For a half-hour or so, she walks. She chooses random directions at the four-way intersections that dot her Reston, Va., neighborhood. She stops to feel the spring sunlight on her skin. She leans in, close, to look at dandelions.
“Before I go on my walk, I’m stressed,” Hassan, 18, said. “After, I feel refreshed, and even when I go back inside, that refreshment is still there. It stays with me for a few hours.”
It feels, she said, like taking a hot bath.
Hassan, a high school senior, is like a lot of teenagers across the country: stuck at home, deprived of school and friends, anxious about a future suddenly upended by the coronavirus pandemic. So, like a lot of teens, she has taken to putting down her phone and stepping outside.
Alone, or with friends spaced a careful six feet apart, high school students are discovering a pastime typically enjoyed by older generations. They are exploring on foot whatever terrain is nearest: suburban sidewalks, emptied cityscapes, wooded trails circling lakes.
“I think we’re all trying to find this sense of normalcy, without schoolwork, or being able to hang out with friends the way we did,” said Elisabeth Snyder, 16, who is taking regular hikes with friends along bike paths in Falls Church, Va.
“So this” — she hesitated — “well, it’s new, but I think it’s working.”
The tactic, mental health experts said, marks an excellent path forward for teenagers struggling to process the pandemic that has disrupted lives, plans and economies worldwide. Over the past couple of weeks, state and local officials throughout the United States have halted the rhythms of daily life in a bid to fight the virus’s spread: shuttering schools and businesses, and in some cases issuing “stay-at-home” orders to residents.
The new normal leaves adolescents especially vulnerable to depression and anxiety, said mental health counselor and psychologist Mary Alvord.
Research suggests that high school students are more dependent on social interaction for well-being than any other age group, said Alvord, who runs a Maryland-based mental health and psychotherapy practice targeted to young people. The client emails that flooded her inbox in recent days are indicative, she said, of what’s worrying teens nationwide: “How are we going to keep our social connections?” “How are we going to stay in touch?” “How are we going to not miss things?”
One solution Alvord suggests to her patients is virtual connection: FaceTime or Zoom or online chats. But wandering around outside with friends may give a greater boost to mental health, Alvord said, because typing or speaking to pixelated versions of their peers cannot fully replace the benefits of face-to-face interaction.
“I think this is an excellent way to manage,” Alvord said, “just so long as they keep their physical distance.”
The movement could also help boost their mental health, Alvord said, at a time when school sports and other organized physical activities are on hold. And some studies have suggested that merely looking at nature can improve mental health, said Temple University psychology professor Laurence Steinberg.
Aimless walks are, of course, a staple activity for families, retirees and other Americans. But teenagers, tied up with school and extracurricular activities, their social schedules crammed with house parties and hangouts, were far less likely to step out for an afternoon stroll.
“This is such an unusual situation,” Steinberg said, referring partly to the virus, partly to the flood of teenage walkers.
Yasmine Mabene, 17, decided to try walking last week when her gym closed.
The high school senior, eager for a way to replicate the lost exercise, at first wandered the trails near her San Diego home by herself. Mabene lives in the suburbs, she said, in a neighborhood surrounded by woods, a lake and mountains threaded with flowers and trails.
Most of them she had never seen.
“I was going up one of the mountains yesterday, and I just thought, ‘I could have gone through my entire high school and never gone up here,’ ” Mabene said. “And that’s crazy, that I never would have done that — it’s just a really weird thing to think.”
Mabene has quickly grown addicted: She walks every day, usually in the morning, and she plans to keep walking post-virus. She always tells herself she’ll only stay out for an hour, that she’ll get back in time for scheduled Zoom calls with extracurricular groups — and she always winds up hiking for closer to four. Her black sneakers are brown now, caked with mud.
Recently, Mabene started bringing friends along, usually two or three girls she’s been close to since middle school. They listen to music — a favorite is Spotify’s “Top Hits” playlist, which everyone agrees is appropriately upbeat — or talk about whatever comes to mind. They canvass memories from school, failed relationships with boys and plans to travel the world, once everything goes back to normal.
The only topic they avoid as a rule, Mabene said, is the virus. That can be hard sometimes, especially when the teens must remind one another to stay six feet apart.
“That was kind of weird at first,” Mabene said, “but after a while you get used to it.”
Snyder, in Falls Church, tries to get together with a different set of friends every morning, meeting one girl for runs along a bike path, another for dog-walking sessions. As Snyder restrains her golden retriever, Daisy, the two teens share their frustrations over being barred from school, over elected officials’ handling of the coronavirus outbreak, over how they feel powerless to do anything to help.
Before the virus, Snyder said, she would never have met her friends simply to walk, unless it was to a Sunday morning farmers market, or to pick up lunch at Panera. Before the virus, she would have kept checking her phone, looking for texts.
“Talking to them now, it’s different,” Snyder said. “You have conversations and they’re uninterrupted, and we’re in nature, and — and it’s enough for me, for now.”
But about the time D.C. officials issued a “stay home” alert to residents, Snyder and her friends decided to stop walking together, at least for the next few weeks. Although the alert did not apply to them in Virginia, mounting cases of the coronavirus in the D.C. region convinced the teens that their community needs “us to stay home,” Snyder said.
In Arlington, Va., Rose Newell is not yet willing to give up weekly strolls with her girlfriend of three years.
The couple, both 17, long ago set aside Tuesday as date night. They used to spend the evening dining out at restaurants or browsing the aisles of craft stores, given both like to fashion earrings from odds and ends.
But Tuesdays look different now.
“This is stupid, but on the past two walks we’ve been having a conversation about how the Republic from Star Wars condones and commits war crimes,” Newell said.
Stupid, but it takes Newell’s mind off her mother, who is immunocompromised — making her more susceptible to the coronavirus — and has been feeling sick lately. Stupid, but it makes Newell feel a little bit less certain the world is ending.
On last week’s walk, the couple paused at a duck pond. For 20 minutes, they stood and watched the birds splash and bicker. They named two: “Chad,” Newell said, “and Geoffrey with a G-E-O.”
“I washed my hands when I got home, but we did hold hands,” Newell said. “But depending how bad things get, we’ll probably have to stop doing that.”