Dealing with the Fear of Going Out
May 18, 2020
Dealing with the Fear of Going Out
Man receiving shot in arm

For the first time in weeks, stay at home orders are being lifted nationwide and Americans are being allowed to visit more public places. While some are bullish on opening the economy devastated by COVID-19, others are fearful of leaving their homes and navigating new societal norms that, although designed for less exposure, still enable the spread of COVID-19 infections. In fact, nearly seven out of ten Americans express some concern about their state opening too quickly, according to a recent poll from Pew Research Center.  

Even as officials move to reopen restaurants, movie theaters, and retail venues to partial capacity, Texans are not of the same mind as they ponder the risks posed by COVID-19. In fact, according to a recent Dallas Morning News-University of Texas at Tyler poll, by a slight plurality of 44% to 41%, Texans are wary of grocery shopping. Further, fewer than 1 in 5 Texans are comfortable about attending a sporting event in a stadium or arena.  


Coping with Fears About Re-entry

Amid health officials’ warnings that reopening too quickly could mean a resurgence of the virus, many have valid concerns about returning — evenly slowly — to life as we knew it. Maybe it’s fear about picking up the virus on surfaces outside the sanctuary of home. For others, it’s anxiety about being in tight spaces with co-workers or fellow shoppers. Or the inability to control the behavior of others, who may refuse to adhere to recommendations like wearing face masks or covering their coughs and sneezes. Even something familiar, like eating at your favorite restaurant or seeing someone who you might normally shake hands with, is enough to induce a certain degree of fear right now, and that’s normal. 

“We all need to acknowledge that anxiety during a pandemic is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation,” says Dustin Webb, a licensed clinical social worker and administrator of behavioral health for Texas Health Dallas. “Anxiety can be a defense mechanism where we ask ourselves if we should or shouldn’t be taking on certain tasks.”

Jon Smith, director of clinical services at Texas Health Springwood Behavioral Health Hospital HEB, adds, “At some point, it’s natural for us to have fears about getting back into our day-to-day routines. We’re all inundated with negative news, and our fears are further stoked by a lack of control.”

Both Webb and Smith have some practical advice about determining whether to venture out in public and to validate that decision for yourself and family members:

Webb recommends doing a cost-benefit analysis for a given activity — a task or errand, for example — to determine whether it’s worth pursuing. He suggests taking a piece of paper and dividing it into two columns. In the first column, jot down the physical and emotional costs (risks) of an activity, and in the other column, write down the physical and emotional benefits. Webb says this simple exercise can help us weigh and be comfortable with a go or no-go decision in the current climate.  

Smith suggests looking at both internal and external factors prior to making a decision. Starting internally, he says to check your emotional temperature on a given day to see if you’re equipped to take on the task. Then look at external factors by checking in with your family members and spouse, and assess whether your errand can be accomplished with minimal people surrounding you. Together, these factors will help you make a decision that feels right and safe.  

And while it’s always good to engage in healthy discussions — and very important to make sure your immediate family members are accurately informed and taking proper precautions — be careful in how you approach conversations with people who may feel differently than you about proper conduct during this period of great uncertainty. Stoking a confrontation, appearing judgmental or being dismissive about someone else’s point of view is not the way to influence others. And doing so at a time when everyone is nervous and frustrated poses a risk of an argument or damaged relationship. 


Tips for Getting Back Out There 

If you’ve made a decision to venture out, The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is providing some excellent guidance on running essential errands as states and communities reopen.  The CDC details recommendations for shopping for food and other essential items, encouraging us to order online or use curbside pickup to minimize exposure to others when possible.  

If in-person shopping is required, the CDC reminds us to stay at least 6 feet away from others, to wear a face mask or cloth coverage, to disinfect the shopping cart with wipes, and to avoid touching your face. The list of recommendations also includes guidance on accepting deliveries and takeout orders at home, and using hand sanitizer after accepting deliveries and collecting mail.

Leana Wen, M.D., an emergency physician and visiting professor at George Washington University’s Milken Institute of Public Health, recommends a simple strategy of visiting one nonessential place versus going to several if you must go out. While it may be inconvenient to space out your errands over days versus getting them all done in a few hours, this simple strategy will limit your exposure to others and lessen your likelihood of contracting the virus.  

Sometimes the best common-sense advice comes from closer to home. Jon Smith (mentioned earlier) recalls a planned outing on Mother’s Day to a favorite local park in North Texas. When he and his family arrived at the park, they saw that their favorite walking trail was crowded with people. They pondered whether it made sense to go home, but because they wanted to be outdoors, they discovered a different walking trail with far less people, and had a terrific time with far less risk.

At a time when your health and the health of your loved ones depends on even the smallest decisions, simple choices like these can make a huge difference for the well being of our community. 

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