Tips for dealing with pandemic anxiety

By Wanda Malcolm
woman listening to music 2

To say that COVID-19 has brought many unwanted challenges into our lives is a blindingly obvious statement. We are weary of the isolation and loneliness. Our worry about the future and the wellbeing of those who are most vulnerable to the virus is a relentlessly heavy burden. The losses are staggering. We struggle daily with the loss of choice about what we can do, where we can go, and who we can see in person. Some of us are grieving the loss of in-person contact with family and friends, the loss of employment, or the loss of loved ones who have fallen to COVID-19.

One of the challenges of writing about this topic is how easy it is to offer unhelpful advice, especially advice dressed up with Scripture. Quoting verses like “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself” (Matt 6: 34) extinguishes hope because we already know that not being anxious about tomorrow would be great. Unfortunately, anxiety always takes our minds to the worst possible places, and in so doing leaves us living in the rubble of disasters that haven’t yet happened. Even so, it is wholly reasonable to cry out, “How can we not worry when there is so much that is truly worrisome?” We seldom need to be told the end goal we are already pursuing; we need to know how to get there!

Potentially helpful practices

There are a few spiritual and psychological practices we can engage in that have the potential to be helpful. Before I go any further, however, I recommend a spirit of experimentation and – to the extent that we are able – the setting aside of any tendency we might have to be self-critical: if there is something in the following paragraphs that appeals to you and you haven’t tried it before, experiment with it. If it helps, keep doing it. If it doesn’t help, try something different.

I also recommend that you risk starting with practices designed to deepen your relationship with God. Align your heart with the heart of God. Make yourself available to be loved by God.

There are many possible practices with which to experiment, or to which we might return like old friends with whom we’ve lost touch. A short list includes traditional and contemplative prayer, meditation or lectio divina, reading comforting passages of Scripture, saying the Daily Office, and singing or listening to hymns or praise music. For those who crave quietness when spending time with God, living in close quarters with children who are doing online learning or other adults who are also working from home can be discouraging. It might be worth experimenting with noise cancelling headphones or bundling up to go for a prayer walk. For those who are very, very tired of being alone, think about starting a weekly spiritual support group. For example, find some people with similar interests who would enjoy gathering online once a week to work on creative projects while listening to music or taking turns reading Scripture and praying for one another. If that goes well, create a private Facebook group as a place to post pictures of completed projects, and as a means of staying in touch between gatherings.

Differentiate between challenges and obstacles

Another recommendation is to make an intentional effort to see and differentiate between the rewarding challenges and stressful obstacles in our current lives. Doing so can be the difference between working on the problems we have reasonable odds of solving and being defeated by the problems that cannot be solved by individual effort alone.

Printed on cards carried by soldiers during WW II and adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous in 1941, the familiar version of Reinhold Neibuhr’s Serenity Prayer is not as lovely as the original, full length poem which begins:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

This prayer articulates the essence of sorting between challenges and obstacles. Putting our energy into solving challenging but manageable problems is highly rewarding; it counteracts the sense of helplessness that permeates the pandemic and shows us where our choices are. Sometimes, such problem solving is all we can expect to do in a day.

God knows we have cause to worry

I wonder if this is part of what Jesus was getting at in Matthew 6 when he said: “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.” He was talking to people who were struggling under the oppression of a conquering army; people whose lives had been invaded and who had very little choice about most things. The Greek word that has been translated as “do not be anxious” has the connotation of being divided, distracted, or pulled apart by over-anxiety. This worry goes beyond reasonable concerns to an intensity of anxiety that is debilitating; the kind that stops us from fully living in the present. And it is important that we not read Jesus’ words as an unfeeling injunction to “just do it.”

Over and over the gospels tell us that Jesus’ taught and healed because he was moved by compassion (e.g., Mark 6: 34). God knows that we have cause to worry, and regardless of whether the enemy is a conquering empire or an invisible virus, one of the things we can do is to separate our concerns into difficult but manageable challenges, and obstacles we cannot overcome by individual effort. The first we can tackle with the practical means available to us, while the second requires that we cry out to God for the “grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed.” Either way, we benefit from engaging in practices that make us available to God’s Spirit in the hope of enjoying the peace Jesus promised in John 14: 27, 31.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
Not as the world gives do I give to you.
Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid…
I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.
Rise, let us go from here.