The latest government advice and more severe precautions regarding coronavirus have taken many by surprise, not that such steps are necessary but in the speed with which things have moved.
With everyone called to avoid social contact, many needing to isolate more strictly, and an expectation that this will last for several months - how on earth do we manage the emotional and mental health implications? Rest assured that we’ll be sharing more thoughts, updates, and resources at MASF over coming weeks and months - but for now - how do we prepare for a period of isolation?
In his book ‘The 7 habits of highly effective people’, Stephen Covey introduces the concept of our circle of influence and our circle of concern. You can picture these with the smaller circle of influence sitting inside the circle of concern. Stephen Covey talks about how often people focus on the circle of concern - outside our influence, the things we cannot do anything about - triggering stress, anxiety, and unhappiness not to mention a feeling of powerlessness and helplessness. Much better, he says, to focus on the things we CAN influence, and even on stretching the boundaries of that circle of influence to develop the things we can change and make effective decisions on.
Here are 5 suggestions for things you CAN do as you enter this season of social distancing:
1 - Manage your emotions
The first thing to do - right now, is to take a deep breath. This announcement has come as a shock to many, and the various implications, confusion and other challenges like trying to buy impossible to source supplies are raising everyone’s stress and emotion levels.
Your brain operates on two levels for making decisions - your rational, analytical, problem-solving brain - and a more instinctive, emotional quick decision level brain called the limbic system. This second system is useful for decisions that don’t need lots of analysis - but it is also used for times when a quick decision is essential - like life or death situations, or moments of conflict. You may have heard of the ‘fight or flight’ system - and when that system is switched on your emotional brain becomes much more powerful. In fact, in moments of real urgency, the balance between this and your rational brain is so swayed that your ability to think clearly is turned right down, and this emotional brain becomes dominant.
This has two main effects - firstly it becomes hard to think, your brain may feel swamped, or fuzzy and you might feel a headache coming on or like your mind is buzzing. This can add to feelings of panic or disorientation but it is a short term side effect of your immediate reaction. It will get better when your emotions have died down a little from that first flush, and you can feel calmer.
The second impact is that decisions feel much more stark, and options more limited. Your rational mind is the problem solver - the bit that comes up with solutions and ideas, so when you are limited to the emotional brain life becomes very black and white - success or failure, hope or despair, good or bad. This means in emotionally intense moments things can feel very bleak - much more than they actually are - or like there are no options or solutions open to you. Things are rarely as bad as they feel in these moments.
The easiest way to drop your emotional level and bring back your ability to think more clearly is to manage your breathing. Check out this recent article for more on this and in the meantime take a few deep breaths and remember - things may not be as bad as they feel right now … or in moments over coming days when things might flare up again and feel overwhelming.
Remember that managing your emotions isn’t about denying them or suppressing them. We all need space to express and process what we’re feeling. And in times like these that need is magnified, as we face a unique situation and all react in different and complex ways. Try PAUSING to get a moment to breathe and calm any panic, then NAMING what you are feeling - if you need help with this try googling ‘emotion wheel’ and look at the images - these can be really helpful as you try to identify a complex or powerful emotion. Finally, think about SHARING that emotion - you can write it down, message or email someone, or call a good friend to chat or pray. Emotions are there for a purpose - and often giving them controlled headspace like this is the best way to release them so we do not end up plagued by them.
2 - Find a new rhythm and purpose
In times of isolation or extreme limitation, we can learn something from the basic needs human beings have to stay emotionally well. One of these is rhythm or routine. People vary in how much they need this in normal circumstances, but when life is turned upside down finding a routine can help us feel more in control and take away some uncertainty. Routine can be even more effective if it can be combined with some kind of purpose - because both play on our very valid human need to feel we are achieving something.
Think about what things you can build into your life which offer these two things. And where you can try to think about routine rather than random order. If you can work at home, plan a schedule of when and how you will be doing this. you might even want to write it out as a timetable! Think about breaking periods of work or study with other things so you can get out, or times when you can look forward to making (non face to face) contact with others. Think about different activities, moving around your space if you have different rooms you can be in - and of course things you can do that get you outside.
Try to vary your activities as much as you can - and remember that achievement focus - now might be the time to take up a new hobby, learn a new skill, tackle household chores or read some new books?! You might be tempted just to lose yourself in NetFlix - and some periods of doing things like this are fine - but avoid the temptation to do so without any boundary or plan, particularly if you know you struggle with issues around low mood and/or motivation. Instead set yourself a time limit or episode limit (and turn it off quickly when the last one ends before you get drawn into another!!!).
Remember the concept of an easy win - sometimes what we need to do is something - anything! - that will give us a feeling we have achieved something. You might want to draw up a list of things you could do - chores you could tick off, craft ideas, activities that require energy and moving around alongside others you can do curled up on the sofa. Be as creative as you can and break down bigger projects ('sort out the garden') into smaller achievable blocks ('weed one flower bed'). But some days the easy win is about achieving something much smaller - the difference between getting up or staying in bed all day, getting to the kitchen to make a hot drink, choosing to eat a proper meal instead of just picking at unhealthy food all day.
Remember too, therefore, the essentials of life and don't underestimate their importance - eating regularly, planning good sleep and getting some exercise in whatever way you can. These too are part of maintaining good emotional health. And even when realistically it makes no difference to you, try to stick to normal waking hours and weekday/weekend routines. You may need to remind yourself what day it is or wonder if there is any point in getting yourself dressed when you are not going to see anyone but we know these things help us to keep a sense of normality which can be very important.
3 - Get out when you can
Although there may be periods where you cannot leave the house at all - for example, if someone has developed symptoms of infection, most people for most periods will be able to get out of the house from time to time - either for essential shopping or just to get exercise. Government advice encourages this (so long as you stay away from other people and avoid close contact or busy spaces) recognising the importance of fresh air and outdoor exposure for good emotional wellbeing. And its true - studies of the exact same exercise routine, performed in different environments find that when we are in the great outdoors the lift to mood and emotional health is greater than when it is done indoors, whether in a gym setting or our own home. So exercise of any kind is good - but if it gets you out, that is all the better.
Fresh air has other benefits too, particularly if combined with that great mood lifter - sunshine! It may or may not cooperate with us, but a glimpse of blue sky and the feel of the warmth of the sun on your back definitely lifts mood - so grab opportunities where you can to get out - go for a walk or run, ride your bike or walk the dog - just be careful about not congregating in groups and be sensible about connecting with other people not from your household.
Remember this isn't about some massive exercise achievement - you're not training for an iron (wo)man event here - just get out of your house or flat or bedroom and somewhere you can see the sky. It might just mean drinking a cup of tea sat on your doorstep instead of inside the house on a decent weather day. But if you can get further away - do!
Because the final benefit of getting out is simply to raise your perspective from those same 4 walls you’ve been staring at all week. A change of scenery can be remarkably effective at putting a stop to a stream of round and round thinking, or the relentless ruminating that can come with anxiety or worry. And getting out has more benefits than you might think: reminding us we are part of a bigger picture than just us. Take opportunities to intentionally connect this fact with your brain - don’t be afraid to wave or smile at other people when you are out - there’s no infection risk from a smile (at a distance!) - and studies show even this lightest of human contact helps our wellbeing. Or take moments to wonder at the brilliance of nature - we know moments of awe and recognising our part of something so much bigger also help lift mood and trigger positive emotions. So why not go out one evening and look at the stars - you could even google the constellations or get a book to help you spot all the different groupings!
4 - Connect
Remember, over coming weeks you may have to be alone but you don’t have to be lonely. Face to face contact is going to be very limited - but we are blessed to be facing this crisis in the 21st century where most of us have some access to phones and social media for other forms of connection. So be creative and explore what options are open to you in your area. Usually meet up with a group in the week? Why not plan a regular catch-up online somehow where you do the same? Love to grab coffee with a friend? Still do it - each in your own homes, but making a call to chat whilst you drink it! Missing the buzz of your work environment whilst you work from home? Plan a regular check-in - you could even do lunch with some colleagues each day via social media?
In all of this, it is so easy to be too black and white about our social contact. We think if we can’t do it ‘properly’ - if we can’t connect the way we’d like to, it is not worth trying. And whilst it's true that indirect contact isn’t the same as meeting up face to face, in times like these where that is not an option, the small wins from any form of connection become very important. These are times to be creative with our connections - to try new things, to be willing to reach out to people in new ways to get us through a difficult season. We are going to have to learn a new normal for a time.
And of course - at this time it is important that those of us more able to do support others and help maintain social contact because it is one of the most essential human needs we have aside from our physical needs. So let’s not forget the more vulnerable people we know - particularly the elderly who might not be on social media. Are there people you could support by teaching them how to use Facebook, or to sign up to WhatsApp? Can you set up a group and help people to join it, or schedule a regular chat time somewhere or somehow? Is there a small group of people you can commit to call once a week to check-in and catch up? Let’s be aware and do what we can to help people make those vital lifelines of connection.
5 - Plug into your spiritual source
Most of all, times like these where our world feels full of chaos and confusion we really need to rely on the only truly dependable, unchanging source of comfort - but also of other things that are so essential to us as human beings - joy, hope, and comfort.
Having said that, it is easier said than done finding those things when your mind may feel full of fear or anxiety, or you feel trapped or out of control. One of the most amazing stories in the gospels is of John the baptist - the man who came out of the desert proclaiming that Jesus was coming - who recognised Jesus straight away and knew exactly who he was and then baptised him. John was a pretty impressive leader and prophet. But later in his life, he finds himself in prison. Isolated, fearing for his future, away from his friends and normal routine - and we read that he sends out to Jesus asking the most unexpected question - are you REALLY the one we have been waiting for or should we expect someone else? (you can read this in Matthew 11). Stress and anxiety can do funny things to our ability to see things spiritually - to trust in things we know deep down and to find security in that knowledge. Fear in particular clouds the mind in moments when our emotional brain takes over. In another story from Matthew’s gospel (in Matthew 14) when Jesus walks across the water to the disciples, they are already fighting a storm that threatens their boat, out in the middle of the lake. The story tells us they are terrified - besides themselves with fear. And when their dear friend walks out to them they don’t recognise him at all. Caught up in stories they would have heard of ghosts and spirits that walked the lake at night, their fear drives them to the wrong conclusion and for a moment things feel worse, not better even though God is there with them. Sometimes we need to quiet our mind before we can find God.
If that’s you then try not to be overambitious in your initial connections. Think about putting on some worship music you find soothing or calming. Find a safe, secure space you can get comfortable and make it your aim just to try to rest and relax with God. Humming or singing along to the music will help calm your breathing and bring you out of that high alert mode emotionally. Or you can try a simple mindfulness exercise like the one offered here by our friends at Christian Mindfulness (see the bottom of the page), or an app like the Soultime app. Simple practices like this, built into your everyday routine can help keep your soul connected and your spirit soothed, so you might begin to feel more able for some other input.
If you do feel up to something more, there is a rapidly expanding wealth of resources you can tap into. Many churches are going online, streaming Sunday services and gatherings live. If yours is not, check out one of the many that are - for example, HTB in London or Soul Survivor in Watford. And there are other ways to catch up with podcasts, audiobooks, etc.
And of course, you are likely to have much more time now for some personal stuff or bible reading. If you haven’t ever done it before why not start reading the bible cover to cover? You can use a bible in one year’ (here’s a great one from our friends across at soul survivor) - it doesn’t matter if you don’t start on 1 Jan. Just take it a day at a time and ignore the date. Or try something different - how about one of the beautiful journaling or colouring in Bibles?
Don’t forget your worship space as well as teaching input. You might feel strange singing along to a cd, or Spotify, but this is a vital part of your wellbeing arsenal in coming days and weeks. A W Tozer, talking about worship, said that “While we are looking at God, we do not see ourselves - blessed riddance” And in days when we may not have many other people to distract ourselves from our own thoughts, this may be even more blessed than usual. Again, connect where possible, share worship tracklists, take moments to pray and worship with others over the internet or via phone calls - whatever works for you.
Without doubt, these are unprecedented and uncertain times - but remember - they don’t have to be out of all control. Let’s all be praying for one another, but most of all for those most vulnerable emotionally or physically in these trying weeks to come.