I am told that the pandemic is over - and that we made it through. We are being told that we should be prepared to get back to life as normal. It's time to go back into restaurants and sit in movie theaters. Did I mention that I can now take off my mask? The country is preparing for its big re-opening - hey, we are finally under new management - and isn't it all grand? I am truly one of the lucky ones. It's all going to be OK. Except the variants are flying around because of people who won't get vaccinated. India, Brazil and other places are still a mess, and we have a full third of our country who somehow think that taking a vaccine makes you a sheep - regardless of what the evidence actually tells us.
For me, and I think many like me, all of these flies in the ointment has made the process of transitioning to a "post Covid" mindset incredibly ego dystonic. There are so many lose ends dangling that has made the transition really confusing. For example, I have no idea when it is socially OK to take off my mask. Seriously. I know that it is physically safe. The CDC says because I am vaccinated, I am fine even indoors without a mask. The vaccines are really successful - so successful that even with the variants that I am unlikely to get hospitalized or die if I am exposed to COVID in the near future. If you haven't gotten vaccinated for some reason, let me strongly encourage you to go out and do so. If you are healthy and don't think it will both you if you get COVID, please consider this as an opportunity to help stop the spread of the virus to someone else. I also agree that wearing masks outdoors does not seem to make sense (and perhaps never did). Yet, when we were downtown the other day trying to take photos during a rainy Manhattanhenge event, I was not surprised to see that the vast majority of people (myself included) were still wearing masks. Why?? Is it just that we are waiting for the other shoe to drop? Or is that we are all overly courteous of our neighbors needs? Or perhaps some mixture of both? Honestly, I think it is fair to say that everyone has been impacted in some way by COVID, and that I think many people are suffering from some sort of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Speaking for myself, I can honestly say that I came through this pretty well. I was able to maintain a safe lifestyle that seemed remarkably the same as it was pre-pandemic. However, that does not mean that I have not been impacted. I respect "The Virus." Having walked passed a cooler box of "overflow dead people" for several months, and having witnessed some dear friends of mine profoundly impacted by COVID, I am very sober about just how dangerous COVID is. This respect will probably have lasting implications for how I treat my environment for at least the immediate future.
My article last May was about using evidence based tools in order to stay as sane as possible during the pandemic. While it is easy to focus on just the the concrete numbers of people who have gotten physically sick or died, the mental health impacts are much more complex and harder to measure and sadly far more reaching. In January, The Psychiatric Times coined the term, "Post Covid Stress Disorder" to identify the far reaching impacts of the pandemic on the mental health of people who have been impacted by the virus. Let me warn you that the next paragraph talks a bit (not very in depth) about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. If you are not interested, or you feel it is just too much, please feel free to skip the next two paragraphs.
PTSD is a condition where someone has been exposed to a traumatic or stressful event and it is impacting them physically and/or emotionally. PTSD can be the result of a one time event or a compounded one. Compounded traumas are sometimes lumped together under the term "Complex Post Traumatic Stress" which was initially written about by Judith Herman in her groundbreaking book Trauma and Recovery. COVID has been so far reaching that it is easy to see how most everyone has been effected. Lets go down the check list. Have you or someone you know had direct or indirect exposure during the pandemic? During the pandemic, did you have to go out every day and put yourself into dangerous situations? Conversely, were you stuck indoors for long periods of time? Were you so panicked about getting sick that you were scrubbing down cardboard or plastic containers when you shopped? Have you sat down glued for hours on end about the impacts of the virus on 24 hour cable news or on the Internet? In short, my guess is that pretty much everyone has had some significant emotional reactions as a result of the pandemic - diagnosed or not. If you are vaccinated and still struggling with the idea of getting back to work or leaving your house, or meeting with your friends or family, you might want to talk with your doctor about it. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) trauma can manifest in a long list of physical, cognitive, and emotional symptoms. You can read more about them here. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/traumaticincident/default.html
The skills that I shared below are all evidence based ways to build resiliency. Some studies show that one of the best ways to get back into gear after a difficult situation is through controlled dosages of exposure. I have been using my local parks throughout the pandemic to build and maintain resiliency during this difficult time. Having a place to explore and push yourself out of your zone will be an important part of all of our going forward over time. For example, the local parks have been one of the few places that during the height of the pandemic that I felt safe to do once un-thought of things, like be without a mask. The 196 acres of woodland next to my apartment. Inwood Hill (and our neighbor Fort Tryon) Park has been one of the only places where I have gotten a real taste of "pre-COVID normalitty" during the entire pandemic. If it had not been for Inwood Hill Park, and the peace that comes from being in 'the woods,' I am not sure how I would have come through all of this. We have attempted to go out every single day...in snow and rain and heat and gloom (or something like that). It has been nearly non-stop for the last two days and we are preparing to go out even as I write this. For folks who think this sounds dreadful, I might suggest that one of the great things about inclement weather is that you can really have a sense of aloneness - even in a place as crowded as New York City. The other nice thing about being hiking in inclement weather is the hope that you will get some amazing light. While usually you get exactly what you see, on occasion you will get a break and that break may provide a very beautiful scene. Also, let's be honest, if you don't get out, you are guaranteed nothing.
Walking in the parks has also provided me the opportunity to practice a variety of skills that are very helpful for anyone's well being. The first is a good helping of physical exercise. In the case of our park, it is typically about 3 miles and the equivalent of about 40 flights of stairs, according to my Garmin (if you have an Apple, after it is done charging it should tell you about the same thing). With a 20 pound pack on my back with all of my gear, that is a pretty good workout. As I have mentioned previously, there are multiple studies that show the importance of physical activity for a person's physical and mental health. Hup, Hup, Hup!! Get up and out!!
Being up in the woods also allows you an opportunity to just 'be.' I used to think this was hippy dippy garbage, but I have really drunk the Kook-Aid on this one (that was a joke). Mindfulness as a mental health exercise is still being studied, but most studies seem to indicate that the process of mindfulness can be quite helpful to a person's mental health. While I suppose that you can be mindful in every part of your day, I have learned that I need to take breaks and practice. I am including a link in the next post that will share an article on how to practice mindfulness. The parks, particularly the ones that I know near me, provide such an array of different things to experience. Colors, light, texture and smell. In the spring we had the flowers, lol, now its pollen, soon it will be the fruit that grows on the bushes and trees. Come July and August, we will start seeing the fireflies at night. Then the nights will get cooler and the trees will change color, until they finally fall off. The circle of life. These are feasts for the senses that are made to be experienced and enjoyed.
Last, my evening walks in the park have provided me a creative outlet. Most of these photographs that I have shared were taken within 10 feet of each other on different nights. I worked very hard to try to create interesting compositions that were made of essentially the same elements. I found the experience to be a lot of fun - and I encourage everyone to go out and take some photos in a place that you think you know. Try to look at it a different way. How can you see your back yard? How can you experience it differently than something that you thought you knew? I suppose that photographic advice could also be used in regards to relationships as well.
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