As states have been opening up, life has become more complicated. Many people found shelter-in-place mandates easier to navigate because they didn’t have to make decisions about whether to go out. But now, we have to consider the personal importance, and relative risks, of various activities, such as attending a protest, meeting friends for drinks at an outdoor patio, eating a meal at a restaurant, or getting a haircut. Having more choices leads to more uncertainty and, often, more anxiety.
Leaving the safety of home and feeling anxious, perhaps even panicky, about venturing into the world mimics the condition of agoraphobia, which means, literally, “fear of the market place, or place of assembly.” Agoraphobia is classified as a panic disorder because panic attacks typically occur in crowds or on public transportation, where escape is difficult. Subsequence avoidance of situations where a panic attack has occurred often leads to a narrowing of safety zones. People with agoraphobia may, if untreated, become completely housebound.
After several months of quarantining at home, going out can feel very strange. If you’ve been staying inside since March, not even taking a walk around the block, you may find yourself feeling nervous and jittery the first time you leave your apartment or house. The best approach is to start with just a short outing, gradually increasing the time and distance away from home to build tolerance.
Another consequence of the quarantine may be heightened social anxiety, which often takes the form of excessive concerns about being evaluated negatively and judged by others. For example, someone with social anxiety might worry about being seen as irresponsible for not wearing a facemask when walking in a park (and social media only adds to the confusion, with accounts of assaults on both masked and unmasked people.) If you’re uncomfortable meeting others for a socially distant get together, then don’t. Everyone has a different tolerance for risk, and you shouldn’t feel pressured into accepting someone else’s decision about what is safe or embarrassed by your greater need for caution.
Setting limits with friends and family about safety practices can also be difficult for someone who worries about disappointing others. Should you let your parents, who are more casual about taking precautions than you, fly to visit you? Should you agree to meet your friends for an indoor meal at a restaurant because they are pleading with you to join them? Should you allow a lonely friend to join your quarantine pod?
In these unprecedented times, we cannot rely on social convention to help us decide what choices to make. And we can’t expect friends or family to help because they may have vastly different interpretations of risk. So we need to decide what feels right for us.
But if you are so fearful that you have become housebound, you will want to begin returning to the world, using reliable scientific sources, and not anxiety, to guide your decisions about what activities are reasonably safe. Both sunlight and exercise can ease stress and strengthen the immune system. So take those first steps and go outside for a walk.
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