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With a Loss of the Outdoors, How Do We Cope?

Updated: Apr 9, 2020

It began with the sudden closure of ski resorts across the country on March 15th, which for many, was an unexpected ending to the winter season. As we turned to the backcountry for solace, access points to public lands began to shut down as well. With each passing day, our collective knowledge on the spread of COVID-19 grew, which meant activities seemingly acceptable before turned into consequential germ gatherings.

The cancellation of trips, postponing of events and stay-at-home measures are a reflection of the solidarity we have to stop the spread of the virus. But these drastic changes to our day-to-day lives have left most in a state of shock.

“Right now, each of us is dealing with the loss of anticipated reality,” says Clinical Psychologist and SheJumps ambassador Sara Boilen from Whitefish, Montana. “These things aren’t happening, so we feel grief because we spent time picking and planning how our future was going to look.”

Boilen often finds that outdoor enthusiasts and professionals have few coping mechanisms beyond the outdoors. “I once asked a group of ski patrollers to write down five things they use to cope and each said skiing. But what if you can’t ski?” The same can be said for climbers, kayakers, hikers and more, who use the outdoors as a coping mechanism to mentally and physically work through stressful times.

“We’re trying to think of other strategies and for many of us, we just don't have them,” explains Boilen. “We’re being challenged by this huge, stressful pandemic while all our coping strategies are stripped from us.”

Here, Boilen describes a few ways we can work through our emotions without having the usual outlet in the outdoors.

Show up for yourself

Boilen puts this into plain terms: Recognize the emotion you’re feeling on a given day.

She encourages each person to ask themselves, ‘Why am I feeling this particular emotion today?’ Maybe it’s a friend’s birthday, or there was previously an event planned, or it’s a beautiful day you can’t enjoy to the fullest. “It might take you a while to recognize where the feeling comes from,” Boilen added.

Validate any and all emotions

Anger. Sadness. Longing. Etc. After acknowledging the emotions, it’s important to validate them either verbally or written–not just in your head. Boilen emphasized one particular saying she encourages others to repeat: “Of course you feel sad. Or, of course this is your experience. Anyone in your position would also feel that way.” She added, “Repeat as often as necessary to friends, family, a partner or social media.”

Stop comparing

Many of us feel grief about missing outdoor activities which often doubles as time with friends. Boilen agrees, “It makes you feel selfish because you think, ‘Oh, I don't have it that bad.’”

Comparison commentary to downplay experiences is more harmful than useful. “We wind up torturing ourselves because on one hand you already feel sad, then you feel bad for feeling sad,” explains Boilen. “A lot of times we tend to prioritize grief or pain, to rank it and imagine whose is worse. But the reality is that pain is pain.”

Learn new coping mechanisms

For many, the outdoors can no longer be a coping mechanism. What should we do instead? Boilen encourages each person to write a list of five things you can do anywhere, anytime to take care of yourself in a crisis. It can include counting to ten, taking deep breaths, naming every color you see, and progressive muscle relaxation.

On the flip side of the paper, write a list of five things you do to keep yourself well. “The psychological output is what many of us are seeking and if we don’t get that, we have a problem,” says Boilen. Traditionally the list might have included an outdoor activity, but for now, it can be switched to walking, running, biking or doing a workout from the interwebs.

Drive-by dance parties

One of the greatest pieces of advice Boilen has to offer is a drive-by dance party. “You pull up in somebody’s driveway, blast your music and do a one-song dance party then drive away,” Boilen explains. “It’s wonderful, and the person who receives it is also just as happy.”

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