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Hello Idaho: Overcoming cave syndrome

The recent and drastic changes to guidance from the CDC contradict what Idahoans were told to do to keep themselves and others safe, which can cause anxiety in some.

BOISE, Idaho — As COVID-19 restrictions ease and life begins to return to some sort of normalcy, many are experiencing what is being referred to as "cave syndrome".

"Cave syndrome" is defined as a variant of agoraphobia, fear of places and situations that may cause panic or helplessness. As it relates to COVID-19, however, it refers to a fear of returning to normal life after a year of isolation.

"Most of us were really cautious over the last year during the pandemic and that caution was good. It protected us, our families, our community," said Dr. Julie Wood with Optum Idaho.

The recent and drastic changes to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) contradict what Idahoans were told to do to keep themselves and others safe, which can cause anxiety in some.

"That transition is going to be really difficult for some people, particularly for those who have an underlying anxiety disorder," Wood said. "They live in this heightened awareness, hyper-vigilant state if you will."

"Cave syndrome" is becoming more common as pandemic restrictions are lifted, according to Wood. However, symptoms vary from person to person.

"Some people may experience a worry or two but are still able to get out there. Other people may have extreme fears where the fear almost paralyzes them," she explained. "When you think about it, that's half of our adult population, which is pretty shocking."

The most important thing is to ensure people are adjusting to these changes at their own pace. Taking steps such as focusing on other people can help ease anxiety about getting back to normal.

"We tell people to get out there, but maybe don't do it alone," Wood said. "Take a trusted friend or somebody who knows you well that will go out with you and if you feel uncomfortable they could help you. When you take those small steps, gradual exposure may make you feel more comfortable."

If the idea of going back into the community is extremely overwhelming or causes fear, Wood recommends speaking with a counselor. 

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