In the months that followed the outbreak of COVID-19 in our country and around the world, I noticed a pattern of mild to moderate panic in my clients and those of the counselors-in-training I supervise. As we witnessed in news feeds around the nation, store shelves were stripped of essentials like toilet paper and canned goods; the line at my local Trader Joes was historically around the block as people packed carts and herded toward registers (long before the strict six feet apart markers that exist everywhere now), naively planning for what would surely be just two weeks of stay-at-home orders.
The strain of mental stress
Our clients expressed fear over infections, job furloughs, the emotional and physical toll of healthcare work, surviving a household of bored quarantined kids/students, dual work-from-home spouses, and isolation from family and friends. However, the adrenaline that comes from a new challenge provided a sense of optimism and creativity that resulted in goofy quarantine memes flooding social media, a collection of humorous publicized Zoom-catastrophes, and an outbreak of parents dancing on TikTok. My clients embraced the experience of sheltering-at-home with innovation and creativity. As time passed, new emotions emerged in our weekly virtual sessions. Fatigue, distress, helplessness, and uncertainty rose to the top as clients struggled in session to find ongoing hope in the monotony of daily life, coupled with the underlying fear of the unknown.
Mental stress was a constant.
Months later we stand at the cusp of a country reclosing after reopening. As of June 2020, there were over two million cases of COVID-19 diagnosed in the U.S. and over 120,000 deaths (Centers for Disease Control, 2020). It seems everyone at least knows someone that tested positive, or tragically died from the disease. Our communities of color have been disproportionately impacted in identified cases and death rates (Centers for Disease Control, 2020). The World Health Organization, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, and the Census Bureau have all released information suggesting that we’re looking at a mental health crisis in our nation triggered by the global pandemic. Rates of depression, anxiety, suicide, and addiction are reportedly on the rise (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, 2020).
If there is one consistency that seems to be present in our response to this pandemic, it’s that of uncertainty. We still have few answers in a world trying to navigate a return to some semblance of normalcy.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, our brain is wired to take in information; to reflect on, analyze, and interpret that information in ways that inform our experiences (past and present) as well as plan for and predict the outcomes of our future. While I can’t pretend to even guess the intricacies of how God designed the human brain, I also cannot help but think this is partially why he desired to protect us from the depth of knowledge that came from eating the fruit in the Garden so long ago (Gen. 2:17). Now, we crave information. We want answers, confidence, and assurances in order to navigate the world successfully and with full participation. The uncertainties of COVID-19 present anything but the clarity we crave. Yet, research on the intolerance of uncertainty and its contribution to the growth and development of mood and anxiety-related disorders is on the rise (Oglesby & Schmidt, 2017).
Where do we find hope?
Scripture offers us a clear path toward navigating a world of unknowns if we’re willing to embrace the discomfort of choosing to act in ways that our emotions initially might seem to contradict. God designed us to have emotions and exemplified the role and impact of emotions through the earthly example of Jesus Christ. He is described as feeling angry (Mark 3:4-5), sad (John 11:35; Luke 19:41), full of joy (John 15:10-11), and expressing righteous zeal (John 2:17). His actions and words also suggest feelings of compassion, empathy, and frustration, among others.
Just like our brain seeks to find confirmation of outcomes through our evaluation of previous experiences, our mind also seeks to motivate actions we perceive as consistent with the emotions we experience. Joy leads to celebration, contentment, and engagement. Sadness leads to crying, reaching out for physical or present comfort, withdrawal, or isolation. Anger can lead to lashing out verbally, physical aggression, a raised voice, or stonewalling others. Fear can lead to running away, acting defensively, or refusing to make decisions or engage in action.
To navigate a present and post-COVID-19 world will require embracing the discomfort of an uncertain world on the foundation of the certainties we find in the truth of God’s Word. It’s a dance between acknowledging and validating our very real emotions while choosing to act according to our core values. The act of validation can play a significant role in bringing comfort, peace, and empowerment in the presence of challenging emotions such as anxiety, fear, and depression. While validation alone does not typically eliminate the effectaffect of emotional distress, taking the posture that such emotions should not exist in persons of faith often leads to greater experiences of shame and guilt, which then fuel the underlying encounters of anxiety, fear, or depression even more.
Once we validate the emotions we are experiencing, we can then consider the actions we want to pursue in the midst of them. Much like James calls us to consider joy (James 1:2) in the midst of hardships, we are empowered to choose the way we respond in our current circumstances. Philippians 4:6-7 challenges us to practice gratitude in the midst of anxiety. Interestingly, research has supported the impact of gratitude on post-traumatic growth and finding meaning in loss (Kim & Bae, 2019). We are also called to be present in community and to be a comfort to others as God comforts us (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). Altruism and social support can also be a significant factor in reducing fear and the impact of trauma in the aftermath of a stressful life event.
It is important to take the time to process your experiences in the uncertainty of our current world. Acknowledging and validating the emotions that accompany our uncertainty is a key element of resiliency. As we move forward in a world of unknowns, we can lean on the truth of Scripture to navigate the discomfort and embrace actions that will foster growth and transformation in our mental health and well-being.
Center for Disease Control. (2020). Mental Health: Household Pulse Survey. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/covid19/pulse/mental-health.htm
Center for Disease Control. (2020). Cases I the U.S. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/cases-in-us.html
Center for Disease Control. (2020). COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/racial-ethnic-minorities.html
Grupe, D. W., & Nitschke, J. B. (2013). Uncertainty and anticipation in anxiety: an integrated neurobiological and psychological perspective. Nature reviews. Neuroscience, 14(7), 488–501. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3524
Kim, E., & Bae, S. (2019). Gratitude Moderates the Mediating Effect of Deliberate Rumination on the Relationship Between Intrusive Rumination and Post-traumatic Growth. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 2665. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02665
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2020). SAMHSA seeks applications for $40 million emergency COVID-19 grants for suicide prevention. Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/newsroom/press-announcements/202005131138