Gould isn’t the only one feeling this way. A recent study by the American Psychological Association found that roughly half of Americans feel anxious about in-person interactions — a phenomenon researchers have dubbed “re-entry anxiety.”
Kimberly Quinn, a psychology professor and coordinator for the Well-Being and Success Program at Champlain College in Burlington, Vt., sees a lot of this on the job.
“My students have the option daily whether they want to physically come to class — we’re talking about walking maybe 200 feet,” she said. “I have about 16 to 20 students in each class, and they all said they wanted to learn in person. But by the time it was the spring semester, I would have two or three come in person, the rest would be on the screen when they’re living inches from the classroom.”
Quinn said her students have been so conditioned by their computer screens that they’re almost unable to leave their rooms, even when it’s beautiful outside. It’s been bad enough that the staff at Champlain has been organizing activities and giving away free video game consoles to bribe the young adults into socializing.
“At the same time, they’re saying virtual learning isn’t working for them,” Quinn said. “So think about that. ‘It’s not working for me, but I’m not walking 200 feet to class.’ And the anxiety and depression rates are through the ceiling.”
Reintegrating into society will be difficult for some, she said, because activities like quarantining and working from home can inadvertently reinforce avoidance behavior. That leads to people becoming more sensitized by the so-called worry circuit in the brain’s fight-or-flight system.
“Each time the student misses class, there’s a fix of, ‘Oh, dodged that bullet,'” Quinn said. “There’s immediate relief, which we know gets worse. So now that behavior is strengthened to miss class, or whatever they’re avoiding, is stronger next time — you know, choosing to be virtual for two days of the week, then it was three, then four.”