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. ~ Philippians 4:6-7
As the days turn to weeks, and our mutual plight of some form of quarantine grinds on, I daresay that most of us have experienced moments of coronavirus anxiety. And that’s ok. As I wrote last week, when you don’t have the strength to carry on, I will hold you. And when I can’t carry on, I know that you will hold me. That’s part of what it means to live in Christian community, and part of what it means a be a disciple of Christ. We strengthen each other. But we are human.
Today I found these words from St. Paul to the Philippians helpful and hopeful. When I think of Paul, I think of him as fearless. After all, he was beaten many times, pelted with stones, thrown in prison, shipwrecked (three times!), even snake-bit. But he also had his moments of fear and worry. He said himself, “I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling” (I Cor. 2:3).
Though Paul says to us today, “Do not be anxious about anything,” that is a tall order sometimes, especially in a coronavirus lock-down. What is more important to me are the next few verses. When I am afraid, I know what to do. Pray, give thanks, and tell God what I need; I need strength, Lord. And it comes. And then, the best comes last, the peace, and not any regular peace, but the peace of God, which transcends all understanding. And that will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Saints I have enclosed (you can find it on the website) an article that I read a few days ago, about anxiety. It was written by a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice, who also happens to be the daughter of two parishioners. Her name is Virginia Galloway Cooper and is a member of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church, in Columbia, SC. She has given her permission for us to re-publish it. I found her advice helpful in many ways, but especially because she writes with Christian conviction. I hope you find it helpful as well.
We love you. We miss you. We are praying for you.
And we will get through this together, with God’s help.
Dear friends and fellow parishioners,
In my professional life as a psychologist, I specialize in the treatment of anxiety and anxiety related disorders. One of the first things I normally talk about with clients is increasing their understanding of anxiety. Anxiety is actually very adaptive; it exists to alert us to threats and helps us act quickly when there is danger.
I’m sure you’ve all heard of the fight or flight response. Basically, that’s the activation of your sympathetic nervous system in the face of perceived danger. Complementary to the sympathetic nervous system is the parasympathetic nervous system; this controls rest and relaxation. Imagine that one of your arms, say your right, is the sympathetic nervous system and your left arm is the parasympathetic nervous system. Most of us live a life in a culture that exercises the right side, but not so much the left, so we wind up with a Popeye right arm and a weakling for a left arm (anxiety disorders are rising).
Anxiety can be physical (racing heart, chest pain or discomfort, problems breathing, numbness or tingling in hands, feeling dizzy or lightheaded, muscle tension especially in neck, shoulders, or jaw, stomach/gut issues), cognitive (worrying all the time, catastrophizing, thinking “what if….” with mostly negative scenarios), and emotional (feeling stressed or anxious emotionally, which can be expressed as irritability with others, tearfulness, jumpiness, problems sitting still, problems concentrating).
I address anxiety on a physical level first through body calming. When someone is highly anxious, their body is literally prepping to fight or to run away (flight); the blood is going to major muscle groups to help you fight something or run away as fast as you can. It is not prepping to solve a mental problem or go to sleep. If anxiety is not addressed physically first, then thoughts and feelings will line up to match the anxiety in your body. Your body is in fight or flight, and your mind and your feelings are going to be in line with fighting or running away.
We need to body calm and exercise the rest and relaxation response to combat daily stress and anxiety. This can be done mainly through deep abdominal breathing and guided relaxation/meditation. If you’ve never done this before, the only wrong way to do it is not to do it. That is, it’s not going to be perfect. Your mind will wander (my mind can be be a motorized ping pong ball, bouncing all over the pace). Don’t let that get you down. Just notice when it does and bring your attention back to the breath and how it feels coming in and out of your nose, in and out of your body. There are some great apps to help (I love “Simply Being” and “Insight Timer” most, others include “Calm,” and “Stop, Breathe & Think”) and you can also find ones online through key word searches like guided meditation, deep abdominal breathing, guided relaxation, and mindfulness based stress reduction.
I like deep breathing down to my belly to a slow count of 4, I hold the breath for a count of 2, and then slow exhale for a count of 6. The magic is most in the exhale. A minimum of 20 minutes a day is recommended to really affect anxiety and stress. It can be broken up into 2 10 minute periods or 4 5 minute periods; to my knowledge, there’s no research saying all 20 minutes need to be at the same time. Again, the only wrong way to do it is not to do it. Some is better than none. Do a deep breathing or guided relaxation/meditation exercise anytime you feel panicky.
Here are other recommendations I like for managing anxiety particular to our current situation:
- Do not engage in obsessive news checking. Establish a time as well as a time limit once or at most twice a day to read the news, watch TV about the virus, and check social media. Constant updates are a huge stressor. Watch out that you separate the facts from your feelings when you get news. Name and identify your feelings. Naming feelings helps us process and move through them.
- Get information from reputable sources. Limit searching online for more information as your anxiety will spur you to latch onto a sensational story.
- Have a safety plan based on the recommendations of a trusted health organization (i.e., the CDC) you follow about washing, cleaning, going out of the home, and being around others.
- Exercise daily. Your body is meant to move. Movement and exercise helps regulate mood and decrease stress. Any exercise is better than nothing.
- Occupy your mind. A mind with nothing to focus on will attach to whatever is anxiety provoking. You need to give your mind something else to chew on – the more substantial, the better. Read books, study something you’ve wanted to learn but have put off, Sudokus, crosswords, do those home improvement projects that might require repeated trials to be successful, drawing, juggling, podcasts…
- Have separate work and living space. It’s a boundary that is necessary to prevent you from working and/or feeling like you are working all the time. This is especially important now with so many of you trying telework. Working all the time can create stress and anxiety. Leave work at the end of the work day.
- Be social. Stay connected to others and maintain your relationships. We are asked to social distance, not social isolate. Isolation is detrimental to your mental health. Connect with others in real time through a phone call, FaceTime, or through Zoom or Google Meet. Send texts or emails.
- Maintain a routine. Social distancing and staying at home present their own challenges, one of which is the loss of your daily routine. Routines help us feel secure by providing structure and predictability.
- Get outside. I know the pollen brings its own issues, but it’s spring in SC and things are blooming and growing. Go check it out. Don’t linger all day in pajamas and the couch, as that initial comfort can be imprisoning over time.
- Pray. When anxiety persists after doing body calming and all the other suggestions above, it may be because of an inability to accept a difficult situation, intolerance of uncertainty, or both. This situation we find ourselves in is scary and surreal. I don’t like it. The news changes day to day, and I am uncertain what is coming next. The inability to accept a situation you cannot control doesn’t change the situation, it just makes you miserable. Accepting a situation does not mean you approve of it; it just means you aren’t fighting against the reality of it. Not tolerating an inherently uncertain situation and searching for certainty when it cannot be found heightens anxiety and increases despair. Praying may be one way to help yourself become more accepting. You might try to pray for the ability to accept and tolerate uncertainty, to increase trust in God, and to hear God’s direction and guidance in this time. In my most stressful times, I ask God to show me the next right behavior and I pray that simple prayer frequently throughout the day.
One of my favorite ways to self calm combines deep breathing and prayer. I deep breathe like I described above, listen to the Taize song “Stay with Me” on repeat, and I pray. I pray for God’s will for me and in the world, and the willingness to accept and act on God’s direction. I first used it during Lent many years ago, walking the labyrinth at St. Martin’s before the sun rose on Good Friday.
With love, I am praying for you,
The previous is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical, psychiatric, or psychological advice, and is not a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical and/or mental health condition.