Spring is here, vaccines are flowing, and states are loosening restrictions. For those of us with chronic illnesses or compromised immune systems, these changes come with extra concerns. What is deemed safe by some may not be safe for all. As the world begins to venture out again, we all need to take stock of what we need to feel safe, and respect the boundaries of those around us.
If you’re feeling nervous about re-opening, you’re far from alone! “Re-opening anxiety” has become a new buzzword among psychology experts. The good news is that by getting yourself prepared now, you can keep yourself safe — physically and emotionally — when it comes time to ease back into your old way of life.
Check out our tips for staying safe in final months of COVID-19:
1. have what you need on hand
One way to feel confident going out is to get your bags packed ahead of time. At a time when you’re not racing out the door, think through what you may need. What did you used to bring with you before quarantine began? What new items should you include to keep you protected from COVID? Will you need any meds, snacks, water bottles, medical devices, or simple things like sunglasses? Do you have some sanitizer handy? Masks will still be an important layer of protection for many months. Do you have enough available so that you don’t get caught off-guard without one? You can give your brain a rest by having a mask in each bag, one in your car, and one where you hang your keys. Mighty Well Masks are available in a variety of colors and in multipacks if you need to restock.
Oh — and don’t forget to use the bathroom before you go! It’s one less thing to worry about if you don’t need to find a safe, clean bathroom out and about.
2. go your own pace
Just because others are out at restaurants doesn’t mean you need to if you’re not yet comfortable. For each new experience, each boundary, take some time alone when you’re not influenced by wanting to please others. Really think through what feels safe for you. You will enjoy activities much more if you wait until you’re ready! The day will come. There’s no point in pushing yourself to go somewhere, only to feel stressed when you get there.
3. know your risks, but try not to stress where risk is low
Sure, simply saying “you do you” may feel daunting if you’re still unsure of what you actually feel. It may help to turn to the experts. Ask your doctors what your specific risk factors may be, and what precautions they recommend you take. Check out CDC and state information hubs. Learn which activities have higher risk of transmission. If you’d find it helpful to ask friends and family for their perspectives, try to remember that they are filtering information through their own biases, and may not have the same risk level as you.
When risk seems high, it’s ok to stop back and choose not to go. When risk feels uncomfortable but probably safe, think about which precautions you can take (i.e. wearing masks, washing hands, staying 6 feet away). And remember, there are many ways to get back into the world with very low risk — like picnics and walks — and ways to dramatically reduce risk — like wearing masks, staying 6 feet apart, and keeping your hands clean.
4. communicate clearly, advocate when necessary
As silly as it may seem, our fears of social conflicts are often as strong as our fears of getting sick. Setting your own boundaries is great, but if you don’t share them with others, you may find yourself in a situation where you’re torn between what feels safe and what everyone expects you to go along with. Before you make plans, make sure to set aside time to have conversations with those involved. Share your concerns, your boundaries, and your plans for how you intend to stay safe and comfortable. If they don’t respect your needs, it’s best to know before you’re stuck in an unsafe situation. Odds are, though, they will appreciate your vulnerability and then feel more comfortable sharing their own boundaries with you. Not sure you want to get vulnerable with everyone in your group? That’s ok! But make sure you have at least one person at each outing who will have your back if you start to feel unsafe. After years of our health concerns being a source of conflict, many chronic illness warriors find it triggering to have to defend themselves when someone in the group doesn’t respect needs and boundaries. Just one person coming to your rescue in those moments can give you the confidence to get what you need.
Oh, and if you’re looking for a way to let the world around you know the deal without having to speak up over and over… we’ve got you covered with our Immunocompromised and Please Give Me Space clothing!
5. generally care for your health and mental health
Anything you can do at home to bolster your physical and mental health will help protect you when you go out. Practicing mindfulness or breathing techniques, getting regular exercise or movement, and expressing your feelings to a counselor or friend can reduce your overall level of stress. Learning about the psychological effects we’ve all faced during COVID may also help you to understand your own experience better; naming what we feel and knowing why is often all we need to move on. The more stable you feel emotionally, the less anxiety you will feel when trying an activity for the first time in a year.
Similarly, taking steps to keep your health as rugged as possible will keep you safer in the event that you do have exposure to someone’s germs. Try to get good sleep, eat well (whatever that means for your body), and stay on top of treatments and doctors’ appointments.
NOTE: you may find yourself getting sick — but not with COVID-19 — frequently in the coming months. Our immune systems have forgotten what colds and stomach bugs look like, so our defenses are very low. Try not to worry, and leave space for resting!