“Longer than an earthquake, a pandemic shakes your life and living.”
― P.S. Jagadeesh Kumar
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
— Marcus Aurelius
“Hope begins in the dark. The stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.”
– Anne Lamott
A mental health crisis in our country is brewing during the current pandemic. I’ve not seen many studies yet that verify this with data, but they are coming. Many people are struggling. Even before the coronavirus exploded around the world, experts were talking about a mental health crisis in our country. I use the acronym ADA to identify today’s three-headed mental-health monster: addiction, depression, and anxiety-related mental health challenges. The pandemic is making them worse.
Here are some numbers from recent reports:
- Alcohol sales have skyrocketed during the pandemic, according to the research firm Nielsen. Online alcohol sales were up by 243% in the seven-week period ending April 18 over the same period a year ago, and brick-and-mortar alcohol sales were up by 21% for the same period. (source)
- Nearly half of Americans report the coronavirus crisis is harming their mental health, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll. A federal emergency hotline for people in emotional distress registered a more than 1,000 percent increase in April compared with the same time last year.” (source)
- The most robust recent nation-wide study I’ve seen so far shows evidence of “unprecedented trauma from the pandemic.” The whole article is worth reading, but here’s a synopsis: Researchers interviewed 808 adults from 27 states. 90% of respondents had one or more “traumatic stress symptoms.” 27% met the diagnostic criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). To put that in context, the national estimate is normally 5.3% of the population with PTSD. In fact, for service men and women who were deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s 7.6%. (source)
Just to be clear, the National Institute for Mental Health defines post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as “a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event. Fear triggers many split-second changes in the body to help defend against danger or to avoid it. This ‘fight-or-flight’ response is a typical reaction meant to protect a person from harm. Nearly everyone will experience a range of reactions after trauma, yet most people recover from initial symptoms naturally. Those who continue to experience problems may be diagnosed with PTSD. People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened, even when they are not in danger.”
An article in “The Hill,” a politically oriented, public policy news magazine, sums up our current situation this way:
Experts warn that the United States is ill prepared for a coming mental health crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic….The problem is expected to get worse in the coming months as people begin to reckon with the emotional impacts of the pandemic, and experts say there may not be enough resources to help them.(source)
So what can we do about all this? What can we do to protect our mental health during these hard times? I’m going to offer you a plan … 10 practices that mentally strong people do during crisis times like these. My list is inspired by an article in Psychology Today, which has great material, and is worth reading. But in my view, as helpful as it is, the article doesn’t reckon with the importance of spiritual practices to help us overcome our stresses and struggles. So, although I’m freely borrowing material from this article, I’m also editing, and adding my own perspectives as a Christian teacher.
Here are the 10 things that spiritually aware, mentally strong people are doing to keep themselves healthy, happy, and strong during these times:
1. They regularly take time to connect with God.
Here I’m making a connection between being mentally and spiritually strong. When people are reminded of God’s care for them, and learn to view their circumstances from a broader perspective, they worry less. They feel more joy. And they are less likely to succumb to addiction. We are instructed in Philippians 4:6-7: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
This is born out by research. One large population study, led by Harvard Professor Tyler VanderWeele, found that young adults who prayed daily tended to have fewer depressive symptoms, and higher levels of life satisfaction, self-esteem, and positive affect, in comparison to those who never prayed.
Another study examined the perspectives of over 2,000 adults with mental illness in California, finding that over 80 percent agreed or strongly agreed that spirituality was important to their mental health. Moreover, over 70 percent indicated that prayer was helpful to their mental health.
In a recent article on medium.com, I talk at length about how taking time in solitude helps us not only to connect to God, but to find peace and joy. I quote Esther DeWaal:
If we fail to find the time to stand back, to give ourselves a break, a breathing space, we are in danger of failing to be fully alive, or to enjoy that fullness of life for which we were created…. In any particular situation there is the danger that we are wasting the God-given possibility of living life to the full. I long for fullness of life and it is frightening to think that I might be wasting that most precious of God’s gifts, the chance to live fully and freely. Stopping to take time to look at the pattern of my life, and to think and pray about it, will almost inevitably mean that I not only learn more about God but I discover more about myself.
Spiritually strong people are also mentally strong people. They make time each day to connect spiritually and remind themselves of God’s care.
2. They consistently gather with supportive friends.
Mentally strong people not only value their spiritual connection — they also value connecting with other people. They regularly connect with safe people who will support and encourage them.
A 2019 study led by Kassandra Alcaraz, a public health researcher with the American Cancer Society, analyzed data from more than 580,000 adults and found that social isolation increases the risk of premature death from every cause for every race (American Journal of Epidemiology, Vol. 188, No. 1, 2019). “Our research shows that the magnitude of risk presented by social isolation is very similar in magnitude to that of obesity, smoking, lack of access to care and physical inactivity,” she says.
“Lacking encouragement from family or friends, those who are lonely may slide into unhealthy habits. In addition, loneliness has been found to raise levels of stress, impede sleep and, in turn, harm the body. Loneliness can also augment depression or anxiety.”
I’m often reminded of the words in Hebrews 10:25: “Do not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day [of Christ’s return] approaching.” We find power and strength when we are with other people … provided they are healthy and supportive (see habit #9 below). Because of the risk of disease spread, we sometimes have to limit these “gatherings” to virtual online meetings or phone calls. Even so, these times of connecting with others are essential.
3. They limit news and media exposure.
Research suggests that there are two main predictors to how well a person will respond in a crisis (like a pandemic). The first is how vulnerable they were in their own lives before the crisis. The second is how much news they consumed during the crisis. As I wrote about in a previous article, chronic news exposure may create “vicarious trauma” and PTSD.
Media exposure and the 24/7 news cycle can activate “fight or flight” responses, which can lead to traumatic stress. For example, in a study conducted after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, several hours of media exposure after 9-11 were associated with PTSD and new physical health issues 2-3 years later in participants. In another study conducted during the Ebola outbreak in 2014, daily media exposure was associated with increased distress and poorer functioning over the long term compared to those who limited their news and media intake. Mentally strong people limit their news exposure, choose reliable and responsible print/media, and limit exposure to distressing images shown on the news.
4. They accept their feelings as normal.
Mentally strong individuals accept their feelings as normal because this is a time of both personal and collective trauma. Resilient people understand that during crisis times like these, feelings like fear, anxiety, hopelessness, anger, and sadness are normal because the information and experiences are too overwhelming to process at once.
Based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-5) — the guidebook that mental health professionals use to diagnose and treat mental disorders — the diagnosis of “Adjustment Disorder with Anxious or Depressed Mood” is applied to any person who is experiencing symptoms and has had a major life event occur in the last 90 days. Obviously, this applies to all of us right now because we are in a pandemic that has changed our lives: whether through the loss of a job, homeschooling children, the inability to attend a funeral or see a loved one in a nursing home or otherwise. Given this, the strong negative emotions many of us feel are to be expected. We shouldn’t judge ourselves for having them.
5. They carefully choose the leaders they follow.
Mentally strong people follow those who display healthy leadership skills and mental health. Garfin et al. (2020) published a study about how the negative effects of a crisis (like the current pandemic) get amplified as leaders — including health providers, political leaders, and journalists — struggle to help others because they themselves are struggling with negative emotions, due to their own over-exposure to the negativity and fear that pervades mass and social media. They suggest that health care providers promote calm and rational action and limit watching media and paying attention to individuals who undermine public health efforts to combat COVID-19. It is both confusing and psychologically harmful to watch leaders who publicly argue and misstate the facts and the research.
Dr. Baruch Fischhoff is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and an expert on public perception of risk and human judgment. In a recent interview about how to deal with the challenges of living in a pandemic, he suggests choosing one or two trusted sources (e.g. Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization) to stay informed of critical updates. In other words, listen to scientists, rather than political leaders and pundits who have their own agenda, and therefor try to add their own “spin” to the facts at hand. Beyond this, since there are no drastic changes from hour to hour during a pandemic, choosing a reliable print media source one time per day is also recommended.
6. They limit social media exposure.
Mentally strong people understand how social media operates and limit their exposure. They know that social media platforms like Facebook are unofficial news channels and deliver news tailored for you (some of it fake) based on your behaviors and preferences gleaned over the last decade. Algorithms are used to give you the news that you will most likely consume, and that news gets skewed toward your preferences. This increases bias and the propensity to start rumors that increase distress. The algorithms also direct content towards you that is designed to instill strong reactions — such as material that provokes outrage.
Technology expert Kara Swisher is one of a number of people who’ve written about how Facebook, in particular, is detrimental to both individual and societal well being. Revenue is dependent on advertising, which is dependent on keeping users “engaged” as long as possible on the platform, which creates an incentive to adjust their mysterious algorithm — which determines the posts and ads that show up in your feed — to filter content that will please, shock, and /or create outrage. This is driving not only the phenomenon of filter bubbles, but also exacerbating political division, hate speech, misinformation, and conspiracy theories.
7. They display self-compassion for lack of productivity.
There may be self or societal pressure to “be productive” with the increased time you may have at home. The question to ask yourself is, “Is it reasonable to be productive when we are at war?” It is important to understand that lack of focus, concentration, and overwhelming feelings are common during this time.
Abraham Maslow created his groundbreaking framework “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” to describe stages that we must pass through to achieve the high levels of self-actualization and creativity. The idea is that we are not able to reach the higher levels of the pyramid without a strong foundation.
During a pandemic, most of us are temporarily housed in the first two levels of the pyramid; physiological and safety. Mentally strong people realize that when their physiological and safety needs feel threatened—such as during a pandemic—they don’t put pressure on themselves to produce or achieve.
8. They focus on facts.
Mentally strong people are acutely aware of when their emotions are “getting the best of them.” According to Marsha Linehan, creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), we all have three states of mind: an emotional mind, a rational mind, and a wise mind. Our emotional mind is where emotional statements rule; the rational mind, where facts and logic prevail; and our wise mind is a blend between the two. Being emotional is natural during times of crisis, but consciously moving to a rational mind by listing facts and logic can decrease unnecessary negative states. For example, if someone is catastrophizing—i.e., “I am going to catch COVID-19 and die”—a rational mind approach would list the statistics and the evidence of the low percentage of individuals who die from COVID-19. Other rational statements may include “I have a low likelihood of contracting the disease because I am following stay-at-home orders, wearing a mask,” etc.
9. They limit their exposure to toxic people.
Mentally strong people understand toxic people and behaviors and limit their time with them. Behaviors such as gossip, chronic lying, being overly-demanding, being self-centered on their needs vs. yours, are quite negative and take a toll on your well being. While you may be able to tolerate some toxicity with friends, family, and colleagues during non-pandemic times, eliminating toxic energy is vital when you are in survival mode during COVID-19.
If it is a toxic family member, think about limiting exposure or using email or text to communicate. Just as mentally strong people choose healthy leaders to follow, it is also important to choose to spend time with loved ones who display healthy behaviors and add to your well-being, not detract from it.
As I talk about in my book “Leaving Your Mark Without Losing Your Mind,” the idea of limiting our exposure to toxic people is complex. As Christians, we are called to love one another, and to demonstrate honor and loyalty to our family members (especially parents). But we can honor and love the people in our lives without surrendering to their demands, and while also limiting time spent with them.
10. They focus on self-care.
Mentally strong people consistently use self-care and try to be flexible with new routines. As many gyms are closed, they may choose other exercise options, such as running, walking, and biking. They prioritize things that will help them through the pandemic such as raising their moods with laughter and connecting with their family and friends, coupled with rest and good sleep hygiene.
Mentally strong people know themselves and what they need to feel supported. Those that are introverted focus on internal states of being and small gatherings versus external sources of stimulation (a lot of socializing). Introverts often feel drained after heavy socializing and need to recharge their energy in solitude. Conversely, extroverts gain energy from other people and enjoy many social activities. Introverts realize they may have a need to connect virtually, using Facetime, Zoom, Skype, and Google hangouts, but may do so in small groups and less often than extroverts. Both personalities may have different needs to promote well being.
Find the strategies that work for you
This is not an exhaustive list, but I do think it’s helpful. As you read through these 10 strategies, which one “jumped out” at you? What seems especially important to focus on in the days ahead? Make changes that will help strengthen your mental health. You — and your loved ones — will be glad you did!