A Simple Way To Deal With The Stress Of Being Outside During A Pandemic
In this new COVID-19 reality, even going for a walk can be a tense experience. Gone are the days when we could count on ordinary routines—like jogging, biking, strolling, or a trip to the store—to help us relax. It's as if we've all been collectively thrust into a modern-day episode of The Twilight Zone—with its distinctive mix of horror, science fiction, and superstition—and life as we knew it has been flipped upside down in ways that are creepily familiar and unimaginably strange.
Sheltering in place and the reality of the coronavirus have upended conventional notions of self-care. They're challenging many of us with a health-related Catch-22. Experts recommend staying inside to minimize exposure to this virus, but weeks of staying inside without exercise, fresh air, or sunlight can physically and emotionally weaken us. A change of scenery, fresh air, or just moving a little can feel necessary and life-giving. So although it could potentially bring us into contact with door handles, elevator buttons, and other people, many of us have been opting for short walks or runs outside, hoping our hand sanitizer, properly used masks, and hyper-vigilance can adequately mitigate the risks.
And yet, it's also emotionally draining to be hyper-alert all the time, even when you are taking those necessary walks.
When taking a walk is more stressful than soothing.
Once you're outside and people are coming toward you on a sidewalk, the countdown begins. Your mind may instantly calculate the flow of traffic and whether it's worth it to potentially get hit by a slow-moving car in order to maintain the 6-foot, CDC-recommended distance between you and approaching pedestrians. You may scan to see who has a mask on and who doesn't and whether anyone is sneezing or spitting (I've seen a surprising number of people doing this one lately).
In grocery stores, where the narrow aisles limit mobility, it's likely that your hyper-vigilance will intensify. It takes a lot of effort to be constantly on the lookout for every person moving behind you, or turning into an aisle in front of you, or circling around you. What do you do or say if someone gets too close? Brushes against you? If they're laughing, coughing, or talking loudly to someone they're with or in some other way exhibiting a flagrant disregard for coronavirus safety protocols?
All that anxiety, deliberation, and alertness is exhausting and can even be counterproductive to the whole reason you decided to go outside in the first place.
How to self-soothe when you're getting stressed while outside.
There's no one-size-fits-all solution to these different situations, but I would like to share a self-soothing process with you that helps you preserve your energy and come back to center when you feel reactive, triggered, or emotionally off-balance. It has three steps that blend self-talk, emotional awareness, and what therapists sometimes refer to with the phrase "parts work."
The goal is to honor what's happening internally for you in tough moments in the interests of calming your nervous system. I call this process the "Holding Hands" visualization. Once you practice it a few times and tweak it to fit your style, you can do it surprisingly quickly.
The moment you notice you're triggered—and once you've removed yourself from any possible physical danger in your environment—take a breath. Then, try this:
- Cup your palms on either side of you or in front of you and gaze down at your hands.
- Picture your immediate reactivity (anger, defensiveness, judgment) in one hand as a monster, ninja, ball of fire, or whatever feels like a good visual fit. Then tell this imagined part, "Thank you for protecting me."
- Picture, in the other hand, a child, animal, or heart (whatever visually fits the emotional experience that's underneath your reactivity). Tell this imagined part, "It's OK to feel vulnerable/scared/sorrowful/lost. I see you; I've got you."
It's normal and healthy to feel emotional while doing this. In general, the more we're able to touch base with what's going on internally for us in tough moments—even if we do it quickly, waiting in a grocery store aisle, sitting in our car in a parking lot, or standing off to one side as pedestrians pass—the freer we are to release tension, preserve our energy for things we can control, and move on.
Try this Holding Hands visualization when you're out and you sense you've been triggered. It can interrupt negative thought spirals, reduce emotional reactivity, and reorient you toward peace.
Alicia Muñoz, LPC, is a certified couples therapist, licensed professional counselor, and author of four relationship books, including Stop Overthinking Your Relationship: Break the Cycle of Anxious Rumination to Nourish Love, Trust, and Connection With Your Partner (New Harbinger Publications, 2022). Over the past sixteen years, she has provided individual, group, and couples therapy in clinical settings, including Bellevue Hospital in New York, NY. Muñoz currently works as a Senior Writer and Editor at Psychotherapy Networker and as a couples therapist in private practice. She connects with her readers and followers through monthly blogs, newsletters, and podcasts as well as through Instagram at @aliciamunozcouples, and Facebook and Twitter at @aliciamunozlpc. Muñoz is a member of the Washington School of Psychiatry, the American Psychological Association, and the Mid-Atlantic Association of Imago and Relationship Therapists. You can learn more about her at www.aliciamunoz.com.