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It’s understandable you might feel anxious and even fearful of leaving the house as lockdown restrictions begin to lift – particularly as the message “stay home, stay safe” has been drummed into us for weeks on end.
As part of HuffPost UK’s coronavirus coverage, we asked readers: How are you feeling? One common theme among the hundreds of responses we’ve received so far was people’s very real fears as things slowly return to normal – particularly when others aren’t following the guidelines.
“If I ever do leave the house, I feel so anxious,” said one reader, “especially as some people seem to think it’s back to normal life and not adhering to the 2 metres away rule, which makes me angry.”
Another said: “Having to go outside and be around others when they’re not social distancing gives me levels of anxiety I have never experienced. It sucks.”
Psychotherapist Mike Ward, who runs the London and Hampshire Anxiety Clinic, estimates that 25 to 30% of his clients are expressing concerns about leaving their homes to go back to work or outside to the shops, after becoming used to the level of social distancing we’ve been following since Boris Johnson introduced the national lockdown two months ago.
“Some feel very much safe living with the changes rather than going back out to uncertainty again,” says Ward, who is not surprised that people feel this way.
In fact, it’s a very rational worry. “The threat [of the virus] is real, it’s also an unknown,” he says. “The thoughts that people are having are very realistic and rational. They are concerned for themselves and others.”The government’s ‘stay at home’ and ‘stay alert’ messages from the government can feed into this.
“People were first influenced by the fear of this ‘don’t go out and stay home’ message,” says Ward. “Now the message has changed [to] ‘you can go out a bit more’. There are quite a few people who have become attached to that reality of staying in.” Ward says the feeling even bears some similarities to Stockholm syndrome, the psychological response when hostages or abuse victims bond with their captors or abusers.
People feel they have achieved so much so far by staying in, he adds. There’s a huge sense of comfort from knowing we’re safe in our homes, so the thought of leaving them might not sit well at all – particularly for those who worry about bringing the virus back home to their households or families.
What can you do if you feel anxious?
Be kind to yourself
Psychotherapist Rahki Chand urges people not to judge themselves if they do feel anxious to leave the house and get back to normal things like meeting or going on a socially-distanced walk with a friend, going to work or visiting the shops. “It’s ok to feel scared,” she says. Don’t beat yourself up about it.
Get back outdoors in small steps
A good way to get back out there is to take baby steps. “It’s almost like phobia therapy, you need to do a little bit at a time,” says Lucy Fuller, a UKCP-accredited psychotherapist. “Think about when is the best time to go out, how long for (just go for a short period), and go somewhere you think won’t be busy.”
Think about how to make the environment you’re heading to feel as safe as possible and then make yourself go on that first trip.
“Maybe go for a walk around the block at 6.30pm when it’s not busy,” suggests Fuller. “Then keep at it. Try to go again the next day – you might not feel like it, but keep doing it. Then make it a little bit more, so walk past the supermarket. Then next time, go and stand in the queue or go inside.”
Planning what those steps are, with a timescale, and having somebody around to support you and encourage you, can be helpful.
Think about what you can control
The key when getting out and about is to look at what you can control, rather than focusing on what you can’t. That might be your positioning on the pavement as you walk past other people – you can choose to cross the road so you don’t pass near to each other, and that’s your choice. You can also control your own hygiene – so continuing to wash your hands regularly, avoiding touching your face, and opting to wear a mask.
If you do feel ok going to the supermarket but you become fearful when other shoppers come too close, that’s perfectly normal. There are two options, says Ward – the first is to be assertive and tell the person to stay 2m away. The other is to choose a time when it’s quieter. These are both within your control.
Speaking to your employer about how you can return to work safely is a good way to take back some control if you’re anxious about that, he adds. Employers have a duty to help employees feel safe and supported during this time.
Try to focus on other things when outside
Grounding techniques can also be helpful for those who continue to find themselves feeling anxious when out and about. Chand recommends listing in your head five things you can see and five things you can hear, or picking a colour and looking out for things in that colour while you’re outside. Some people might like to listen to music or a podcast instead, she adds.
Look after yourself
Chand recommends some general self care for mental resilience if you’re generally feeling quite anxious at the moment – so eating well, sleeping well, making time to do things you enjoy, exercising, and staying connected to others (even if it’s just a chat with your neighbour over the fence, 2m apart of course).
Experiencing a panic attack when leaving the house can be terrifying. Treat yourself kindly – know that this is your mind and body’s response to a scary situation.
If you do feel an attack coming on, try to really hone in on your breathing. Keep still and try to slow down your heart rate by breathing slowly and deeply, in and out. It might also help to try a grounding technique. When your breathing has calmed a little, is there someone from your household you can call to come and meet you and walk home with you?
Don’t ignore it
When anxiety over leaving the house is not addressed, there’s a risk it can lead to further mental health issues down the line or stop you from living the life you want. “We’ve been programmed to think the world is a terrible place out there, so I think it is hard to start going out,” says Fuller. “The extreme of that is, I think there will be some agoraphobia afterwards.”
If you feel that your fears or anxieties are beginning to impact your ability to get on with life, don’t be afraid to seek help. You could start by talking to a friend or family member about it, or find a therapist through the NHS or privately.
And if you do manage to start getting back out of the house and into ‘normal’ life, no matter how small those steps are, reward yourself for doing so.
You’ve built up courage – and it is courage, says Ward – to face your fears, so you should reward yourself whether with a treat (what that treat is is totally up to you!) or affirmations. This builds a motivation and reward circuit, he adds.
Honestly, we all deserve a pat on the back right now.