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How to Deal With Fear of Public Spaces After COVID-19

After staying home for a year, going out could be stressful.

  • Agoraphobia refers to a fear of leaving home or going to any place where escape may be difficult, such as a crowded area.
  • COVID-19 has caused many people to fear public spaces, and these agoraphobia-like symptoms may linger after restrictions lift.
  • Some ways to help reduce anxiety when going out include practicing self-compassion, exposing yourself slowly to the thing you've been avoiding, and having a friend, loved one or pet accompany you.

After being cooped up in my lovely but small Manhattan apartment for almost a year, I decided to move into a spacious, open floor-plan condo in the suburbs. While I was relieved to be out of the city and happily felt a new sense of freedom in being able to drive wherever I had to go, I noticed I was feeling a bit nervous about going out.

Dubova / Shutterstock
Source: Dubova / Shutterstock

At first, I attributed this anxiousness to the lingering concerns about COVID-19 and the newness of the environment, but my anxiety seemed a bit out of proportion to the actual danger of my situation. In talking with others and seeing numerous posts on social media, I realized I wasn’t alone in my reaction. I started to wonder: Have we developed agoraphobia-like symptoms after a year of isolating ourselves?

Agoraphobia is often defined simply as the fear of leaving home, but it’s more complex than that. Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder characterized by a fear of being in an environment or activity outside the home from which leaving or escaping is perceived to be difficult. People with agoraphobia may also feel panic-like symptoms in these situations. Those who have agoraphobia find it very difficult to leave the safety of their home and worry about having an adverse reaction — such as a panic attack — if they do.

At the start of the pandemic, the fear of going to public spaces was instilled in people around the world. For many months, COVID-19 has caused us to dramatically change our daily routines — across the country, people have shifted to remote work, started ordering their groceries online, and stopped seeing friends and family members, all in an effort to “slow the spread.” When dealing with a global pandemic and an unknown disease, some fear is healthy and reasonable, so this was not a case of mass agoraphobia.

However, as social distancing measures lift and it becomes safer to venture outside, the fear of going into public places could linger. After experiencing so much social isolation and fear of infection, some people may face challenges when readjusting to the way things were before. Suppose you already lived with anxiety before the beginning of 2020 or experienced a great deal of stress and turmoil during the months-long pandemic. This could potentially mean that you are particularly at risk for developing pandemic-related agoraphobia after the quarantine orders end. Although you may be eager to get back to your old routine, you might also need a plan for readjusting and managing various degrees of anxiety as they come up.

Here are some techniques for managing pandemic-related agoraphobia and other anxieties.

Practice the Three Steps of Self-Compassion

  1. Shift self-criticism to self-kindness by becoming aware of your self-talk. For instance, instead of saying to yourself, “This is ridiculous! There’s no reason for me to be this anxious!” say, “I’m here for myself. I’m ok even if I’m feeling anxious.”
  2. Remember your common humanity instead of feeling isolated. When we are suffering, it’s easy to think that we are all alone in it. Consider that at any given moment, literally millions of people are experiencing fear and anxiety too. This can help put your own suffering into perspective.
  3. Attempt to take a step back, acknowledge that you may be over-identifying with your experience, and recognize that you are not your anxiety. Our thoughts and feelings are ever-changing, and taking a broader perspective can show us that something may feel upsetting one moment, but may not feel as big and scary the next. Take a mindful approach instead of over-identifying with your experience. You can take a broader perspective and notice that your thoughts and feelings are ever-changing. At this moment, you may be anxious, but that will change – you are not your anxiety.

Take It Slow

Through what psychologists call, “graded exposure,” you can slowly expose yourself to the thing you’ve been avoiding while managing your anxiety by doing relaxation exercises. You can try meditation or deep breathing. You can also better prepare yourself for the situation by using mental imagery of the scenario before facing it. Imagine yourself walking into the grocery store or a social setting. Practice relaxation techniques while you vividly imagine yourself in a situation that seems stressful.

Get Support from a Companion

It may be helpful to have somebody you know and trust accompany you and give some reassurance. You might feel vulnerable having to ask for help, but you might be surprised how eager those who love you will be to help. Taking along an animal companion when possible may also be of great comfort.

Seek Professional Help

If you suffer from an anxiety disorder, like agoraphobia, you’re not alone. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 19% of all adults in the United States will experience at least one anxiety disorder during 12 months; this number could be even higher after the events of the past year. If you believe you have a problem with anxiety or another mental health concern that you can’t manage on your own, it’s essential to get help. You can learn more about how to receive treatment (including virtual visits) from a licensed mental health professional.

To find a mental health professional near you, visit Psychology Today's therapist directory.

Copyright 2021 Tara Well.

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