Dealing with agoraphobia during the world’s most indoor crisis

Claire Brnjac // Arts and Culture Editor
Katrina Lashmar // Illustrator

In the days before COVID-19 hit in early spring, I was struggling to sit by myself in a movie theatre. My hands would get clammy at the idea that I was two hours and some light entertainment away from being home, curled up and relaxed in my bed. It wasn’t that the movie theatre itself wasn’t comfortable—I even sprung for the nicer seats in hope of a more relaxing experience—or that I even wanted to actually be home. It was the fact that anything at all could happen, and I would be at least two hours away from being safe at home base.

This, as I’ve come to find out, is a form of agoraphobia. The National Institute of Mental Health defines it as “an anxiety disorder that involves intense fear and anxiety of any place or situation where escape might be difficult,” or more colloquially, a fear of going outside. I’ve suffered a less debilitating version of it for a long time, cutting off dates and hang-outs at 8:00 pm sharp in fear of something bad happening on my way home. 

Agoraphobia has recently become a hot topic as the fear of going outside has become justified. Mental health rates of the general public have tanked disastrously; anxiety and depression rates have skyrocketed during this pandemic, according to a CDC study. 

I understood this firsthand. When the pandemic struck, my sense of self and confidence went out the window, and after so many months inside at home, I forgot how to be away from it. I became terrified of COVID, and what getting it would mean for my seventy-year-old father. My agoraphobia, once annoying, became debilitating. I remember sitting outside a Walmart with my groceries for the week, crying at the idea that I was so far from home and lost, and thinking that I was already sick, or getting there, no matter what precautions I took. The invisible thread that tied me home could be snapped, and I’d be lost.

Hala Abdul, a Registered Clinical Counsellor from the Anxiety Relief Centre (ARC) in Vancouver, said that this continued rise of mental illness rates might end up being the case.“More than anything, I think that this pandemic has robbed us of a sense of control since our options have shrunk,” she told me. The feeling of anxiety in this instance is a lack of control; I can’t control the pandemic, so I am afraid of it. 

When I asked what she would recommend to someone like me who had a hard enough time going outside without a pandemic on, she mentioned that creating a routine can be extremely helpful.“Having no routine at all is far more exhausting than having a routine, so it’s well worth a try to figure out what it might look like for you…Creating a system that involves getting some fresh air and going for walks is a great start.” Incentivizing yourself to go outside, even just for a coffee or to walk around a part of your neighbourhood you enjoy, can make a difference with your mental health.

COVID-19 has made an agoraphobe a recluse. Having no control over my life has made me spiral into two different haircuts and a Blogilates phase, but as I work on leaving the house, I feel like I’m starting to have more control over what I do. Going outside is something I can start to enjoy, even just to our community mailbox. Before, the feeling of being outside for a second thrilled me before the feeling eventually snapped back to fear. Now, while I collect my many unwise internet purchases from the mailbox, the seconds-long thrill of being outside grows longer.

It’ll take a while, and the end result will be nothing groundbreaking, but I think of a day where I go somewhere spontaneously, and I enjoy being a person outside the house again, even with wildfires, rogue bears, and a pandemic out to get me. 

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