5 Tips to Help Stay Below the Mental Health Curve

There’s nothing like a pandemic to remind us that we live in a fallen world; a world in which we’re not only susceptible to physical ailments like COVID -19 but also to mental health vulnerabilities.

Some sources suggest that there has been a 30% increase in mental health disorders due to the pandemic. If you speak to psychologists or GP’s they may tell you that it feels more like a 50% increase. The government is so concerned about this new wave that they have just released $48 million of mental health funding. So, it seems there is a new curve to be concerned about. Much about COVID- 19 produces anxiety within us. We are more aware than ever that life is out of our control. And a heightened awareness of this feeds our worries and starves our ability to reason.

We are more aware than ever that life is out of our control. And a heightened awareness of this feeds our worries and starves our ability to reason.

And yet, as I think about this pandemic, there are some things we can do to help us stave off the pandemic blues. As Christians, we have rich resources; God’s word, his Spirit, and his people. We also have the wisdom of modern psychology to apply appropriately. I’ll start with some psychological advice and then move to the Bible.

1. Recognise that change is stressful

We have been through an incredible amount of change since February this year. And, what we sometimes forget is that change, in and of its self, is stressful. If you want to see just how stressed we are, take a look through the list of stresses in the Holmes Rahe stress inventory. Look closely, and you might recognise that most of the items in this inventory reflect life-changes. And, the rate at which we have experienced change during this Corona season is astronomical. (If you take this stress inventory it will give you a stress score. However, I’d recommend the use of this test along with appropriate professional guidance).

2. Reset your expectations 

Being realistic about the effects of this change requires us to reconfigure our expectations and develop new coping strategies. For example:

We may be more anxious than normal

  • Our bodies regulate emotions through many systems, but when faced with a threat (like COVID -19) it is normal to experience a slightly higher amount of anxiety. I mean, we can’t even leave our homes without generous amounts of hand sanitiser in tow.  (Of course, if your anxiety begins to impact your everyday functioning, consider a conversation with your GP about anxiety management).

Develop soothing systems

  • Some heightened anxiety is a normal response for a time like this. But, there are things we can do to manage and reduce it. We might undertake activities that soothe us and promote feelings of calm.  This might include things like listening to encouraging Christian music or exercising to work off some of that excess cortisol (stress hormone).

Develop help-seeking behaviour

  • Research tells us that healthy reflection acts as a preventative for the effects of long terms stress. So, a conversation with a trusted friend, GP or psychologist is a good idea. It will help you to process some of the ways you are responding to stress.

Expand your time margins

  •  New routines and competencies are not acquired straight away so we can’t expect that we will be as productive with our time or output. Creating realistic expectations of what we can achieve during this season will be helpful.
  • Consider your internal dialogue

We are constantly talking to ourselves internally, in every situation. Some of us don’t recognise this, but it’s true.

Paul Tripp says it well in his devotional book, New Morning Mercies (which I highly recommend, by the way):

No one is more influential in your life than you are, because no one talks to you more than you do. We never stop talking to ourselves….The things you say to you about you, God, and life are profoundly important because they form and shape the way you then respond to the things that God has put on your plate.

So, watch your self-talk. It’s easy for Christians to slip into thoughts of  “I should be doing this”, or “I should be doing that”, or “If God really cared, I wouldn’t be feeling this way.” If you find yourself in this zone, try to step back and ask, “Am I preaching God’s truths to myself?” and “Am I being realistic with myself?”

No one is more influential in your life than you are, because no one talks to you more than you do.

Sometimes recognising our own self-talk is hard, but a good counsellor can help. I have found the help of a good psychologist to be essential during the challenging periods of my life. So, don’t be scared to reach out.

3. Expect the roller-coaster 

Elevated anxiety is not the only thing we can expect around this time of pandemic. We can also expect variations in emotions as our bodies try and navigate this accelerated change.

As we entered COVID-19, we experienced culture shock and as we come out the other side, we should expect to experience the reverse.  ABC writer James Purtil says:

‘First we were anxious about having to isolate. Now the cafe on the corner is stocking artisanal hand sanitiser and we’re stressed for the opposite reasonhaving to go back out and meet people’

And it’s true, we can expect to feel a variety of emotions as we reintegrate into the new normal. We must realise that it’s not our old normal. Restrictions won’t be leaving us for a long time yet. So, we may as well get used to elbow handshakes and sanitiser at every shop and station. We must be generous with ourselves as we ride the storm. There will be ups and downs, griefs and sorrows, joys and unexpected challenges along the way. We will do well to anticipate the roller-coaster (*after all, it would be a pretty crazy ride if we expected to be travelling by car but instead found ourselves on a rollercoaster!). Bracing ourselves for the ride will make the journey far easier.  

We can expect to feel a variety of emotions as we reintegrate into the new normal. We must realise that it’s not our old normal.

4. Lean into one another

We are not made to be disconnected individuals. Rather, as image bearers of our Triune God, we’re relational beings—designed to connect with others. Psychologists and sociologists also recognise the importance of connection to our overall health. Even before Coronavirus, there was rising concern about the emergence of loneliness. Of course, forced isolation has challenged our ability to connect with others, but we should find ways to connect; either via zoom, other technologies—or even older ones, such as letter writing.

5. Lean into Jesus

Throughout this pandemic, I keep finding myself coming back to Matthew 6:25-34:

“…Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? … But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

It’s a well known passage, usually for what it has to teach us about worry. As we have discussed, some anxiety will be normal at this time—and I don’t think the point of this passage is that anxiety will be abnormal for Christians (For more on this, you might consider Paul Grimmond’s article).

I want to focus on what this passage has to say about control and care. Notice Jesus’ metaphor here. He’s essentially saying, ‘Look up! See the birds around you: are they concerned about their next meal? Of course not. They know there will be food because God feeds them.’ But he then goes on to say how much more God cares for you than for birds! And so, Jesus says, God has got this. You don’t need to seek control. God has it in hand—COVID-19 included.

Now, that’s easy to say, and a bit harder to do. Focusing on just today will help. We don’t need to do tomorrow just yet (v34). There may be a new curve rising, but God is in control of this too.

There may be a new curve rising, but God is in control of this too.

So friends, look up, and remind yourself of God’s care and control. Apply some psychological wisdom where needed. And if you find yourself all at sea in these changing times, reach out.

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