This article was originally published by the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College and republished with permission from the author.
Infectious disease outbreaks, such as the one currently unfolding, can be stressful and take a toll on our mental health and well-being. Because many of us have never lived through an outbreak in our lifetime, chances are that the strategies we utilized in the past to cope with difficult life stressors may no longer be adequate to meet the needs and challenges of this present season. Now that the world has changed, we too need to change and adapt alongside it as well. And this applies, now more than ever, to how we cope and care for ourselves.
With the uncertainty of when the COVID-19 pandemic will end, we cannot perpetually put off our own mental and emotional needs in order to focus on others. At some point, our own unattended needs will compromise our capacity to be helpful. To care for others well, during this season of COVID-19, will require us to learn how to care for ourselves at the same time. Here are some practical steps you can take to ensure that you are properly attending to your own needs so that you can in turn sustainability attend to the needs of others:
1. Take the necessary steps to protect yourself and loved ones. The World Health Organization suggests staying informed but avoiding overexposure to news that might cause you to feel anxious or distressed. And once you are able to take reasonable and well-informed measures to ensure the safety of you and your loved ones.
2. Acknowledge that you need to cope. You can’t cope with an emotion or a problem that you are unwilling to accept that you have. “I shouldn’t feel anxious or tired or overwhelmed because my circumstances aren’t as dire as others” is the language of denial. Others can have legitimate needs AND you can have legitimate needs both at the same time. It’s entirely valid to feel burdened and on edge even while we are trusting Jesus to guide us through a difficult season. Rather than deny- ing or avoiding what is already on your heart, why don’t we acknowledge them and invite them to guide us (as a spiritual discipline would) back into our utter dependence upon Him?
3. Be mindful of how you compensate for your lack of control. It is entirely human to seek out certainty and any semblance of control in the midst of a disorienting and rapidly changing environment. Some of us compensate through vigilant and meticulous micromanagement (which will often lead to angry outbursts at the slightest derailment) while others compensate through disengagement or helpless surrender. And both of these excesses can take on a certain spiritual veneer that masks the underlying malady. What is needed for such a time as this has been nicely captured by Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
4. Stay in the present moment. Broadly speaking, anxiety is reflected in a mind that is perpetually oriented to the future while depression is reflected in a mind that is perpetually oriented to the past. Staying in the present moment (or even in the present day) ensures that the burdens we carry today are just today’s burdens (rather than the burdens of yesterday and tomorrow as well). As Christ states in Matthew 6:34, “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
5. Take care of your body. Eat healthy, regular meals—to the extent that you are able. Exercise regularly. Spend time outside. Breathe deeply. Get plenty of sleep and avoid strenuous mental or physical activities as you approach bedtime. Avoid/limit alcohol.
6. In moments of acute distress, distract yourself. While holding your breath, splash your face with cold water or press the area between your eyebrows with a cold pack (this triggers what scientists call the ‘dive response’). Engage in intense exercise for a short time, like running, jumping, doing sit-ups. And then afterward, watch your favorite comedy on Netflix or YouTube. And while you’re doing that, enjoy your favorite snack.
7. Stay connected with others and reach out for support. Research suggests that one of the most consistent and powerful predictors of resilience and recovery in the face of emotionally distressful situations is social support—being reminded that others care and that we are not alone. As pastors and Christian leaders, I know that many of us are used to being on the side of giving social support to others. It’s part of our gift to the world that God has created and entrusted to us. And it’s also a gift that we need to receive as well. There are many types of social support—it can be emotional (aimed at meeting emotional needs), instrumental (aimed at meeting practical needs), formal (with professionals such as psychologists or counselors), and informal (with family and friends). Every type is helpful and at any given point, we may find ourselves needing one form more than another. Let us all receive this Word for ourselves, “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:12).
ATTENTION: If you’re feeling alone and struggling, you can also reach out to The Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741 or to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 800-273-8255.
ABOUT FEATURED ARTIST: JOSE CIFUENTES
The featured art comes from Jose Cifuentes, a mixed media abstract artist from Medellin, Colombia, who moved his life and practice to Toronto, Canada. His art draws from his experience as an immigrant in the U.S. & Canada, to express the authenticity of artistic freedom and the emotional havoc that surrounds it. Give him and his art a follow @joscifuentes. Thanks for lending your beautiful talent to this important ARTicle, Jose!