mental health

The Less I Go Out, the More Afraid I Am to Go Out. Why?

Since lockdown began, the very thought of crossing my threshold makes me anxious. I asked an expert for an explanation.
05 May 2020, 6:36am
illustration of people shopping in masks
Illustration: Matteo Dang Minh

This article was originally published on VICE Italy.

The lockdown is forcing us to ask ourselves a ton of questions: about our relationship to ourselves, the outside world and others. So we've started a regular feature as a space to collect our thoughts, turn them into questions and have them answered by an expert. This is the first instalment.

Question: Since Italy went into lockdown over a month ago, I’ve been experiencing constant mood swings. One minute I feel like I’m smashing it, the next I feel completely helpless. The worst moment came the other night, when I had my second panic attack in less than a month. Before the coronavirus pandemic I hadn't had a single panic attack in two years.

I'd been writing a shopping list at the time, and the idea of leaving the house had me completely on edge. I was gripped with the fear that the outside world had changed too much, or that people might judge the items in my shopping basket as unnecessary. Basically, the less I go out the more afraid I am to go out. I'm ashamed – and I feel worse to think that I never had a problem with going out before the crisis. Why has this happened?

Answer from Laura Guaglio, psychologist and psychotherapist specialising in trauma and emotionally-stressful events: Feeling uncomfortable in a scenario that once felt normal can make us feel inadequate. We ask ourselves: 'Why could I go out before, but now I can't?' The main difference is that now we're being subjected to a stressful event that, for better or for worse, is changing the way we behave and the way we see things. It's probably a temporary change, but we still have to come to terms with it.

Leaving aside people with agoraphobia, social anxiety or a history of anxiety disorders, the situation we are experiencing is so exceptional that fear of leaving the house is actually one of the most common reactions you could have. And this certainly applies to people who we might define as more "emotionally balanced". Currently, lots of people might be feeling the weight of distress, or the negative type of stress that can eventually lead to depression. We’re not talking about the stress of an exam that disappears when the exam is over; it's something much less defined, and fuelled by the uncertainty of the situation and when it might end.

In this specific case, several factors might be making you want to stay home. You might not accept that daily life has been turned upside down. But when you go out, you see that the world as you knew it has changed. You see the deserted streets, the shops closed, the people around you wearing masks and gloves. That new reality will affect you. It can be disconcerting, disorienting, and you might not want to accept it.

But there’s a much more mundane element: on a neurobiological and physical level, the less exercise you do, the less often you leave the house, the less you want to go out. Add to this the fear of catching the disease: You might say to yourself,"“OK, if I go shopping I'll have to take public transport, but then I'll also have to take a supermarket trolley. Any number of people might have touched that trolley. What if I accidentally come into contact with someone not showing symptoms? What if I'm asymptomatic and I'm putting other people at risk?" This train of thought has probably crossed all of our minds to some extent. If you haven’t already, I suggest you say it out loud. It's always good to talk about how you feel.

Ultimately, the shame, the anxiety, the mood swings you’re experiencing – and even the apathy and depression – are symptoms we’re all likely to experience during this time. And remnants of it might continue after this is over. But if these symptoms haven’t disappeared after three to six months, I’d advise you to talk to an expert.

The fear is justified now, but we have to find a way to evaluate it objectively so that we can put it in perspective and not let it overwhelm us. Fear is legitimate, but we need to make it work for us.

This article originally appeared on VICE IT.