As lockdown eases and we’re encouraged to get back to normal, many people are feeling anxious about leaving the house, despite never having suffered from agoraphobia. So what’s the best way to handle this anxiety? We asked an expert to explain.
When the UK first went into lockdown on 23 March, the messaging was clear: “Stay home. Save lives. Protect the NHS.”
In the weeks that followed, that simple, seven world slogan dictated the way we lived our lives. And our houses – with their disinfected surfaces and clean, comfy furniture – became a haven for many of us. Away from some of the uncertainty and danger of the outside world, our homes offered relatively safety from the invisible threat of the virus.
As lockdown eases and people all over the country begin to return to normal, that “stay home” message feels like a relic from a lifetime ago. That is, on the surface of things, great news – getting out of the house and being able to see our friends can do wonders for our mental health. But for some people, it’s not that simple.
After weeks of sheltering at home and adapting to a new ‘normal,’ many people are finding that leaving the house is a particularly worrying prospect. The act of stepping outside their front door is no longer an unconscious one – instead, they’re feeling anxious about the idea of leaving the safe “bubble” they’ve curated over the last couple of months.
You may feel tempted to describe this feeling as “agoraphobia” – a panic disorder characterised by a fear of being outside the home alone, in a crowded or enclosed space like a shopping mall, or traveling in a bus, train, or car, for example. But this isn’t entirely accurate in terms of our feelings prompted by lockdown, chartered psychologist Dr Meg Arroll explains.
“The type of anxiety that people without pre-existing agoraphobia or a predisposition to this condition are experiencing is more akin to a form of social and/or health anxiety,” she says.
“We have been given so much information about Covid-19, with rolling news on case and death counts, fears over the functioning of the NHS and guilt as to whether we may be silent carriers of this infection with the risk of endangering vulnerable members of our society, so it’s understandable many of us feel anxious about leaving the house.”
Indeed, Arroll points out, the anxiety people with agoraphobia experience stems from “an intense fear of not being able to escape from a difficult or embarrassing situation or get help in the event of a panic attack or panic-like symptoms”; the anxiety about leaving the house many people are now experiencing instead stems from a fear of Covid-19 and what going outside might mean for our health.
Arroll adds that, for those with anxiety disorders, their fear of leaving the house may increase because many anxious behaviours or intrusive thoughts have been left unchecked during lockdown.
“People with anxiety conditions can indeed become more nervous about leaving the house as intrusive and anxiety-maintaining thoughts have been left unchecked – cognitive skills training, behavioural experiments and exposure therapy are evidenced-based treatments for these types of disorders so if we’re not engaging in social and outdoors situations where these techniques can be carried out, symptoms tend to worsen,” she says.
With this in mind, it’s completely normal to find yourself feeling nervous about leaving the house now that lockdown is lifting, even if you don’t have a diagnosable anxiety disorder. We’re facing unprecedented times, and our minds are struggling to comprehend and weigh up all the risks that lay outside our door. However, if you’re concerned about the extent to which your worries are beginning to affect your day-to-day life, it’s important to seek advice from a GP or medical professional (our guide to seeking mental health support during the coronavirus crisis might be of use).
If you’ve been dealing with increased anxiety when leaving the house, Arroll explains there are a number of steps you can take to deal with those feelings, including limiting the amount of coronavirus news you’re consuming, and trying to distract yourself by focusing on the “little joys” to limit your anxiety.
“Aspects of cognitive behavioural therapy can help a great deal to manage and prevent anxiety about leaving the house,” she says. “Breathing exercises are also helpful in preventing a full-blown panic attack, which is often exacerbated by hyperventilation.”
Coping with anxiety
If you’re dealing with feelings of anxiety and worry during the coronavirus outbreak, it’s important to understand that this is a completely normal response to the current situation. However, if you’re looking for a way to alleviate some of those feelings, here are three articles that might help.
- 4 tips for dealing with anxiety, from someone who lives with it
- Everything you need to know about seeking mental health support during the coronavirus pandemic
- Free online therapy and wellbeing resources you can access during the coronavirus outbreak