You’re fully vaccinated but have an unexplained fear of leaving the house. Friends and family are starting to plan get-togethers, but you put them off. Although you used to enjoy social activities, now the thought of going out for groceries — or simply back to the office — makes your stomach uneasy. You feel fearful and powerless and have no idea why. Does this sound like you? If so, you may be experiencing a form of social anxiety sometimes called “cave syndrome.”
This is not uncommon. A recent study by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that almost half of adults felt anxious about interacting with others again after the pandemic.
So what is going on? Why do we have so much fear of leaving the house? And most importantly, what can we do about it?
The crushing impact of the pandemic
First, it’s important to recognize how the pandemic has left its mark on our psychological health. As Dr. Kristin Kleppe, founder of Orange County Health Psychologists, puts it: “The pandemic has been like a boulder thrown into the water of our national psyche and the ripples will continue to impact us for generations to come.”
Just to illustrate, one study showed that the prevalence of depression has tripled since COVID. This has been expected, given the known psychological impact of the SARS epidemic not only on survivors but also their families and greater society.
There have been many other psychological consequences as well. “Social anxiety, intimate partner violence, PTSD, alcohol and substance abuse, OCD — practically every diagnosis has seen an increase in frequency and intensity,” says Kleppe.
In other words, what we are up against is huge. So if you are feeling fearful, it’s important to seek treatment so you can work through your feelings in a goal-oriented way. That includes looking at how your fear became so overwhelming in the first place.
How “cave syndrome” takes root
Cave syndrome can strike anyone in today’s post-pandemic environment. It usually goes this way:
- You start to feel comfortable being at home
- Your friendships become stagnant over time
- Staying home becomes both a habit and an expectation
- You develop a fear of leaving the house
Not only that, but it doesn’t matter whether you were a social butterfly or a lone wolf before COVID.
“I’ve seen people who were previously very extroverted and social who now get anxious to leave home,” says Kleppe. “And those who were always rather introverted dig in their heels even more. It’s just too comfortable to stay home.”
Unfortunately, this fear comes at a price.
The risk of untreated social anxiety
If you’ve isolated yourself due to a fear of leaving the house, then you may develop social anxiety. This hurts your mental, physical, and spiritual health.
Not only does social anxiety take the joy out of life and make it harder for you to pursue your passions, but it adds to stress which in turn contributes to inflammation in your body. And inflammation puts you at risk of all kinds of chronic diseases, including depression.
So what can reduce inflammation? You guessed it: social support. This is powerful enough to not only ward off depression but even dementia and other types of chronic disease or illness, according to Kleppe. So it’s time to get yourself out there… slowly.
3 ways to reduce social anxiety
To get over your fear of leaving the house, Kleppe shares her top three suggestions.
- Exposure to the fear. The only way to get over a phobia is to face it head on. Small daily steps are fine but it’s crucial to break the neuronal connection in the brain between leaving the house and danger. As Kleppe explains: “The brain has changed over the course of the pandemic to fear things like walking close to others or touching surfaces outside of the home and we have to reverse all that. The only way is through is exposure. As you take small, consistent daily steps to leave the house, your brain starts to change and return to pre-pandemic processes. You recognize that you can tolerate the distress and that you’ll be OK. Little by little, the neurons in the brain start to change with the realization ‘I can do this’ and you return to pre-pandemic functioning.
- Reignite old or stagnant relationships. “Make a list of friends, family, and acquaintances you haven’t seen in a while,” says Kleppe. “You might get back in touch by doing something as simple as inviting them on a walk or sitting outside for coffee.” Set goals and build slowly and consistently.
- Use evidence-based therapy. “If you’re in therapy, ask about CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), IPT (interpersonal therapy), or EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) as effective interventions to reduce your anxiety,” suggests Kleppe.
Getting the help you need
If you’ve been isolating at home and are reluctant to leave the house, you may be at risk for developing social anxiety. Our providers are here to help.
Note to psychology professionals: The need for mental health services has significantly increased, and as such, we are hiring new providers. Orange County Health Psychologists welcomes applicants from licensed professionals of all backgrounds who have a passion for excellence in mental health care. For more information, see our Careers page.
—Written by Ekua Hagan for Orange County Health Psychologists
About Kristin Kleppe Psy.D.
Dr. Kristin Kleppe is the President and Founder of Orange County Health Psychologists, Inc., a group practice of licensed clinical behavioral health providers located in Irvine, CA. Orange County Health Psychologists, Inc. provides psychotherapy services for individuals, couples and families in a safe and supportive environment. All of our psychologists, therapists, and social workers are skilled in treating a wide variety of common issues such as depression and anxiety. Additionally, each has specialized training in specific areas of clinical health psychology such as cardiac psychology, oncology, chronic pain, geriatrics, pediatrics, addiction, sexual health and sleep disorders. We also offer a variety of testing, assessments, and positive psychology resources for ADHD, Autism, memory loss and other concerns.