How to help a friend who’s afraid to go out

Many have been enjoying the reopening of society, but not everyone is finding it easy. Some individuals, such as those who have been shielding, are experiencing such high “re-entry anxiety” that they’re afraid to leave their home at all – even if they have been vaccinated.

Spending time outside and connecting socially is vital for physical and mental wellbeing. So if you know a friend or family member who’s struggling to adjust to the easing of restrictions, how can you help?

Start by recalling how they’ve dealt with stressful situations in the past. Have they always had a tendency to worry and/or catastrophise? Have they – like many adults – suffered with anxiety or feelings of depression this year? If so, they’re likely to be suffering even more intensely now.

Contact the person you hope to help and offer to spend time with them regularly, in any way that feels comfortable to them. While you’re together, don’t tell them how wonderful it is to be out and about or say everyone is hoping they’ll join them soon. Although well-intended, such comments will only make them feel pressured and even more isolated.

Instead, listen non-judgmentally to their concerns. If you find it impossible to distract them from negative and hopeless feelings and, if their fears seem out of proportion to actual threats, encourage them gently to talk to their GP so they can get professional help for any underlying psychological problems.

Help them get informed. The more something distresses us the more we avoid it, as researchers at Cambridge and the University of Bern discovered when studying arachnophobia. That means those who are especially fearful may know little about the source of their fear, let alone how to cope with it. So another way to help someone who’s trapped by fear is to relay accurate up-to-date information about how to avoid risk and how to deal with their particular worries. This will allow them to regain perspective and suggest ways to help them feel empowered.

Draw up a plan with them or offer to help set some goals. You may be surprised to find they choose goals quite different from your own, but it’s important to accept this. This is a new experience for all of us, so there’s no “normal” or “right way” to behave. Rather than insisting they share your definition of “normal”, try instead to ensure they’re happy with the choices they make.

Suggest they access online instruction to help with relaxation – yoga or tai chi, for example. When someone’s stressed, however, it can feel like too much effort to search for help. Therefore, it’s a good idea to suggest specific sites and offer to join them remotely so you can compare notes. The activity will help them feel calmer, and your desire to spend time with them on their terms will bolster their sense of self-worth.

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