With the restriction on travelling between counties lifted, it’s now time to get out and enjoy our country! However, for some people, the mere thought of doing that fills them with dread. In fact, the mere thought of leaving the house may upset them.

Agoraphobia is not a fear of open spaces, but rather a fear of being in situations where the sufferer may feel it will become impossible to escape (the impact of this can often be lessened by going outside with their ‘safe person’). The result of this fear is that people build a shell about themselves, which consists of their ‘safe zone’. The more people languish in this safe zone, the smaller it tends to get, until it’s the size of their house, or even their bedroom.

What hasn’t helped in this pandemic is lockdowns, and both the media and the government inferring that grave danger lies outside! If you take proper precautions, of course it actually doesn’t. In fact, recent studies have indicated that being outdoors hugely reduces your chances of contracting it.

Part of my own anxiety disorder occasionally featured agoraphobia. If I was to be entirely honest, it still does, as I still have to complete exercises to combat its impact – and I still feel its impact from time to time.

The good thing is, at least that I’ve found, is that agoraphobia is entirely beatable, but it requires bravery and persistence. Healing only begins outside your safe zone. You will never heal within it.

Here’s what I’ve read and done. Note that these often apply to driving anxiety too.

  1. Baby steps. Take a walk around the block (or if driving out, drive to the end of your estate or village and back). Maybe even with your safe person, if you must, but it would be even better without. Do it again the next day. Then drop your safe person and do a few laps. Slowly extend your sphere in this way. Take in a few neighbouring blocks. Then, take precautions and go to the shops or take-away alone. Eventually, you’ll be able to go kilometers from home on your own. And beyond that? Socialising with friends again, even in unfamiliar places. The world is opening again… give yourself a chance to be in a position to embrace it!
  2. Keep looking outwards. When out, keep your attention focused on what you’re looking at, rather than inwards towards how you’re thinking. This takes concentration and practice, but gets easier over time.
  3. Stay and bear it. When you feel anxious, push that little bit harder, maybe do that extra lap – show your limbic system who’s boss! If you’re going to the shop and feel panicky, try standing still somewhere (looking at products), and extend your focus outwards towards your environment, rather than inwards towards what you’re thinking. Is that easy? No… it does take practice and training. But if you can, stay for as long as you can – again to show that your rational brain is in charge. Eventually, it will work, and your panic will subside, and you can smile to yourself as you complete your shopping and leave the building. If driving, drive to an unfamiliar carpark, park and stay there until any anxiety passes. Then drive home… don’t drive to the carpark and immediately drive back at speed!
  4. Give yourself a break. Sometimes you’ll feel so bad that you can’t quite make it out, or out far enough, on a given day, or that on another day you’d been to a place before but can’t seem to manage this time without your safe person. Allow this to happen. Some days you simply need to rest – give yourself a break and don’t beat yourself up about it.
  5. Make it a habit. It can take up to 66 days to form a habit. Once a habit is formed it takes less effort/willpower to perform it as a task – it becomes more natural to do. I have a habit-tracking section in my journal and doing a ‘solo thing’ is one of the items I track. I would suggest doing the same. Just tick off the days you manage to do it successfully, and give yourself a reward for, say, 5 days in a row. There will be some days you can’t manage it. This is ok.
  6. People are the same as you. I have no doubt you’re a good person. So are others you may meet out there. They’re not all Covid vectors! In fact, this will be more and more the case over the next few weeks as vaccinations are ramped-up. Remember this… smile at and greet strangers, and observe them smiling back (most do!). About 1 in 6 people you meet may be going through something similar to what you’re going through. In fact, a recent study indicated that Covid has hugely exacerbated this. The important point here: you are not alone, and if you choose it, you will never be alone.

Good luck, and let’s get out an explore and people-watch again!

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