Mental Health in a Pandemic - Part 2

A month or so ago, I wrote about the effects that the pandemic has been having on our mental health.  To get the most out of this post, you should read that blog here first.  In that blog, I told you that I would be giving you some ways to handle the challenges I presented.  So, here we are.  But first a quick recap.

One of the big mental health challenges of life in a pandemic is that our coping mechanisms get overwhelmed by our normal responses to this extremely abnormal situation.  Which means that emotionally healthy people are having difficulty, because the situation has been so extreme that our normal healthy response to it has actually contributed to our lack of well being.  The situation is similar to ankle sprain.  For a healthy person, generally they do not have inflammation in their ankle.  But when a healthy person rolls their ankle, their healthy body sends lots of inflammation to the ankle.  That is a normal response to the abnormality of a sprain.  But eventually, the presence of the normal inflammation causes more problems than the sprain.  This is what has happened to many healthy people’s emotions, as they have responded to the emotional injury inflicted by the pandemic.
Particularly in this pandemic, we have seen the difficulty of extended disappointment, uncertainty, and isolation challenge our emotional well-being.
But much of mental and emotional health can be changed by understanding that our emotions are a response to our thoughts and our actions.  So I can intentionally engage in behaviors and thoughts that help heal my emotions.  Specifically for handling disappointment, uncertainty, and isolation, try the following:
1. Stretch your thinking
Disappointment leads to heartache and pain.  Acute pain, or pain in the moment, feels like it will never end.  When life is disappointing, it is difficult to see how it will ever improve.  When life hurts, it is difficult to see how it will ever end.  When we don’t see an end to pain or disappointment, hopelessness and despair are real dangers.  Counter this by “stretching your thinking” to a time out beyond when this unusual event (pandemic) is long over.  What will life look like 5 years from now?  Focus on moving toward that preferred future rather than simply moving through or out of your current pain.  Literally every human and societal difficulty in the past…has passed!  And, as challenging and painful as the current situation is, it too shall pass.  Stretch your thinking out past the pain of the moment, and you will see that there is indeed hope in the days to come.
2. Shrink your thinking
To handle the effects of stress and anxiety, brought on by the uncertainty of the future that the pandemic has caused, try to “shrink your thinking”.  Do not pull tomorrow into today.  Look only at the next important issue in front of you rather that all the potential “what ifs” in the unclear future.  Understand that some stress is good, but too much stress is overwhelming.  Dealing with the most immediately pressing issue only, produces a good kind of stress called “eustress”.  That allows us to focus and increases our performance as a deadline approaches.  But there are two other forms of stress, called “distress” and “disfunction”, which occur when we try to simultaneously handle too many life events as urgent.  So, while the pandemic has brought a potentially overwhelming number of uncertainties to our future, “shorten your thinking” to consider only the most immediate challenge in front of you.  And you will have the clarity brought on by eustress and not the overwhelming sense that comes from distress.
3. Talk with trusted people
Social distancing has led to emotional distancing.  And one of the challenges of mask wearing is that much of nonverbal communication is visually hidden.  To the extent that you are comfortable, try to have a few face to face conversations with people you love.  Your brain will code emotions of joy as you see a smile in response to your presence.
4. Be intentional with activity
Engage in 3 types of activities that the pandemic disrupted and that your emotional health craves.  To the extent that you are able, engage in activities that are physical.  Physical activity has been shown in countless studies to improve mental and emotional health through the release of endorphins.  The pandemic closed gyms, playgrounds, athletic leagues and more.  Be intentional about doing something physical.  Also, do purposeful activities.  You and I are made in the image of God.  From the very first introduction of God into the creation story, we see Him bringing order to chaos.  The essence of our work in the Earth, whether production, maintenance, helping, or organizing, is essentially to bring some measure of order to some measure of chaos.  We fulfill part of our image of God by bringing order to chaos.  Work has been disrupted throughout the pandemic, so we need to be more intentional in bringing order outside of our work.  Organize that junk drawer that has been waiting years for your attention.  Put a few things on your calendar or to-do list, no matter how seemingly insignificant.  Then accomplish the list and check it off.  Your soul will acknowledge itself expressing the image of God in you, and your emotional life will benefit.  Finally, be Biblical in your activity.  Don’t engage in activities that will have long term negative effects.  For instance, we have seen an increase in addiction during the pandemic.  Avoid drinking to excess.  Avoid too much online activity.  Increase your prayer life and your worship activities.  If you have wanted to develop a more robust devotional life, then the slower pace of a global pandemic should provide just the proper environment to do so.  
Hopefully, some of these solutions have helped address some of the issues I described in my last post.  If you found these thoughts helpful, so might someone you care about.  Feel free to share these links.

In my next post, I will share a couple additional thoughts to help you as you have normal responses to abnormal life circumstances, so that you can thrive in all settings.

Keith Tower
Senior Pastor

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