COVID-19

For Teens Like Us, Pandemic Reopening Anxiety Is Extra Complicated

“This is a super formative time psychologically.”

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Frank, 17, used to see his friends every day at school and during club meetings. But when his high school shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, he was forced to start actively reaching out to friends, instead of hanging out as part of his daily routine. “Sometimes I tried reaching out to them, and I [would] get no response,” he says. “Other times, they tried reaching out to me, but usually during a bad time so I [couldn’t] respond back.” With reopening in full swing, Frank is nervous about how far he’s drifted away from his friends. He’s not alone — as improved vaccine distribution makes the post-pandemic reopening of schools, workplaces, and businesses increasingly feasible, many people across the country are feeling social anxiety in response to reopening after months of isolation. But for teens and college kids, who rely deeply on their social networks for support, it hits extra hard.

As of May 2021, nearly 160 million Americans have received at least one vaccine dose, and over 120 million are fully vaccinated, per The New York Times. On May 12, the CDC approved the Pfizer vaccine for use in kids and teens above age 12, and the biggest teachers’ unions in the country have expressed support for reopening in-person school for fall 2021. But while vaccine distribution is now making it possible to eliminate physical distance, the emotional distance can’t be as easily bridged. With the 2021 school year only a few months away, many teens, like Frank and I, are already nervous to see people again and discover how much has changed.

Like Frank, I also had my support system abruptly stripped away when the pandemic first started, closing my school and canceling extracurriculars. Over the past year, the extra work of trying to get in touch with friends has made it more difficult to connect and rely on one another the way we used to. As my school begins to allow students to come back and more activities become possible, the idea of interacting with friends again after not talking to them in so long makes me anxious. The prospect of doing things I would have previously considered normal, like raising my hand to speak in a crowded classroom, feels unnatural and fills me with a sense of dread.

In a March 2021 study from the American Psychological Association (APA), 49% of respondents of all ages said they feel uneasy about adjusting to in-person interaction again, regardless of whether they’d been vaccinated. Reopening anxiety can manifest as the fear of lifestyle changes, the reluctance to participate in pre-pandemic activities, and an aversion to face-to-face interaction. For Gen Z, the pandemic’s disparate impact on mental health makes the prospect of reopening especially daunting — we’re nearly four times as likely as older adults to report needing more emotional support than we’ve received since the pandemic started.

The people around me changed.

“Sometimes I don’t even talk to friends I haven’t spoken to in months, so there’s the main issue of trying to reunite with them,” Frank admits. He’s constantly worrying about how he’ll fit into the post-pandemic world, “a really weird hybrid” of old, lost friendships and new personal experiences. “We’ll need to figure out how we can continue to be friends despite the fact that our lives and experiences have been uprooted.”

“Friendships that used to be very influential on me kind of faded,” agrees Kjerstyn, 19. “The people around me changed.”

Kjerstyn was particularly hard-hit by the pandemic — besides graduating high school and starting college in isolation, she also lost her job and was unemployed for four months. Meanwhile, her friends were struggling with their own issues like homelessness, food insecurity, and the loss of loved ones. Their different situations made it hard to connect or go to each other for support the way they used to. “Those people had been constant in my life for years by the time the pandemic came, and without them it was really hard,” she says. Now, after so much distance and change, she finds it difficult to talk to her friends about her anxieties and the stress of her own experience. “I’m always worried about being too much of a downer.”

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According to Sarah Lipson, Ph.D., Ed.M., an assistant professor in the Department of Health Law Policy and Management at Boston University, friend groups are a crucial form of mental support for teens like Frank, Kjerstyn, and me. “Young people are more likely to tell their peers what they’re going through to process that way, to develop identities,” she says. The sudden removal of these support structures and friend groups while in pandemic isolation hit teens harder than it did older people, who are less reliant on their peers to help process their emotions and develop their identities. Now, faced with reopening, this primary source of teens’ mental health support has transformed into a stressor.

“Sometimes, reaching out to friends can seem energy-draining,” says Shelby, 17, whose high school also closed in March 2020. Spending time with friends used to be a way she could de-stress from school and work, but with the pandemic, the difficulty of arranging meetups made interaction feel exhausting. When school and extracurricular activities — where Shelby used to socialize — were all canceled, she found some of her close relationships unraveling. Now, the prospect of reopening is exciting, but also nerve-wracking: She worries being around so many real-life people at school, after close relationships have drifted apart, will feel strange. “I’ve become accustomed to staying at home for virtual school, so I think that the return to normalcy will be shocking,” she says. “It will take many people additional time to process.”

As more schools reopen this coming fall, Lipson believes even more teens and college kids will express reopening anxiety. “I’ve started to hear people projecting and thinking, ‘I’m going to be really nervous when I’m in a group of more than two other people and those aren’t the same two faces that I’ve seen for the last 18 months,’” she says.

As schools begin to relax restrictions on in-person gatherings, Kjerstyn worries about being scrutinized by others in crowded spaces. “Walking through the cafeteria would give me a lot of anxiety about people looking at me,” she tells me. “I don’t really have to do things like that anymore, but I feel like once I do, it’s going to be a lot worse because it’s literally been a year of me not having to.”

For people our age, this is a super formative time psychologically.

Kjerstyn also fears teens’ social lives have been permanently affected by the pandemic. Her grandparents grew up during the Great Depression, and she’s seen the way they’ve been permanently affected by the scarcity mindset instilled by lean times. Kjerstyn says she’s developed a lasting response to the isolation of the past year — one that associates social interaction and large gatherings with danger.

“Whenever I watch movies from before the pandemic, and even movies now, when they’re not wearing masks, I’m like, ‘Where’s their mask?’” she says. “Even after the pandemic, we’re still gonna have anxiety about hanging out with people just because it’s been conditioned. Especially for people our age, this is a super formative time psychologically.”

The suddenness of lockdown and the long stretch of isolation from their support structures that followed — a “generational trauma,” as Kjerstyn described it — have instilled a fear of something similar happening in the future. “I feel like I’ll always be in survival mode because of what threats might come next,” says Frank.

As the world moves forward, it’s important that institutions like schools and youth support organizations provide resources for students with reopening anxiety. “For people coming back to campuses in person in the fall, it’s very logical to feel overwhelmed and overly anxious,” Lipson says. Professors and teachers, she adds, should communicate to students that social anxiety is entirely normal during this time period.

While Kjerstyn’s college provides counseling for students grappling with social anxiety, she feels not enough funding is allocated for mental health resources. When she started college in the fall of 2020, she needed to wait two and a half months before she could see a counselor because the department was understaffed. “The people in charge aren’t the ones going to college in a global pandemic, so they can’t really understand,” she says.

As more and more places begin to reopen, Kjerstyn hopes people refrain from judging their friends based on their own expectations and create space for them to process their anxiety. “I just want people to support each other right now,” she says, “by holding space for all the ways the world is hitting us.”