Anxiety and Fear during Pandemic

In the past 25 years in the United States, we have faced a period of gradually worsening crisis of mental and spiritual health. Government agencies have done the research and posted the numbers and charts. We have seen the rate of mental illnesses and addictions greatly increase such that tens of millions of Americans are suffering daily from these issues. Anxiety has surpassed depression as the issue most likely to cause a person to seek professional help. We have seen an increase in the number of people reporting traumatic experiences that continue to haunt them. People of all faiths are backing away from religion. All of these afflictions decrease the quality and enjoyment of life, they impact our ability to work and study, they negatively impact relationships in and out of the family, and they decrease our personal freedom. In the most serious situations, people may take their own lives due to mental illness, or addictions, or spiritual despair. Mental illness and addictions are pro-life issues because they are sometimes the cause of suicide and overdose deaths!

Anxiety and fear are natural and expected responses to situations that we perceive as threatening. These are neurobiological and neuropsychological reactions. When I was a boy playing in the woods with my buddies near Buffalo Bayou, if we were surprised by a copperhead, water moccasin, or rattlesnake we would instinctively jump back because we knew these snakes were dangerous! Even babies who don’t fully perceive the danger have a similar natural reaction to snakes. Our instinctive anxiety and fear are part of our evolutionary self-preservation that help keep us safe and alive. How great it is that God created us in this way!

While we have natural reactions to dangerous situations, we also have the element of belief about or perception of a situation that enters in. A stranger in a new city may enter a high crime area and not know it and feel no fear or anxiety about it. If we are in a situation where people around us are anxious, we might become anxious also because everybody else seems to be.

In the current pandemic of the Coronavirus of 2019, we do have an element of danger. The illness is contagious and can make people sick, and for particular cases of old or sickly people it can bring death. The job of journalists and government officials is to provide information to the public for their well-being and consideration. They have a responsibility to tell us the truth and to be reliable so that we can trust them. Many people today in our country have a mistrust of journalists and government officials. We are also highly influenced by the connections we have on social media and the Internet.

Many of us today are strongly attentive to and impacted by our emotional responses to that is going on around us. Psychologists are partly to blame for this trend in modern times. For decades we’ve been educating people to pay attention to their feelings, and in therapy we emphasized it as part of the healing process. Our emotions are indeed part of what it means to be human. It doesn’t make sense for us to deny them. However, it is not wise for us to be led by them.

If we are feeling panic, fear, stress, anger, or anxiety right now, it is good for us to admit and acknowledge it without self-judgment or self-criticism. It is not surprising for us to feel this way in the pandemic. It is however up to us if we choose to stay in our emotions or impose our good rational thinking to manage and adjust them. Sometimes a friend or mentor might help us think through things and bring us to a better place.

We can ask ourselves: is my panic, fear, stress, anger, or anxiety making things better for me, or are they creating problems for me? If we find these emotions to be problematic, then we can seek to change them. It may take us some time to wrestle with these. We can find some space and quiet to consider them. Our world is such a noisy and busy place that being still and quiet often helps us significantly. Sometimes getting out a pencil and paper and just writing about what is troubling can be helpful. We can always chat with another person who might have our back for support.

We probably should also ask ourselves: am I doing anything to contribute to the general sense of community fear, panic, and anxiety? If I’m posting pictures of empty shelves or people fighting, then I might be adding to the problem. If I am telling stories that cause people to be afraid, I probably should try to refrain from that activity. We are a community, a family who needs to care for each other, especially now.

If we were struggling with addictions or mental illness or marriage and family problems before the pandemic, then we should be extra careful to attend to our mental and spiritual health. Good self-care involves activities such as following doctors’ recommendations, getting adequate sleep, eating nutritious food, getting a little exercise, and spending some time each day in prayer and meditation. It is a good opportunity to reconnect with family and friends and our support system. If you have been seeing a mental health professional, many of them are willing to do phone or video sessions during the pandemic.

Mental illness and addictions naturally cause us to be more preoccupied with our own self. An increase in fear and anxiety will also pose this danger. One of the strategies for overcoming this tendency is to pay less attention to ourselves and more attention to ministering to others around us. We might wonder about an elderly neighbor and make sure that he or she has enough groceries or medication. We can see where we might help in the community, so that we find ourselves less focused on self.

Mental and spiritual health naturally are intertwined. When people are in a good place spiritually, their mental health is often better. Spending extra time at home has the potential to put us in a more peaceful environment, particularly if we leave the TV off part of the time. Being at home can be like being on a retreat. We can use the extra time and space to reconnect with our God. We might try to believe that God is always present, even in the midst of a difficult time like this. Remember that Jesus calmed the sea when his friends expressed their fear and anxiety to Him (see Mark 4:35-41 and Matthew 8:23-27. It is possible to weather this storm gracefully.

It is interesting to see that some people are keeping a sense of humor in the midst of this horrible and dangerous situation. Humor can be a good coping mechanism. We should be careful to be sensitive to others with our humor, and to be sure that we don’t make fun of a particular person in a way that would harm them. Often the best humor is that which is directed at ourselves. Laughter is good medicine.

Finally, we should be cautious to protect our children during this time of increased stress. They naturally look to the adults around them to know how things are going. If the adults are in a panic, then they will panic also. If the adults are calm, they’ll be calm. We should shield our children from the news and social media chaos going on right now. They likely will need our reassurance that they are safe and will have food, clothing, and shelter as usual. We probably don’t want to expose them to the stress of shopping for groceries.

Apart from situations that are immediately dangerous like being near a poisonous snake, our fear and anxiety often do not serve us very well. We can usually do our best thinking when we are confident, positive, and calm. We can rely on others to help us get through a difficulty. We must guard against fear and despair, because it does not come from God. And most of all, we can entrust ourselves to the God who loves us, watches over us, and has mercy on us.

Gratia Plena, which is a Latin phrase meaning “full of grace” (Luke 1:28), is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit faith-based organization that provides mental and spiritual health services for mental illnesses, addictions, marriage/family problems and the spiritual distress that usually accompanies them. Our Catholic counselors provide services in a manner that keeps with the teachings, values, and traditions of the Catholic Church. We have flexible fees and hours so that people can receive the help they need. We see children, teens, and adults. Gratia Plena has 25 workers providing services in five locations around the Greater Houston area. Call (832) 532-1029 or complete a form on our website to request an appointment. Our counselors are able to connect remotely to those in Texas via tele-health (HIPAA secure video sessions). As a nonprofit, we are happy to accept donations to continue our mission of mercy. The donation link is on our website. During the pandemic, we are posting daily on our Facebook and Twitter accounts.

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