Navigating the Uncertainties of Life
COVID-19, Mental Health, & the Outdoors
We Still Need the Outdoors
S P R I N G | The beginning of color returning to the world, days feeling long again, warmer weather, and traveling lighter and faster in the mountains. I’ve been so preoccupied with what’s going on in the world that I missed it by 10 days. But, these flowers quickly reminded me.
Recently, the trend has been banning access to public areas, either governmentally or socially, due to the lack of ability for people to social distance or the risk of getting injured, and the burden this could add to our health system … which is at risk of becoming overloaded to fight COVID-19. This has bothered me and I have been struggling to understand why, until today. The immediate, more selfish reasons include my love for exploration and the self-worth it fills me with. With uncertainty as to when we will be able to return to these activities, I am initially left feeling empty and uninspired. The reality is that there is far more to one’s health than battling a virus; there is also one’s mental and physical wellbeing to consider.
Being cooped up due to the coronavirus, I was reminded of my last surgery six years ago … as the feeling is quite similar, with some major differences being a personal experience vs. a global one and the implications on society being far greater. However, the same ideas are still there … everyone is going through a struggle of their own, no matter how big or small, and the ones who succeed are the ones making the best of the situation. Recovering from my last surgery, I came back more inspired, stronger and read up on training techniques than ever before, but I had to push through many hard, unmotivated days for this to happen.
To address the concern of risk, I should start off by saying there is a difference between perceived risk and actual risk. Managing risk, and the head game that comes along with it, are something that rock-climbers, cavers, backpackers, and the like are quite familiar. It is a feeling I thrive on, because to do it efficiently takes a certain level of knowledge and experience in what you are doing. Having these skills enables you to travel lighter and faster through the mountains, endure longer days, and push the bounds of what is possible, in a more controlled way. It is with this knowledge that you begin to separate perceived risk from actual risk.
However, those who lack this knowledge think most outdoor activities are riskier than ordinary everyday life. Of course, some are. But, for many these the risks can be mitigated or eliminated, for example by climbing an easier grade or biking an easier route down the mountain. And, on the contrary, driving the car to the adventure is often riskier than the outdoor activity itself. Personally, none of my major injuries have been in the mountains because here the limiting factor tends to be my mental will. The times I have had to go to the hospital were because of a simple accident at home or becoming competitive with others in a contrived way, where the limiting factor became my physical ability and trying to ignore this.
Alpinism has everything to do with the unknown, and embracing uncertainty. There, I love it. I guess I’m used to it. But, come to think of it, the uncertainty of it used to terrify me. As it does now in other realms. It’s still a challenge. Life is a challenge – at least to live it in the way that feels right.
Breathe…Stop, focus on the moment, everything is OK right now.
Another thing to consider is the mental and physical benefits the outdoors provide – Virginia currently considers all beer, wine, and liquor stores essential businesses. A friend had to explain to me that this was probably for those who, without alcohol, would go through withdrawal and need hospitalization. Another “crutch” used to fight off mental health issues is the outdoors. For many, physical activity, fresh air, or being in natural landscapes grounds them in reality, enables the release of endorphins to their brain, or benefits them in one of many other ways. Rather than cutting back on the outdoor activities or places we are allowed in, we should consider the actual risk of the activity being banned and figure out why social distancing isn’t working in our public spaces. Perhaps this is all showing that the amount of public land we currently have is inadequate? Whatever the solution, we need to find a balance.
There have been memes floating around the internet, making fun of how suddenly everyone wants to be outside, when they normally could care less. But, conceivably people are realizing this is a way to decompress from the stress they are feeling after listening to the news or the uncertainty of what’s to happen. Kelly Cordes describes this feeling of uncertainty quite well in his article, “The Uncertainty Principle.” If nothing else, the outdoors better prepares you for how to navigate the uncertainties of life, as you know their is no since in stressing over what is out of their control. Maybe something this virus will bring to some is the realization that the outdoors and physical activity provide more than just FUN…
I hope this makes you feel less guilty knowing you are not alone in pining for the outdoors.