This world-wide COVID pandemic has increased humanity’s stress load beyond anything most of us have personally experienced. First, I want to point out that stress is a fact of life and actually improves performance up to a point (see chart above), but it must be managed or we’ll be overwhelmed. So, let’s take on the challenge, identify the pressures, prepare as best we can, and repair what’s already broken.
The first step is assessing the situation. A sense of having no control fuels stress in crises, so we need to control what we can to maintain as much good health as possible. As a wise pastor explained to me: “You may not be able to control your circumstances, and you shouldn’t try to control others, but you can and should control your attitudes and actions.” Not dealing with stress now can result in PTSD or other long-term psychological and physical problems, so it’s important to recognize and respond well to stress with appropriate self care. Assess these areas of your life:
- Sleep: Are you getting adequate rest? Are you sleeping enough but not too much? If you’re having trouble sleeping, the best way to improve sleep habits is to set an alarm to get up at a reasonable hour and train yourself to wake up and get up at the same time each morning.
- Exercise: Regular, daily exercise is critical to good health. If you can, get outside and walk! Use this time to relax. Intentionally use your five senses to increase your pleasure! Listen to the birds, feel the warmth of the sun (or rain!) on your face, smell the freshness of spring. Breathe deeply (but not as your neighbors pass by 🙂 ) and appreciate the break from being inside in quarantine for most of your time.
- Diet: Not going on a diet, but eating well. This is not the time to try to lose weight (which increases stress), but it’s important to eat healthy, nourishing, regular meals. If you can’t enjoy your normal supply of fresh fruits and vegetables, consider using a multivitamin and mineral supplement. Alan and I have never been fans of supplements, but a supplement is better than becoming malnourished. On the other hand, this is a critical time for disciplining yourself against binge eating, excessive use of alcohol or drugs, or eating foods that are bad for you due to medical conditions. I’ve been making one dessert per week as a special treat, but this would not be a good way to improve “self care” for those who have diabetes (for example). Find ways of relieving stress that are within the parameters of your health needs!
- Medical/Emotional Needs: Continue to care for your medical conditions, including emotional and spiritual needs. Don’t ignore them just because you’re afraid to go to a clinic or hospital! Contact your physician, therapist, or minister as needed for advice and counsel.
- Spiritual Needs: As a Christian, I find my daily “quiet time” critical for my sense of peace and well being. Studies show that people of all faiths (or no faith) profit from 20 minutes (or so) of quiet meditation each day. I meditate on the Bible and pray, and I recommend this 100%. In my personal appraisal of stress, my devotional time comes second only to my sleep in effecting my overall sense of well being. (I’m almost ashamed to admit that I’ve never suffered food or shelter deprivation, but I’m sure that would severely effect my sense of well being too!) Don’t underestimate the importance of getting in touch with your spiritual side—and the God who created you!
- Social Needs: The sense of isolation that results from being quarantined tends to amplify tension and stress, so find ways to spend time with loved ones, even if it means communicating through Skype, WhatsApp, Signal, FaceTime, Zoom, etc. There are many ways to keep up with family and friends besides being physically present together (which is everybody’s favorite way). Be creative. I had to learn how to use WhatsApp and Signal, but I now have more active communication with some of my nieces and nephews than I did before COVID hit! My monthly prayer time with my two prayer partners has moved to a Zoom Room. I’d way rather have my kids and grand kids visit than all this virtual stuff, but—praise God for virtual connections! Let’s be glad for what we have during times when we can’t have everything we want and think we need!
The second step is to try to prepare going forward by building some stress-relieving activities into your schedule. During times of crisis, it’s more important than ever to be intentional about self-care and care for others. Get together with those in your sheltering-at-home unit and open up with one another about your needs. Solve problems as a family. Plan “alone” time for each of you into your day to replenish your energy for being together. Parents and elders need to lead well by slowing down, being intentional about earning trust and respect by making wise decisions, asking for forgiveness when they fail, and being “servant leaders” without being overly self-critical or perfectionistic in their expectations either for themselves or those in their care. Be honest, transparent, and timely in communicating the changing circumstances. Don’t try to hide the facts to protect your spouse or kids. They’ll know something is amiss and become uneasy, feeling “betrayed” when the truth comes out later. Keep communication open and flowing. When communication stops, people tend to imagine the worst! Be a good role model. People are eager for good leadership during crises, and your family will be very likely to follow your leadership if they trust and respect your judgment.
How to relieve stress? Here are some ideas:
- Plan breaks for relaxation: This may mean some down time for reading a book, playing music or watching a video. For children, it might be some free time to play games; for adults, it might include time for a leisurely hot shower or a soak in the tub. I realize with small children, these might seem close to impossible luxuries, but maybe you can take turns giving your spouse a little time off for a quiet breather!
- Be grateful and thankful: Look for the good and focus on that. Be appreciative. Try to compliment others and become an encourager. I remember during one particularly difficult time in our marriage, we were both advised to try to find at least one thing each day to appreciate and thank our spouse for doing or being. I’ve heard that a really good relationship will have about seven times as many compliments and expressions of appreciation as bits of correction or critique.
- Look for the silver linings and humor: Laughter is good medicine and a great stress reliever (as long as you’re laughing with and not at someone). Think positive! I remember reading about someone incarcerated (unjustly) who found delight in an ant racing across the floor of the prison. If you’re feeling sorry for yourself, read the biography of Joni Eareckson Tada, who became a quadriplegic as a teenager after a diving accident. I recently listened through her incredible story, The God I Love: A Lifetime of Walking with Jesus. After reading this book, I feel like I’ll never have anything to complain about again!
- Take time to learn something new: In a way, I feel like the COVID pandemic has enforced a bit of “sabbath rest” on everyone (at least those of us who are older), because we can’t go anywhere and are so limited in our options. This is the “perfect” time to pick up that hobby you’ve always wanted to try. If you have internet access, there are tutorials on just about every subject under the sun, so now’s your golden opportunity to become proficient on the guitar, painting, star gazing, needlework, language, and on and on! If you have kids, possibly you can involve them too! I think most of us totally underestimate how much our children can understand and enjoy things that interest adults too.
So, if we’ve assessed our situations and taken some positive measures to prepare for less stress going forward, the last thing on our “to do” list is to get rid of the things that impact our family negatively. Here are some important stressors to avoid:
- Too much media, including T.V. radio, phones, social media: Use only sources you trust and limit your exposure so that you’re only learning what you need to know in order to protect yourself and live a healthy life. More news than you need will only promote anxiety: “While anger can lower one’s perception of risk, fear ratchets it up” (Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 15, No. 6, 2006). Reduce stress by reducing fear.
- Faulty coping techniques: Humans tend to have three responses to fear: flight, fight, or freeze. Faulty “flights” (escapes to avoid dealing with reality) are theoretically “stress relievers” but actually add to stress. These include such things as giving in to addictions like alcohol, drugs, porn, playing video games, binge eating or over sleeping, etc. Faulty “fights” include taking your stress out on others instead of taking responsibility for yourself in your situation and learning how to handle the problems appropriately. Becoming verbally, physically, or emotionally abusive solves nothing and does great damage to those around you. Take a break. Count to ten (or 10,000 if need be). Get down on your knees and pray, asking God for help to control your anger. Go for a walk, but don’t hurt the ones who love you the most! Finally, faulty “freeze” responses include things like isolating or withdrawing socially even beyond what is necessary, becoming vegatative or dysfunctional, hiding in your room or refusing to talk to anybody. Short term you may think this is easier than meeting the challenges head on, but like the rafter heading into the white water, if you don’t lean into the waves, you’ll get washed overboard out the back.
Hope this helps a little! We can’t control COVID, but we really need to control ourselves, and by learning to control ourselves, we will lessen our own stress and help alleviate the stress in those around us. I realize that controlling our own fear sometimes seems completely beyond us. If you are feeling overwhelmed and like you’ve already been washed out the back end of your rescue raft, then I pray you will meditate on these verses and ask the LORD to help you find peace in your soul:
“Let not your hearts faint, fear not, and do not tremble, neither be ye terrified because of them; For the Lord your God is he that goeth with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you” (Deuteronomy 20:3-4).
“Be strong and of a good courage, fear not, nor be afraid of them: for the Lord thy God, he it is that doth go with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee” (Deuteronomy 31:6).
“Peace be unto thee; fear not: thou shalt not die” (Judges 6:23).
“In God I will praise his word, in God I have put my trust; I will not fear what flesh can do unto me” (Psalm 56:4).
“Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness” (Isaiah 41:10).
If you don’t find any of these verse consoling, then perhaps you don’t know the Lord Jesus as your savior. In that case, “Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the Lord, and depart from evil” (Proverbs 3:7)! If you want help in knowing God and being able to “depart from evil,” then please click on the “Coming to Christ” tab at the top of this post and read about how you can find peace with God.
(Credit for the first chart and much of the inspiration for this post was found on the website for Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, where my husband serves as the Chief Medical Officer. This site has a host of valuable resources related to mental health issues. I’ve added the link below just in case you have other questions on your heart too.)