyone ahead.

Activities that were upended with the start of the pandemic 18 months ago – commuting, spending time with friends, sharing common spaces, being around so many more people at once – are resuming, sort of. Just not the way that some had hoped or expected. Now, with the delta variant thwarting the retreat of COVID-19, how do we approach this not-quite-back-to-normal beginning of fall?

University of Washington psychology professor Jane Simoni specializes in health interventions and coping with the stress of chronic illness. When it comes to going back, she said that people tend to fall into one of three camps: Those who cannot wait to get back to routines and, ideally, pre-pandemic life; those who found, and want to hold onto, some silver linings of remote work and instruction; and those who have embraced their new way of living and want to leave the “before times” behind. No matter how you feel, it’s important to be patient with yourself and others, Simoni said.

Jane Simoni

“Whether you find yourself in the camp of people excited to be going back, or dreading going back, or somewhere in the middle, there are things we can do to make this transition more manageable,” she said.

Start by recognizing that life isn’t totally back to normal and by acknowledging how you’re feeling now.

People are experiencing a range of strong emotions now, Simoni said: overwhelmed, sad, disappointed, anxious, afraid. Grief, perhaps, over the past year and a half: the loved ones lost to COVID-19; the milestones traditionally marked in person, such as weddings, funerals, graduations. They may be anxious and fearful over which routines to resume and be feeling frustration and disappointment over the seemingly endless cycles of the pandemic. Some people may be feeling hopeless that the pandemic will ever end.

The Crisis Connections phone line (866-427-4747) and Crisis Text Line (text HEAL to 741741) are available to the UW community.

These feelings are understandable. This is normal now, and you’re not alone in your pain. If you are truly struggling – “distressed to the point that you’re not able to function,” Simoni said – it’s important to seek help. Too much or too little sleep, losing or gaining significant amounts of weight, an inability to take care of responsibilities, or thoughts of hurting yourself – all are signs you should reach out to others and perhaps seek professional help .

But there are things everyone can do to help cope with this unique situation, Simoni said, and to make the transition to in-person routines a little less daunting:

Set realistic expectations. Realize that things aren’t going to be exactly as they were before. It may take time to get used to being around people again. People will need to find their own comfort level; have patience, compromise for others, and respond with grace. If you have a choice, start gradually. For example, if you have trepidation about being around groups of people, take breaks. Maybe you attend a class, but then you have a quiet lunch on your own. Eventually, as you have more of these “new” experiences, they will get easier.

“It’s like learning to ride a bike again, in that it’s familiar, but you still may fall once in a while,” Simoni said.

Protect yourself, which can help mitigate anxiety. If you’re anxious about the virus, get accurate information about what is safe and what is not. Get vaccinated, wear a mask, meet others outdoors or in well-ventilated spaces when possible, and wash hands frequently. People vary in the level of risk they will tolerate, but remember there really is no such thing as zero risk, Simoni said.

Focus on the positive. Think about silver linings, large or small, you have experienced in the past 18 months. And be generous in your definition of “silver linings.” Did you spend more quality time with family or a pod of friends? Did you start new traditions, like Zoom reunions or get-togethers with long-distance loved ones, or a weekly game night with friends or neighbors? Maybe you saved money by not making the usual purchases on clothes, eating out or commuting. Maybe you had more time for other activities or reevaluated what you want to be doing for work or school. Maybe you took stock of your relationships. Whatever you did, Simoni said, build on these things going forward.

Cultivate appreciation. Identify three good things about each day and what you appreciate about them. These should be very specific events or experiences. Come up with three new things each day, and focus your attention on them, rather than ruminating on the things that bother you.

Practice the fundamentals of good mental health:

  • Practice good “sleep hygiene”: Get the right amount of sleep (7-10 hours) and go to bed and rise at the same times each day
  • Stay hydrated, and eat enough healthful foods each day. Your nutrition can affect your mood.
  • Go outside. Connect with nature and remind yourself that there’s more to life than a desk or computer screen.
  • Stay active. Whether it’s swimming or hiking, running or yoga, movement boosts energy and mood.
  • Connect with other people. If it can be done safely, in-person connection is best, Simoni said, but the phone has its benefits, too, and can be a nice break from video chats. “We missed a lot of social interactions over the past year, the conversation in the hallway, the catch-up or hug after a meeting. Your dog can’t provide that type of support for you.”
  • Be mindful of changes in your substance use. Alcohol and other substance use rose during the pandemic, as people started consuming earlier in the day, and more often. Relying on substances can interfere with successfully coping with stress, Simoni said. Monitor what you’re doing and cut back as needed, seeking help if necessary.

“Stigma around substance use and mental health problems can be a barrier to addressing these issues and getting help,” Simoni said, “but if you can face these challenges head-on and get help early, you’ll be better off in the long run.”

For more information, contact Simoni at jsimoni@uw.edu.