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Rutgers student, alumnae find new form of anxiety arising from pandemic

The researchers said that anxiety involving the return to large, in-person activities can be related to Pandemic-Acquired Risk Avoidance. – Photo by Azaria Johnson

A recent study found that individuals returning to in-person activities may experience pandemic-related anxiety called Pandemic-Acquired Risk Avoidance (PARA).

In early 2021, Rosalind Dorlen, a psychologist and a Rutgers alumna, and four other psychologists noticed that many of their patients were experiencing symptoms of anxiety, despite being undiagnosed with the disorder itself, she said. A common symptom these individuals expressed was avoidance, where they would actively steer clear of any situations that may cause anxiety.

Zoe Verrico, a student at the Rutgers Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology and collaborator on the study, said that the team used survey research to conclude that levels of anxiety had risen during pandemic, including in individuals who had not previously experienced it. She said PARA refers specifically to feeling anxious about contracting or spreading the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), as opposed to general anxiety about life. 

“If you want to avoid large places like crowded buses, classrooms and dining halls, ask yourself why,” she said. “If it’s due to the fear or apprehension of contracting COVID-19 and getting others sick, then it’s due to PARA since you are choosing to avoid risk.” 

Verrico said that PARA and actual pathological anxiety have distinct differences with the former being a normal response to the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic. Dorlen said that approximately 70 percent of the study’s survey respondents reported feeling anxious specifically about returning to pre-pandemic activities, such as school and work. 

Laura Barbanel, a psychologist and co-author of the study, said that people’s anxiety over reentering “normal life” is due to their extended amount of isolation during the pandemic. She said that individuals who are already susceptible to anxiety have been particularly isolated, or whose pre-pandemic lives featured socializing in large groups, may experience PARA at higher levels than others. 

“It is like a bird who has been in a cage for a long time. When you open the cage, the bird doesn’t want to leave,” she said. 

Co-author of the study Dorothy Cantor, a psychologist and Rutgers alumna, discussed how specifically college students may be experiencing PARA, in addition to general anxiety about school. 

She said that for many years, students arriving on campus would experience anxiety over being away from home or beginning higher levels of study, with this eventually resolving itself after some time. Though, since PARA is directly connected to the ongoing pandemic, it is difficult to determine when it will go away.

Aliceana Lin, a Rutgers Business School sophomore, said that a lack of control over her circumstances has caused her to feel anxiety, something she had not experienced much before. She said this anxiety has affected her experience with returning to in-person activities, specifically sports. 

“I did a lot of sports prior to the pandemic, so returning to them now, I'm always debating whether I should wear my mask or not since it's hard to breathe and play sports in them but there has also been a higher chance of getting (COVID-19) in sporting events,” Lin said. “I want to continue to do the things that I enjoy, but it's hard to enjoy them fully still.”

Kristina Tecson, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore, said that while she has experienced anxiety before, the pandemic has hosted a new set of challenges that can be overwhelming to take on. She said college is already a time of growth and maturing for students, but the current state of the world has made it a far more intimidating experience.

She also said that the pandemic has affected her ability to fully socialize and maintain relationships with others, and said that returning in person after not interacting with many people for an extended amount of time is making it difficult to find community at Rutgers, especially as a commuter. 

“I had major (fear of missing out) back in senior year of high school and I think something similar came back … Coming back to a whole community of people I don’t know and trying to find a place and new friends along the way is a daunting task,” Tecson said. 

Barbanel said that PARA will likely subside as transmission rates decrease, though, those continuing to experience anxiety should consider reaching out for professional help.

In order to combat PARA, Dorlen said that individuals can complete stress-relieving activities such as mediation, gratitude practices, exercising and continuing to follow COVID-19 guidelines. She said that struggling with sleep, self-care and finding joy in hobbies for a prolonged period of time are signs that anxiety experienced is more than just PARA.

Verrico said that individuals should recognize that their anxiety is a normal response to the pandemic and that they are not alone in experiencing it. 

"Practicing self-care by being kinder to yourself during these tough times, being more patient with yourself and engaging in activities that are meaningful and within your comfort zone,” she said.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article described this research as a “Rutgers study.”

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