Going outside this weekend? Don’t freak out

(Benjamin Norman | The New York Times file) People lounge in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, on May 16, 2020. Scientists agree that leaving your home to explore outdoor pursuits is generally safe, so long as you’re maintaining physical distance, wearing facial coverings, and limiting exposure to others.

After being holed up indoors for an extended period of time, perhaps you’re feeling the itch to peer outside: to explore the world beyond the radius of your home, grocery and takeout spot. But is it recommended? Will others adhere to social distancing? What fresh horrors await?

Broadly speaking, scientists agree that leaving your home to explore outdoor pursuits is generally safe, so long as you’re maintaining physical distance, wearing facial coverings, and limiting exposure to others. And after a long spring largely cooped up inside, a little bit of sunlight on a long holiday weekend will do the mind and body good.

As the weather warms and people gain confidence, you may encounter more folks on your commute to an essential job or at the park. Skittishness about what you might encounter while out in public is a normal reaction in our new reality, especially as each state outlines different protocols for reopening — and when each individual’s attitude and adherence varies.

[Read more: How the coronavirus spreads in those everyday places we visit]

Stefanie Sugar, a psychologist and the director and co-founder of Behavioral Psych Studio in Manhattan, said many of her patients are experiencing the anxiety associated with re-entering society. “Obviously, there’s a very real threat of getting sick. Sometimes our anxieties are not founded, but this is one that it obviously is,” Sugar said.

But instead of spiraling into a web of worst-case scenarios, a little preparation can help to quell any anxious thoughts that may creep up in your quest for fresh air.

Before you go

Think of your values. Remember the person you were before our social ecosystem was flipped on its head and the activities you used to value — maybe it’s reading a book in a park or taking your kids out for ice cream. Choose two tasks that align with your core interests and use them as a guide, said Anu Asnaani, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of Utah. “Today, I’m going to do two things that are in line with the type of person I want to be, pandemic or no pandemic,” she said.

Give yourself a pep talk. Any level of human interaction carries some level of risk right now. But we don’t want to avoid situations involving other people altogether, which will only exacerbate anxieties, said David Spiegel, a psychiatrist and the director of the Center on Stress and Health at Stanford University.

Instead of dwelling on fear, hype up the positives of your venture, even if it’s just for a quick drive. “It’s not a bad idea at all to say, ‘Here’s what I’m looking forward to, this will be good,’” Spiegel said. “It doesn’t mean denying the risk, but it means seeing the aspects of what you’re doing that are healthy and protective.”

Come up with a plan. In order to avoid an emotional overload as soon as you walk out the door, create a mental checklist of information that’ll make you feel safe. Limit your news intake to only essential information, such as Is it OK to go outside today? (Most likely, yes.) Feel free to ask your friends and family about their experiences in the real world to give you some confidence, Sugar said.

Then, plan where you’ll go, whether that’s a walk on a road less traveled or a socially distanced barbecue where everyone brings their own food, Asnaani said. Make sure you’re equipped with a face mask, hand sanitizer and gloves if need be.

While you’re out

Control what you can. Unmasked strangers may closely pass by or the hiking trail may be more crowded than you were anticipating. Don’t let your physiological reactions to anxiety — tense muscles, increased heart rate, rapid breath, sweat — deter your outing, said Liz Heckel, a psychologist in Manhattan.

“Other people are going to have a broad range of responses to the pandemic and being outdoors: Some will be in head-to-toe PPE while others appear to not have a care in the world and are chatting and sharing food while practically sitting on top of each other,” she said, using an abbreviation to refer to personal protective equipment. “Expect that, and if you notice anger, tension or even an emergent freak out, all of which are totally understandable and OK, try not to let it ruin your experience.”

Go to a happy place (mentally). If you feel yourself starting to become anxious, recall a memory of a time where you felt well, physically and emotionally, Spiegel said: a recent vacation, a visit with family, a slobbery kiss from a puppy. “If you can’t go swimming in the city pool or to the beach, you can remember when you did and have some of those good feelings just from reliving an event that does make you feel good,” he said.

Stay in the present. Anxiety isn’t a present-focused emotion, Asnaani said; it builds on amplifying past fears or potential threats. Keep yourself grounded by observing only things happening now: I’m taking a walk, I’m watching my kids enjoy themselves, I’m spending time with friends. Though there may be moments when others’ behavior or comments spark discomfort, don’t jump to worst-case scenarios. Or if you do, try not to beat yourself up over it, Asnaani said.

“I can spiral through in this moment all the ways I’ve just contracted coronavirus: I’m clearly going to take it home and not only kill myself but kill everyone else around me because I had to go on this walk,” she said. “That’s that spiral of anxiety. Mindfulness allows us to go, ‘Whoops, that’s where my anxiety is taking me.’”

Be diligent with your personal space. Under ordinary circumstances, asking a stranger for some breathing room while queued for pizza might have elicited a few groans. Now, we should feel empowered to advocate for our own safety — which involves physical distance. Gently and politely ask an encroaching picnicker to create some distance, said Dean McKay, a psychology professor at Fordham University. If you encounter a person or group without face coverings, remove yourself from their immediate orbit without ruffling feathers, he said.

“This is going to be most evident with beaches,” McKay said. “Just like if you were to go to the beach under other circumstances, you would probably speak up if someone put their towel directly on your towel and it was not the time of pandemic. The difference now is you’re going to be cordoning off a greater distance from your towel than directly on it.”

Remember you can always leave. Of course, if the situation makes physical distancing impossible or you feel unsafe, head home or to an area where you feel more comfortable because “there still exists a real threat that the public needs to be cognizant of,” McKay said.

After you’re home

Congratulate yourself. You did it! When we expose ourselves to things that frighten or make us uncomfortable, we lessen our fearful associations with the task or object, Sugar said. Make a mental note of the accomplishment.

“It’s good to give yourself a pat on the back for doing things that are sensible and healthy,” Spiegel said. “Focus not on what you’re afraid of, but what you’re doing to address what you’re afraid of.”

Prepare for next time. There will inevitably come a time when leaving your home is no longer a public health risk, but until then, take your time building up to longer trips, Heckel said. Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

“This shouldn’t be a zero-to-60 transition,” she said, “so we should all try to take it slow and ease back into normal life.”