“All you do is sit inside!” My 6-year-old roared, running to her room to slam the door in my face.
It was an unseasonably warm fall day in Guelph, Ontario, and I’d just returned from walking my 6- and 8-year-old daughters home from school. A neighbor friend knocked on our door just as we were pulling off our shoes, “Can Penny and Georgia play outside?” I declined the invitation. I knew that my daughter’s disappointment was what ultimately led to her outburst, but I also felt the sting of her words, and the truth behind them.
Three years ago, when I was 28 and a mother to three young children, my therapist diagnosed me with agoraphobia. It’s a type of anxiety disorder that affects about 1 to 2 percent of adults in the United States, and can cause an excessive fear of certain situations or places — like big crowds, long lines and public transportation. People with the condition often feel afraid of becoming trapped or panicked in front of others, and might avoid leaving home. Nobody knows what causes it, but certain things can put you at risk, like having existing panic disorders, phobias or anxiousness; or experiencing stressful life events — like the death of a loved one, or a pandemic.
In August, researchers from California and India published a paper in the journal Psychiatric Quarterly about how the coronavirus pandemic might cause or worsen a number of anxiety disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and agoraphobia, among others. Long periods of social distancing, the study authors noted, might make people more anxious about returning to busy public spaces in the future.
I could relate. Before the pandemic, I feared busy grocery stores, social situations where I felt out of control and chaotic school pickups. I’d often experience physical symptoms of agoraphobia, including a rapid heartbeat, feeling nauseous, trembling and gastrointestinal upset. But I learned how to cope by carefully tuning my routines in ways that made them predictable — I’d schedule a trip to the grocery store at the quietest time of day, for instance, and during school drop-off and pickup, I’d ground myself by focusing on the sound of the van door sliding open and the familiar sight of my kids’ blonde heads bobbing up and down.
When the pandemic hit and my family went into lockdown, my rhythms and routines went out the door.
Grocery stores were overrun with people hoarding food like they were living in an apocalyptic film. Fist fights broke out at Costco over toilet paper; customers spit in the faces of cashiers in my own friendly city, and suddenly my anxiety didn’t feel so irrational anymore.
All I wanted was to be alone in my house — where I could relax, unwind and ground myself — but suddenly, my home had become stifling. My kids were constantly touching me, asking for snacks or wanting entertainment. But there was nowhere else safe for them to go. I’d lost the peacefulness of my home, but the outside world was chaotic and posed a very real threat. I didn’t have anything familiar left to cling to.
At first, I worked hard to create routines that would help me manage my agoraphobia, as well as my entire family’s cabin fever. I devised new outdoor activities like daily hikes in the woods with my husband and kids. I surprised myself when I quickly began craving our time outdoors. Inside the shadow of the trees, I felt a new safety and calm.
But then the lockdown lifted, my husband returned to his office, and I was back at home caring for our children, feeling anxious about returning to my old routines. Mask-wearing and social distancing regulations made me panic in public. Simple chores, like going to the dollar store to get more construction paper, left me jittery for the rest of the day.
A few months later, when the second wave hit and we were once again told to stay home, my inner turmoil resumed: If home was my safest space, and places like the grocery store were unsafe, how would I ever manage to get outside again?
According to Stacey Henson, a licensed clinical social worker and community outreach coordinator at Orlando Recovery Center in Florida, navigating the new reality of a pandemic can be challenging for anyone, but especially for those struggling with mental health issues like agoraphobia.
“In general, any significant change in our daily coping activities is going to impact us in how we manage our mental health day to day,” Henson said. “It causes people to fall back into old behaviors, things that were maybe more comfortable, even if they’re not healthier choices for us.”
Instead of always staying home and canceling plans, Henson said, it might be helpful for people with agoraphobia to start challenging their discomfort by slowly and safely incorporating outdoor activities back into their daily lives. Instead of always ordering takeout, for instance, try visiting the grocery store instead (as long as you can do so safely). Or you might try going for a walk in the neighborhood, or having a socially distanced window visit with a family member or friend.
Scott Bea, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, said that the constant emotional reactions and anxiety that people with agoraphobia have in response to perceived danger and fears can make it difficult for them to be grounded in the present moment. “Rates of depression and anxiety are way up,” he said.
Mindfulness practices, like meditation or breathing exercises, can be helpful, Dr. Bea said, not only to distract the mind from intrusive thoughts, but to help you live in the present moment, with little self-judgment.
As for me, I’ve started seeing my therapist again, practicing mindfulness meditation and committing to stepping into my own discomfort more often. I go to the grocery store and focus on calming my breath while putting apples in a plastic bag. I pick my kids up from school and cling to their smiling faces instead of my racing heart. I return to the forest when I need a quiet and calming outdoor space.
This week, I picked up my 6-year-old from school, and we took the long way home. “Do you want to play at the park?” I asked. She beamed. Once there, she ran off to slide down the slide, while I practiced deep breathing. Eventually we arrived home, where she slipped her hand into mine, and smiled softly at me. We’re going to be OK, my kids and I. I can do this.
Brianna Bell is a Canadian journalist, wife and mom to three daughters. Her work has been published by The Globe and Mail, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and The Independent, among other outlets. She is currently working on a memoir.
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