Why are we so scared to come out of quarantine? — GROW Counseling

GROW Counseling
11 min readJun 2, 2020

With the quarantine restrictions being lifted a little bit in many states, we’ve been hearing this question a lot from clients — Why am I so afraid to go back out?

Does that resonate with you? While it might have been a little annoying, there was something that felt safe and controlled (or maybe more accurately “safer” and “controllable”) about being at home. Now that restrictions are lifted and there is the freedom to jump back into some normal activities…gyms, restaurants, shopping…and, you might find yourself feeling hesitant or anxious or even paralyzed trying to figure out what to do.

You are not alone.

Why is that? What is it about making these decisions that feels so difficult? Remember the days when we would just swing by the grocery store without thinking twice? Or pop into the gym for a quick stress-relieving workout? Why is it now that our anxiety goes up when we think about doing these basic things?

Part of the reason it’s hard to make sense of all of this is because this is a complex problem to address and figuring out what to do next involves factors including personality, previous experience, risk assessment and tolerance, and decision making style. I can’t tell you exactly what to do or which decision to make for you and your family, but we can name some of the issues that contribute to the anxiety and identify some factors that come into play in the decision making process.

First, why is this so hard?

Here is the deal — in the most primitive part of our brain we are hard wired for survival. It’s called our primal brain and is connected to the amygdala, but to my clients I usually refer to this as our “lizard brain”. It’s the part that acts before we even recognize cognitively that there is danger or something threatening our well being. It’s the part that pulls our hand off a hot stove before we realize we’re touching it or jump out of the way of a knife we’ve dropped before we see it falling. This is the part of our brain that reacts on instinct and it’s one priority is keeping us alive.

When we experience a traumatic event — one that we perceive threatens our survival — this part of our brain goes into overdrive. When our primal brain is “on,” the more rational logical parts of our brain are usually off. These are the parts that we use to make complex decisions. To make matters worse, think about our primal brain as a light switch — when we have experiences that are intensely threatening or extend for a significant amount of time, the primal switch can get stuck “on”. It’s in the on position that causes trouble over time.

That state of hyper-arousal means that you may feel a heightened sense of awareness about danger; it might feel like it lurks around every corner, and your estimation of that danger may feel exaggerated. I would argue that most of us, to some degree, have been in a state of hyper-arousal lately whether we recognize it or not. Staying in that state can cause increased anxiety, phobias, difficult sleeping, and ultimately Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Previous to the COVID-19 experience the National Institute of Mental Health estimated that nearly 1 in 5 people live with fears that seem disproportionate to everyday stimuli. It’s likely that number is significantly higher right now.

You might be dealing with previous trauma.

In addition to our brain telling us that we’re in danger, it’s important to acknowledge that previous experience plays a role in how we respond to those danger signals. For some people, their “buckets”or capacity to handle more stress and trauma are already partially or nearly full. You will find, as in the other categories, that there will be a range of differences in how people respond. If you have lived through trauma before, you may be more likely to be triggered by the recent events. Put another way, you might be less resilient in the face of a stressor.

However, sometimes people who have faced, and overcome, trauma have tools to draw on that other people might not. That narrative that we embrace becomes one that we often live out — do you find yourself saying “I can deal with this, I will be ok.” Or do you find yourself questioning whether you can handle the unknown and potential danger? What we focus on grows. That means if you focus on the fear or the uncertainty — it will seem even more scary. But if you focus on being ok in this moment or on your ability to overcome difficulty — then a sense of hope will rise up. The story that we tell ourselves about what is going on and about who we are in the midst of that is very important.

You will need to manage your stress.

Given that we all register stress or trauma differently, it’s important to be paying attention to how we respond to stress. Generally speaking, when there is a danger or stressor facing us, we tend to do one of two things — move towards it or move away from it. If you are wired to move towards, you probably find yourself trying to figure out how to manage or control it. You might make plans, lists, research best ways to sanitize things, or think through potential outcomes of “what if” scenarios. If you are wired to move away, then probably find yourself trying to disconnect, think about something else, or distance yourself from all focus on COVID-19.

As you can probably imagine, both approaches have value and neither are wrong. However they have dramatically different impacts on our anxiety levels when it comes to making decisions about re-engaging or staying in. Ask yourself — do you tend to approach a stressful situation head on or distance a little? How do you handle managing stress? What does that do for your anxiety levels? What happens when you encounter barriers to your preferred method of stress management?

How is your personality wired?

The way that our personality is hard wired also plays a role in how we assess information. On a continuum, people tend to be either data driven in making decisions or they tend to be more intuitive. People who are data driven want facts, information, and specifics to feel like they are making an informed decision. The challenge here is that the information is somewhat inconsistent and constantly changing. Difficult to feel secure in making a decision…easier to freeze in place.

For people who are more intuitive decision makers, they tend to lean on big picture theories, looking for relationships in things, and quickly integrating different perspectives…ultimately it’s more about trusting their gut. The challenge here is that sometimes for intuitive decision makers articulating the why behind the decision is difficult and they can erroneously follow their gut to something that “feels” right but might not be the best decision. Can lead to decisions that might seem impulsive from the outside.

You are going to have to continuously assess risk.

Let’s shift gears a minute and talk about another piece of this puzzle…risk. An element that is unusual and especially difficult is that of risk assessment. We assess 100s if not 1000s of times a day. How hot is the water? How sharp is the knife? Is the surface even to put a glass on? How heavy is the box? Again, we’re hard wired for survival.

Our brain is constantly engaged in figuring out how to keep us safe. The problem we find ourselves facing with COVID-19 is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to assess the risk. There are voices providing information that fall all along the spectrum. It’s nearly impossible for the average person to wade through the throng of perspectives and access any understandable, fact based, accurate, clear information. On the ends of the spectrum are “it’s not really that bad’’ and “you will most surely die.” Pretty significant risk possibilities to live with or plan around.

Even when we face the scariest of situations but can trust that we accurately assessed the risk, we can more confidently make a decision. Think about HIV. At first there was little clarity and the risk seemed very high. But as we learned more about it, ways emerged to clearly understand the risk and mitigate it if one chose to do so. WIth COVID-19, we’ve been given so many mixed messages both implicit and explicit. Stay at home and be safe. Go out at your own risk. Safe to eat take out food. Maybe not safe to put your groceries away. The officials have a plan. The plan might cause other problems. The hospitals are ready. The hospitals need time. The list goes on. With conflicting information and without a way to assess the risk accurately, our stress and fear continue to increase.

You will need to master the art of assessing risk.

Do you remember when you learned to drive? I remember. I was terrified. I was completely convinced that the lanes weren’t wide enough for my car. If I didn’t pay 100% attention and manage the steering wheel well (I.e. constantly overcorrect), then I would end up in someone else’s lane and it would end in catastrophe. Let me assure you I grew out of that. Why? Partly because of exposure.

The more we do something, the more we gradually learn about it. The more I drove, the more I mastered the art of managing the risk that driving presents. The more familiar we are with something, the more we are able to answer the question “is it worth it?”

As we master something, we go into an autopilot kind of state where we aren’t even completely aware of what we are doing. Ever make the drive home and realize you don’t really remember how you got there? Mastery. It’s important with risk mastery that we maintain a healthy respect for something; otherwise we might end up too far into the risk zone. But by doing something and observing the outcome we learn where the boundaries are.

The challenge with COVID-19 is we’ve largely been in freeze mode. We don’t have much personal data at this point to be able to really know where the boundaries are safe. It’s hard to develop mastery over something when the risk seems too great to run small experiments — like going out, or wearing a mask, or not wearing a mask, or staying in. Some of this will change as states open back up, but during quarantine there wasn’t the option of test driving behavior to see where the danger was or how much room we had in our “lanes.”

We have the freedom to make decisions.

Assuming that we’ve been able to assess the risk somewhat accurately or at least confidently, the next puzzle piece is decision making. Seems like a positive thing right? It is. But it’s also a difficult thing. While being told what to do (stay at home or wear a mask) can bring up a variety of negative emotions, it allows us to avoid the decision making process. We comply and if we choose can complain or resist but ultimately the responsibility for the decision is on someone else. Now that we’re experiencing more freedom we have to bear the weight of the decision making. In short, with more freedom comes more responsibility. For many, with responsibility comes anxiety. To make matters more complex, these decisions are not just about what is right for me or my family, but there is a community element to our choices. How will what I do affect those in my community? My neighbors? The elderly? Those in the service industry? Our medical staff? It presents moral dilemmas for decisions that used to be on autopilot.

When making decisions that seem especially morally weighted, understanding your values and priorities becomes important. Depending on our circumstances our values and priorities can change — for example, if you have a financial need that changes your priorities might have to adjust, or if you have a child you might change your decision making strategy. It’s helpful to stop and think about what matters to you the most? What do you value? How do those values line up with the decisions you are making? How do the values conflict? You might value freedom of choice (not to wear a mask) but feel conflicted because you also value the safety of those around you (leading you to choose to wear a mask). Value conflicts not only make decisions more difficult but also contribute to increased anxiety.

You might be experiencing decision fatigue.

Did you know we can get tired from making decisions?? An interesting example comes from a 2010 study by Jonathan Levav and Shai Danziger. According to the research, Israeli parole boards granted parole to around 70% of prisoners who appeared before them early in the morning, but less than 10% of prisoners who appeared late in the day.

“The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts,” John Tierney of the New York Times wrote of the study.

As you make more decisions throughout the day, your reserve of willpower eventually becomes depleted. As you become more fatigued, you’ll start to either make decisions impulsively instead of carefully thinking through consequences, or wind up doing nothing due to a lack of energy to weigh options. In the case of the parole board, it was easier to stick with the status quo and keep prisoners incarcerated, instead of chancing release and recidivism.

In short: The more decisions — simple or complex — you are subjected to, the less mental energy and willpower you have left at the end of the day.

There will be bias in your decision-making process.

To have bias is to be human. Bias can actually be a positive process — it can help to eliminate some information and streamline our decision making. However bias can become a problem when we are unaware of it. Knowing our bias is important so that we can adjust it if we need to.

There are several different types of bias, but the one that is most related to risk is called Ambiguity Bias. In short, ambiguity bias says we choose the familiar over the unknown or the risky. Even if the potential upside of the risk is great, our tendency is to choose the thing that will mitigate the risk and feel more comfortable.

Additionally, research that shows when all the options seem dissatisfying, we all have a tendency to reject one vs. picking one. While it seems like nuance the implication is that we adopt a “rejection mind-set.” Rather than looking for a good option, we focus on which option has the least risk or downside.

Here is the application — if we can shift our mindset to something we are choosing or selecting (rather that something we are rejecting or avoiding) and be aware that we need to push ourselves a little outside our comfort zone (rather than mitigating risk), we will likely make better decisions.

Summary

If you’re feeling fear or anxiety about going back out or trying to re-engage with “normal” it’s ok. You’re ok. Helping to name some of the perceived risk, decision making strategy, and paths forward helps to understand what is going on.

Be gentle with yourself and take it one step at a time.

Remember life is not a one size fits all scenario. You might need to make decisions that seem cautious to someone else. You might need to challenge yourself a little more than someone else.

In the midst of it all…don’t forget to focus on the positive. Give yourself permission to risk and fail. Be gentle with yourself and those around you.

Change your perspective when evaluating the value conflicts. Choose to do something that feels unknown. Be wise…and brave.

Written By: Dr. Wendy Dickinson

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GROW Counseling

GROW Counseling exists to help individuals and organizations begin to find meaning and joy. We have offices throughout the Atlanta, GA metro area.