Editor’s Note: Rebecca Toy is a licensed clinical marriage and family therapist with over 15 years of experience treating trauma and anxiety in adults, children, and families.
For adventurers and travelers, exploring is one of the best ways to cope with stress and recharge. But battling a lethal, invisible virus changes the world and how we see it. Months of isolation combined with doomsday scrolling of scary headlines take a toll, leading to anxiety and even agoraphobia, which is the fear of leaving your home and being in crowds.
Anxiety is a sneaky, toxic relationship. It’s not like fear, which can pop up big and ugly with a right scare but also leave just as quickly. Instead, it quietly moves in and takes over, spreading worry. If we don’t kick it out quickly, anxiety changes the way we think and makes it hard for our nervous system to relax. It steals our ability to enjoy things we once loved. A travel lover may find themselves stripped of their favorite thing, unable to go out into the now scary world that once brought them so much joy.
The tricky thing about any unstable situation is that it came in with uncertainty, and it will go out with uncertainty. But your fears don’t mean you’re forever on house arrest — luckily, how to start breaking free of this state of mind is easier to define. If you’re worried about leaving your house and traveling again, try using these steps so you can start to rebuild habits and take your life back.
You’re anxious for a reason — own it and give yourself grace
It’s time to break up with that needy anxiety that just won’t take the hint you’re moving on. But first, give yourself some grace for having lived with anxiety in the first place. It is normal for us to react with nervousness, tension, anger, fear, and controlling behaviors when we’re confronted with the unknown. And of course, the stranger or more fearful something is, the bigger that response gets.
It’s human nature. We see it all around us: in the headlines, in our friends, and when we look in the mirror. This state of angst and unrest is actually a new, right-now, normal. You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be from a neurological survival stance.
Sure, some seem to get around it by hitting an emergency shutdown mechanism in their feelings. This is where our fatalists and denialists live, in these numb “nothing matters” or “this is all exaggerated” belief systems. And this is normal too, a natural coping mechanism. But there’s a catch. I won’t start lecturing on the polyvagal theory of the nervous system, but basically, what goes numb must eventually pass through anxiousness before coming back to calm. No one can permanently avoid worry.
While fear isn’t a good headspace to live in, it has a function. This primal response is built to help us assess danger when things change. At the right dose, even temporary anxiety helps move us to act in our best interests. And that function has to be honored. At the risk of sounding cliche and “woo-woo,” the more you call your worry “crazy” or “stupid,” the more you convince that part of your brain that you still need the alarm bell ringing.
Instead, wrap your metaphorical arms around that anxiety and thank your brain for responding the way it’s designed. Own the angst. One of the wilder things about our thoughts is when we acknowledge the hard ones, they have a way of softening. And the rest of the steps become so much easier.
Assess your unique situation honestly
Disconnect from other’s expectations about when it’s safe to get out, whether that’s to the coffee shop or Croatia. This doesn’t mean ignore health department recommendations and government security alerts. But your co-worker/aunt/best friend/favorite celebrity’s opinions aren’t the best barometers. There is often tremendous social pressure to respond in certain ways to a pandemic, political unrest, a natural disaster, or even personal traumas. But this is your life, with your unique context, experiences, health and safety risks and needs, and impact on your community.
Start by asking yourself these questions:
- What specifically scares me about leaving my home? How likely is that situation?
- Is there anything I can do to make that safer?
- Why do I want to get out? What I am looking forward to or needing to do? Does it outweigh the reasonable risk from my fears?
- Are there any risks to me staying at home? Financial, relational, psychological?
- How will my decision to stay or go affect others?
Be honest with yourself. There’s no shame in whatever you come up with. Get help to sort it out if you need it. Therapists always encourage clients to challenge their thoughts, to be a lawyer and debate the validity both ways. Look at each answer. Is this thought illogical? Is it distorted in some way? Or grounded strongly in reality? There are scary and awful things out there. You’re checking to see if your brain has made it worse.
We can never know all of the things or gather absolute reassurance. In unfamiliar situations like a pandemic this is even more true. After you’ve balanced risk and need and reward, it always comes down to which decision will give you the most peace.
Slow and steady: Welcome to exposure therapy
You’ve made your decision that you’re ready to venture out, but fear and anxiety hold you back. You need a plan. It’s time to implement slow and steady steps to build confidence and a sense of safety. Just like a baby’s steps, your actions may be small in distance, but they’re monumental growth.
Exposure therapy, or systematic desensitization, is a therapeutic method used to help people stop avoiding their fears. It’s designed to tackle those fears in small, manageable doses. Repetition is key as a person does a planned step toward something they’re afraid of over and over until it becomes a known, comfortable action.
There are many ways to structure it, and doing true, complex exposure therapy requires a therapist. Like with any health issue, if you’re experiencing symptoms that cannot be managed on your own, your best bet is to work with a clinician. But there are some simple starting strategies to try.
- Make a list of the situations you’re afraid of when you think about going out of your home.
- Organize your list from the least fearful scenarios to the most fearful. Get as detailed as you can with the conditions: time of day, length of experience, place, and who is there.
- Start with the least anxiety-producing situation and do that thing, in slowly growing doses of time, repeatedly. Plan it and repeat it often but don’t rush the pace. Stick to what you can tolerate.
- Once you’ve mastered one, go to the next. Keep practicing each so that the fear doesn’t creep back in.
- Build positive things into your day to reward yourself for the effort.
The biggest mistake people make when trying to face their chronic anxiety is they do too much, too fast. Many compare what they used to be able to do without fear, feel discouraged, and push hard. They end up getting flooded with panic and then avoid their fears even more. If this happens to you, slow down your exposure situations immediately and consult a professional for further guidance.
Remember, give yourself a break as you go through this journey. This is a process that requires you to regularly fight the instinct to retreat. After all that effort you’ll need to make sure to rest and take care of yourself. But you can also get stronger and be able to handle more and more. And when you’re ready, this complicated but rewarding world will be right outside the door.