Coming out of shielding? Managing those worries

a profile photo of Richard Smith
Specialist Nurse Advisor for Mental Health, Bupa UK
22 June 2020
Next review due June 2023

As shielding restrictions begin to lift, you might be feeling anxious or fearful of going outside. The idea of venturing out can feel even harder if you’ve got used to the reality of staying home. In this article, people who’ve been shielding talk about their worries, and I share tips for managing those fears and thought patterns.

Concerns you may have

Louise, a head teacher of a primary school, is still working but has been shielding at home for months because of an underlying health condition. She says:

“If I am able to come out of shielding I will still feel very vulnerable. I will probably be overly vigilant with social distancing and hand washing, finding it hard to relax in certain situations.

“I’ll also be very anxious about being in busier places such as supermarkets, and I think it will take a while to get used to all the changes that have been put in place while I’ve been in lockdown.”

These concerns are understandable for many people who’ve been in lockdown for months. They can feel similar to returning to work after a long time off sick. For most of us life just ‘stopped’, and we now have to adjust to a new way of living. So, it’s natural to find yourself thinking about how you will manage with a heightened sense of worry or fear.

Sometimes our thoughts can become excessive, with fleeting thoughts of: “Am I safe? What if I can’t see my family? Is my job safe?”. You may avoid opportunities to meet with friends. Or, you might even decide to avoid going to work altogether – therefore avoiding the new ‘normality’.

Feeling anxious about leaving the house?

Louise says: “Although the news that shielded people could start to go for a daily walk was very welcome, I’m still being very cautious. I go out for a walk only in quiet places and at quieter times of the day. I always go armed with a bottle of hand gel and give everyone a wider berth than is probably needed! I think my confidence will build up slowly as I get used to being ‘allowed’ out of the house.”

There are many things you can do to manage your anxiety and to avoid it becoming a long-lasting problem.

Manage your expectations

Take time to get used to the new ‘normal’, and just focus on making small adjustments to your daily routine. Don’t expect to shift straight back to the new ‘normal’. Approach it by starting with small steps and build these up over time.

Practise calming breathing techniques

Mindfulness-based practices such as meditative breathing techniques can really help. Try starting with 10 breaths, counting each one. Don’t try to make your breathing faster or slower – just allow your body to breathe as normal and notice how it feels. This can be a great way to calm your body and take control of your brain.

If you’re feeling a lot of anxiety about going outside, try practising these breathing techniques several days before planning to leave the house, and when you do go outside. On your walk you might also find it helpful to listen to a mindful walking podcast.

It’s important to keep reminding yourself that leaving the house is a completely normal thing to do.

Limit your caffeine intake

Try to cut down on drinks that contain caffeine, such as coffee and tea. Caffeine is a stimulant, which can make you feel more alert. However, if you have a lot it can also make you feel anxious, and cause other short-term symptoms such as heart palpitations, dizziness and insomnia.

Plan your outdoor journey

When you go outside, plan your journey before you leave the house. Go out when it’s less busy, and you might find it helpful to take someone with you.

But, if you’re outside on your own and start to feel worried don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.

Focus on what you can control

It’s important to focus on what you can control, rather than what you can’t control. For example, you can continue with good hygiene practices, such as washing your hands and not touching your face.

When you do go outside think about your positioning on the pavement, as this might help you to feel more in control. Try and have someone you can call if you start to panic or feel anxious when you’re out.

Or, if you’re planning on returning to work and feeling worried about it, have a chat with your employer about how you can return to work safely.

Worried you may have a panic attack if people get too close?

Maurice, a retired man in his eighties has been shielding at home for months and is worried that he might have a panic attack when leaving the house. He says:

“I’ve been at home for so long now that the thought of leaving my house fills me with apprehension. I worry that I might start having a panic attack when I do go outside and people get too close.”

If you start having a panic attack about people getting too close, knowing that you’re having a panic attack can help you to manage it. Some of the first signs of a panic attack include a rapid heartbeat, being short of breath or feeling faint, lightheaded or dizzy. Remind yourself that this is temporary, it will pass, and that you’re OK.

If you learn to control your breathing, you will be less likely to have the symptoms that can often make a panic attack worse. Here are some steps to manage it.

  • Focus on your breathing. Breathe in and out through your mouth, feeling the air slowly fill your chest and belly and then slowly leaving again. Breathe in for a count of five, hold for a second, and then breathe out for a count of five.
  • Stamp on the spot. Some people find this helps to control their breathing.
  • Focus on your senses. For example, taste mint-flavoured sweets or gum. Or try touching or cuddling something soft.
  • Self care is important. Pay attention to what your body needs after you've had a panic attack. You may need to rest somewhere quietly or eat or drink something.
  • Tell a friend or family member. If you feel able to, it could help to let someone know you've had a panic attack. Tell them how they might notice if you're having another one, and how you'd like them to help you.

When to seek help

If you feel that your fears or anxieties about leaving the house are beginning to impact on the way you want to live your life, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Talk to a family member or friend that you trust and find supportive. Or join an online support group.

If this doesn’t help you, may want to consider talking to a therapist or counsellor privately or through the NHS.

a profile photo of Richard Smith
Richard Smith
Specialist Nurse Advisor for Mental Health, Bupa UK

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