10 Things Mentally Strong People Do During a Pandemic Crisis

“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)
  • 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!

“Sir, Please Step Back From the Computer”

Have you noticed how much of our lives are being shaped by the barrage of news and social media we encounter? Especially lately! I’ve written about this in the past, but right now, there’s another element that we need to think about: we’re not just weary, we’re traumatized. Daily news about COVID19, the stress of lockdowns and job losses, horrific footage of police brutality, mass protests, riots, and looting … all of this has become a form of trauma for many of us.

In March, when news about COVID19 was exploding, and states were first issuing “stay at home” orders, I spent hours reading articles, surfing social media, and watching news videos, trying to understand what was going on. Then, weeks later, when the George Floyd murder and subsequent protests and riots happened, I had the same experience. I told myself I was doing this so I could preach and teach others, and also help lead our church in its response to these events.

But something else was going on too: my overdosing on news was like when you drive past a horrific car accident, and you find yourself unable to look away. We’re drawn to terrible stuff, and some part of us overrides our own good judgement and makes us look.

But here’s what I know: these kinds of events are traumatizing to many of us. We feel heightened levels of sadness, anger, and anxiety about what we are seeing and experiencing. A phrase I’ve heard people using over and over in the past few months is: “I can’t believe this is happening.”

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Lament in a Time of Rage and Despair

“And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? … It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.” – Martin Luther King

“This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. This is chaos.”  – Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms

“I understand having anger and grief during this time. But this is not that. This is wanton destruction and violence.” – Minnesota Governor Tim Walls

“This is what it looks like when justice has been denied for a long time.” – Ben Jealous (former NAACP president)

Our nation is now dealing with two crises: the ongoing COVID19 pandemic (current death toll in US is 109,000 at the time of this writing) has been eclipsed by civil unrest in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police. Peaceful protests across the nation have turned into violent clashes with police and National Guard, along with a rampage of looting and destruction.

There is a simmering rage in our cities, like the dry tinder of a forest just waiting for some spark to be lit and explode into a raging fire. The horrific murder of George Floyd — in broad daylight, at the hands of callous police officers, who knew they were being filmed, with bystanders begging them to stop — has proved to be that spark.

As a white pastor living in a predominantly white community just North of Minneapolis, with many friends in the areas affected, I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s happening. I know that many voices are weighing in on this situation. I’m adding to that cacophany today because I think that members of my congregation should hear my perspective on this, and I offer it in the hope that it might help them, and maybe some others, as we think, pray, and work together on this.

1. The explosion of violence and looting we are seeing is not just about racial tensions. *

*After several days have passed, and new events have emerged, I’ve changed my mind about this point somewhat. Rather than erase it, I’m just going to leave it as is, but add some “clarifications and second thoughts” at the end of this section.

In addition to a powerful wave of rage in response to yet another killing of an unarmed black person (more on that later), there are two things going on — one is getting lots of attention, and the other not enough.

What’s getting lots of attention is that there are different kinds of people doing different kinds of things — there are legitimate protesters and callous opportunists. We keep being reminded that there are “bad apples” swooping in on lawful protests, and their goal is to incite violence, steal, and destroy. It’s a progression: First there are peaceful demonstrations. Then comes the violence, property destruction, and looting. In nearly every press conference with officials around the US, they’ve tried to push the narrative that the violent protesters were “not people from our city (or state) … they’re trouble-makers or anarchists who are coming in from somewhere else.”

There is undoubtedly some truth to this, but it can’t be the whole story. There are now protests happening all across the nation. Do all the anarchists have a “not in my neighborhood” rule? Are they all just getting in their cars and driving to a different state to do their looting and destruction?

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Spiritual Perspectives on the Coronavirus Pandemic

We are living in the midst of a shocking world-wide crisis. At this point, we don’t know how long it will last, how much physical suffering and economic devastation it will create, or how many lives it will take. At a time like this, when people are reeling with job losses, fears about the future, fears about their health, and fears about loved ones … what we need most of all is the comfort and encouragement of community.

And that’s where this crisis is so perverse: the requirements of “social distancing” are cutting us off from the connections we so desperately need.

With physical presence restricted, we’re having to be creative and find ways of supporting each other through phone calls, emails, and video chatting. In our churches, we’re exchanging face to face small group gatherings and worship services with video conferences and virtual worship services. It’s weird.

In the midst of it all, there are spiritual questions to wrestle with, and mental health struggles — especially depression, loneliness, and anxiety — to work through.

Like many of you, I’ve been following the news closely — probably more than is good for me. I’ve been reading a variety of articles from authors of various stripes in an effort to understand better for myself what’s happening around me, so I can hopefully offer support and encouragement to others.

Here’s what what we need to remember: While we’re in the midst of a crisis, it’s nearly impossible to understand it. Insight and wisdom come later. Right now we have to muddle through, putting one step in front of the other.

Don’t get me wrong: There is important wisdom being shared. Amidst the deluge of blog posts, magazine articles, and social media updates, there are many helpful things being written.

In that spirit, I thought it might be helpful this week to draw your attention to four different articles that have been helpful to me, in hopes that you might find something for yourself too. For each, I give a short synopsis, some quotes, and a link to the original article. I hope this helps!

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Dealing with Doubts and Anger Towards God

“Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.”

– Paul Tillich

“If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”

– Yann Martell

Many religious people live with profound spiritual confusion and contradictions. They profess certain beliefs and values, but their actions demonstrate otherwise. They know they are “supposed to” think and feel a certain way about God, the spiritual life, and death, but they don’t. They have nagging questions and doubts, and cope by trying not to think about them.

For the most part, they love God — after all, that’s the first and greatest commandment, right? But they also feel confused about God’s ways in the world. Sometimes this confusion gives way to anger and bitterness. Of course, they would never say this out loud, and don’t even like to admit it to themselves. But these mixed spiritual feelings are more common than people think, and are often the root of what seems to be “lack of commitment” in our churches.

In my work as a pastor, I’ve dealt with many people who struggle with these contradictions. Sometimes they recognize them, but often they don’t. As I said, it’s hard to admit that we have doubts, and hard to acknowledge confusion and negative feelings about God. Especially in church, where we’re all supposed to be “on the same page.”

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Five Things I Learned from a 30-Day Media Fast

“We now live in a world where we eat content, drink content and breathe content, without giving a single thought to its composition or what kind of impact it has upon our lives.”
― Abhijit Naskar

Not long ago, I took a month-long media fast: time away from social media, online news, magazines, newspapers, TV and radio news. I’m thinking about doing it again. Here’s what happened, and what I learned:

What I did … and why

I was aware of — and bothered by — two things: (1) How much time I was spending on social media, surfing the internet, and watching TV (2) How agitated I was getting, especially from social media and television content that focused on politics and news.

I read a lot — books, magazines, and Internet articles — and it seems like my head is often swimming in stories, opinions, news flashes … most of which seem to focus on what is bad or wrong about our world, things I should be worried about, or trying to change.

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Six Keys To Controlling Your Thoughts

“Calmness of mind is one of the beautiful jewels of wisdom.” ― James Allen 

“When we are unable to find tranquility within ourselves, it is useless to seek it elsewhere.
― Francois de La Rochefoucauld

To what degree is it possible to control our thoughts? Our mental health and success in life may well depend on this ability. If we struggle with addiction — especially sex or pornography addiction — our recovery may well depend on it. Many of us struggle with negative thought patterns — sometimes even intrusive thoughts — which rob us of our peace of mind, and keep us from making progress.

Think about it: the roots of both depression and anxiety have to do with thoughts we can’t shake — whether those thoughts are related to fears of what might happen, or a general sense of things going wrong and/or life being pointless.  I understand that clinical depression and anxiety disorders have multiple factors, and may require extensive treatment, including therapy and medication. But many of us are “on the spectrum” for anxiety and/or depression. We may not be clinically anxious or depressed, but we struggle. The good news is that there are things we can do, as you’ll see in this article. 

With many forms of sex addiction, the problem also centers around our thoughts. We mull over fantasies, or we obsess over a person we desire. Our destructive actions arise from thoughts that center around lust, loneliness, insecurity, and fear. For some people, the essence of the sexual struggle is mainly in the mind: near constant obsessive and intrusive sexual thoughts. 

How do we change our thinking? How do we exert control over our wandering minds? Here are six keys that will change your life: 

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Why is Everybody so Anxious and Depressed?

“I have come to believe that without a strong sense of community human beings will wilt and begin to die. Community is the foundation of human society, the epitome of wholeness; in fact, the end of our journeying. As Parker Palmer writes: ‘Community means more than the comfort of souls. It means, and has always meant, the survival of the species.’ Without a continuing and enriching experience of community, as well as a vision of its glory to keep us moving forward, all of us eventually perish.”  ― David Clark

Why is everybody so unhappy and anxious these days? I’ve written about this before: mental disorders — especially ADA (anxiety, depression, and addiction) — have become a pandemic in our society. 

In this article, I’d like to focus on the question: “How did we get here?” Why is it that ADA have gotten so out of control? I’m not proposing a complete answer, but I want to suggest that one of the primary causes is the rise of social isolation, disconnection, and alienation in our world.

Another way of saying that: it’s because of the breakdown of community. 

And this breakdown includes not simply a loss of human connection, but for many it also involves the loss of spiritual connection as well. We are witnessing a massive breakdown of spiritual community in our time … not just families, neighborhoods, and communities. And it’s literally killing us. 

Continue reading “Why is Everybody so Anxious and Depressed?”