Objective: To understand the experience of social distancing in the initial period of the COVID-19 pandemic and the emotional state of university students. Method: A qualitative, exploratory-descriptive study was carried out with 237 students from a public higher education institution located in the Midwest region of Brazil. Data was collected virtually by electronic questionnaires, released in a spreadsheet, and subjected to descriptive analysis and thematic content analysis. Results: Two categories emerged: "Between emotional changes and difficulties in adapting to remote teaching" and "Social distancing and approximation with the self". The narratives suggest the experience of worries, anxiety, shock, and emotional instability due to social distancing and remote teaching during the pandemic and denote more time for self-care and family coexistence. Conclusion: It is necessary to develop intersectoral strategies for health promotion and prevention of mental disorders, in partnership with the educational institutions, adjusted to the current context.
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