Have You Become a COVID Hermit?

A year of isolation has convinced some people they'll be just fine if they never leave home again.

by Eddie McNamara Health Writer

I’m writing this column from Venice Beach, California. This is the first time since the beginning of the worldwide pandemic that I have travelled anywhere that wasn’t a family member’s home right after getting a negative test result back. Now I’m all vaxxed up and ready to socialize (as much as a guy with anxiety disorders and agoraphobia can be expected to). I thought that all my friends and acquaintances would also be chomping at the bit to get out of the house, too, but that hasn’t been the case in almost half of the people I’ve reached out to.

Turns out, the past year has created a legion of COVID Hermits—people who refuse to leave their homes, have everything delivered and dropped off outside their door, have renounced office life, and no longer interact with other human beings face-to-face—masks or not. To hear them tell it, they’re living their best lives. They say they’ve always been introverts and were never comfortable socializing with people. Now that they don’t have to, they’re truly happy to never have to make small talk with a rando or wear pants and shoes ever again. I could buy that if I myself didn’t use the same excuse 20 years ago to cover for my own agoraphobia.

Look, let’s be honest with each other. Sitting on your couch and watching America’s Most Wanted on a Saturday night is, at best, OK. In the past, I spent many nights on the couch. I would have much rather been getting up to hijinks with my friends, but my agoraphobia made me believe the threshold to my apartment was the only thing keeping me from terrifying peril. My fear kept me at home. Sound familiar?

I’m hearing the same kind of fears from some friends now—even if they’re fully vaccinated. I’ve asked buddies to meet up for a walk by the river or have a socially distanced coffee in the park, and more than a few have acted like I am trying to recreate the Sturgis bike rally or Miami spring break. I understand why they feel the way they do and have empathy for what they’re going through, but at some point, if you see a friend drowning, you need to jump in and try to rescue them, right? Calmly whispering instructions from the shoreline isn’t going to cut it.

Here’s the life preserver I’d like to toss my COVID Hermit friends.

Take baby steps. You have to make yourself pass the forcefield of your front door and get into the world. Wear a mask. Wear 10 masks. I don’t care how many you wear as long as you get your ass outside. Try walking a little bit, but if that seems like too much, just be outside. If it feels uncomfortable (it probably will) you’re doing it right. Think of this as your first day in the gym after a really long layoff. It’s not going to feel great, but if you do a little more every day, you’ll eventually condition yourself and you won’t fear the world outside your sofa as much.

Fight the flight urge. Anxiety disorders are often framed as something that jacks up your fight, flight, or freeze response because real or perceived stressors. That’s great when you’re trying to avoid a woolly mammoth, but not so useful when you’re trying to have a stroll through the park.

When you feel anxious outside of your Corona Cave—and you will—embrace those uncomfortable feelings. Your brain is probably going to tell you that you have to get home right now or else something terrible is going to happen. Take a moment and combat that with pure rational thought. Recognize that it’s the flight mechanism at play and don’t give in to it.

Soak it up. Instead of fleeing, feel your feelings in a mindful manner. Is your heart pounding? Good. This counts for your cardio for the day. Do you feel spacy and lightheaded? People pay a lot of money to feel that way. Feel every sensation without making up a whole story about what it means. Just feel it, acknowledge it, and let it go. Welcome more sensation. What else does your brain have for you? Bring it on. Feel it fully, then let it slip away. Breathe out and imagine the sensation leaving your body with the out breath. Stay in the present moment. You can’t worry about wild scenarios when you’re living in the now. If you catch yourself worrying, note that you’re worrying, feel it, breathe that shit out, and keep moving on.

Talk to a professional. If you find that you aren’t making progress on your own, it’s time to turn to a pro and let them do their thing. A therapist or a social worker is a stranger who is going to keep you accountable and keep pointing you towards your goal of moving about the world with some degree of comfort. Therapy has helped me tremendously. It’s not perfect and sometimes the feelings of agoraphobia are just too much to deal with. That’s when you have permission to bail, say eff it, and binge watch episodes of Murder She Wrote, Psych, and Schitt’s Creek. The point isn’t to be perfect and do all the social things. The point is getting through the discomfort in order to be able to do some of the social things. It’s time to re-enter the world.

And here’s what I’d tell those trying to help friends break out of their COVID Cocoon.

Be a pest. If you’re a real friend to someone who is a COVID prisoner, it’s your job to help them GTFO of their home. Texting, having phone convos, or video conference hangouts are a good place to start. Keeping your friend engaged is important—it keeps them from disappearing altogether—but that’s the bare minimum you can do. I have found that letter writing (in the form of a long-ass series of texts), where I tell my friends exactly what my concerns are for them in a straight up manner hits a lot better than when they can yes you to death on the phone or change the subject and fail to address the issue. Is it unpleasant to call your friends out? Hell yeah, it is. But if you’re asking them to be uncomfortable, you better be ready to do it, too.

Jump through hoops. What you’re really trying to do is get your friend comfortable outside of their COVID comfort zone. Do whatever it takes to get them there. Wear all N-95 masks they need you to in order to feel safe. Wear a HazMat suit. Or a beekeeper suit. Open doors so they don’t have to touch them, squirt sanitizer all over your hands as evidence that you pose no risk, sit as far away from them as necessary—just as long as they’re outside. If you meet all their demands, the excuses are off the table, and you can focus on making progress.

Normalize it. Change their outlook with experiences. Let them see for themselves that people are out there living again, but with masks and distancing and washing their hands endlessly. Let them witness how being in the world and being careful not to get or spread the virus can coexist. The more of that they see and the less gloom and doom they read about on the internet, the easier the transition will be.

Remember, hermits are creatures of habit, and your COVID Hermit friends did not appear overnight. It took months in the making to create these fears, and it may take months to undo them. Don’t give up on your agoraphobic friends. Take it from me, they need you now more than ever.

Eddie McNamara
Meet Our Writer
Eddie McNamara

Eddie McNamara is a 9/11 first-responder and former cop turned vegetarian chef and author. He's been living with panic disorder and PTSD for 17 years, and he'll be sharing his experiences, thoughts, and seriously hard-won advice every month. Check out all his columns for "Panic in the Streets."