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High levels of stress and anxiety have been major parts of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has had far-reaching effects on nearly every aspect of life. An American Psychological Association survey from 2021 found that more than 80% of U.S. adults report emotions associated with prolonged stress. And higher levels of stress and anxiety may continue for the foreseeable future.
This figure is astounding because this number would likely include many people with normal stress baselines and solid coping skills. One of the authors, Arthur Evans Jr., Ph.D., CEO of the American Psychological Association, states, "Without addressing stress as part of a national recovery plan, we will be dealing with the mental health fallout from this pandemic for years to come."
Additional research shows an increase of stress levels from 2020 to 2021. This trend may lessen in 2022, but only time will tell.
So how can your spiritual life be a tool when dealing with pandemic stress? A first step may be to start viewing pandemic stress as an asset instead of just focusing on the negative. This is the "glass half-full versus half-empty" approach.
William Rupp, M.D., emeritus CEO of Mayo Clinic in Florida, often said, "Take the high road in health care." The high road is about positive solutions more than exhaustive explanations of the problem. Consider how to use the personal and professional changes you made during the pandemic and lean on your mental and spiritual growth to help in post-pandemic life.
It will take society time to work through pandemic stress, and incorrect healing could lead to greater complications. Pandemic stress is like a broken bone that must be reset. If in disrepair, the bone will likely heal in a way that could cause a plethora of health care problems in the future, like arthritis, pain, or disfiguration of the joint or limb.
There are many emotional and spiritual takeaways that can be valuable as coping skills and be applied to similar situations in the future. An adage says that nothing is ever wasted in God's economy, since it is used for growth and own benefit. The Divine God is using this situation for benefit if you can see the benefits.
If you are struggling with post-pandemic stress, try these tips to heal your proverbial spiritual bones:
Reflect on pandemic events.
In health care settings, teams may set up a debriefing meeting to seek support from peers following a traumatic event. Talking through and reflecting about a crisis helps people process their emotions. Take time to pause and reflect, rather than simply move onto the next crisis in your life. Think about the new coping skills you have procured during this time. Then apply these skills to build resilience against future challenges. The value of mobilizing your spiritual life, including combining contemplative practices, could be helpful for future events.
In the movie "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," Spock was trying to find his find his way in life after an encounter with another life form. He grasped Capt. Kirk's hand and said, "I should've known." Later in the film, he explained that he meant that former issues in his life were resolved, and he was comfortable moving on to the next steps in life's journey ahead. In post-pandemic society, this could be referred to as the new spiritual normal.
Like Spock, are you at home with yourself now? Do you feel ready for the new normal? Or do you need to debrief internally, with others and with God before you can move forward?
Debriefing with others often helps deal with pandemic stress and improves emotional and spiritual functioning. Therapy can be beneficial if you are serious in your readiness to make changes. The key is to dissect your pandemic story to examine and apply what you learned to stop anxious feelings that get in the way of healthy problem-solving, building resilience and improved coping skills.
Allow God to work stress the stress in your life like a potter would work with clay. This can lead to personal and professional growth. Doing a thorough self-reflection will help you create building blocks and grow coping skills that will help you in the future.
Unpack to become unstuck.
Getting unstuck in a post-pandemic world involves moving away from a stuck phase and moving toward a rebalanced life. This is where your spiritual life can ground and center as you give time to focus on God.
Unpacking and repacking of a backpack after school or work is a normal part of a daily routine. Similarly, a lot of unpacking and repacking can help with mental and spiritual health.
Some items that are carried around aren't useful or healthy for mental and spiritual health. Carrying around unhelpful emotions keep you stuck in the past. You might be using some of the older coping mechanisms that got worn out during the pandemic. Often, my grandmother would say that eating too much of a food that you like will make it tasteless and repulsive. Similarly, your go-to coping mechanism can become foundered and no longer work.
Furthermore, you don't want to keep focusing on constant worry about future events that may or may not happen. It's important to pack or repack the best coping mechanisms and skills while abandon the rest as unneeded baggage.
Focusing on your spiritual life is as important as an annual exam for physical health. There is joy and peace that comes from spending time with God, which includes talking and listening. These times offer opportunities for you to leave unwanted items at the feet of sacred one.
Watch for warning signs and act.
Not all stress is bad. Some can be a friend instead of a foe. Positive stress is called "eustress," and it produces positive feelings and excitement. Yet even positive stress can be bad, especially when it's ongoing, mixed with anxiousness or cumulative. It can lead to fatigue and burnout. Negative stress could be viewed as a warning signal that it's time to reprioritize, take a spiritual timeout or make necessary changes.
Think of a car tire that wobbles because it is out of balance. Or a car that is out of alignment, and the tire tread is wearing unevenly. Is your life wobbling in the aftermath of this COVID-19 pandemic? What is your spiritual GPS telling you? It's important to fix the situation now and not wait for later.
A car's dashboard is valuable because it provides valuable information and feedback. Likewise, it is valuable to check your "spiritual dashboard" to make sure your life is in spiritual alignment with God. Watch for the warning signs and allow your spiritual co-pilot to move you back to the center of your lane.
The power of your spiritual life can be helpful, so get plugged in early. Allowing pandemic stress to linger is like waiting too long to take pain medication after surgery. The pain is hard to control once it has been allowed to fester and build. Just as some symptoms can be a warning sign of a serious illness, your spiritual life offers similar precursors to help you to get back to improved quality of spiritual health and well-being.
It's time to act and make changes in your life, as the COVID-19 pandemic has offered an opportunity to write a new narrative in your life's journey. This is the time when you will be most susceptible to hard-wire change; otherwise, it becomes another missed opportunity.
Put margins of self-care in your day.
Margins are blank spaces on a book's pages and between chapters to give readers a chance to rest. They make books easier to read. "Many of us are overloaded, and few of us have any 'margin' left in our lives because of the rush to all of life's activities," says Richard Swenson, M.D., author of "Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives."
Increasingly, there is little or no space, or margins, on daily calendars for self-care and time to regroup. A margin in your day is a dedicated time to catch your breath. Make sure you schedule it, as other priorities quickly can take it away. You can use these times to catch up on your spiritual health. You could sleep or rest, but also consider reflecting on what you have done to regenerate your God-given spiritual self. You could attend a seminar or practice meditating. Get creative or try journaling. View this as devoted time to replace depleted energy and lost time during the pandemic.
Where is your white space on your sheets of your life's pages on your life's journey? Is there something you can free up to give yourself extra margin for self-care to restore your energy?
It may have been a while since you have dedicated time to regeneration, but recharging your spiritual energy cells is time well-spent. It is time your spiritual life gets plugged in to God to maximize your spiritual strength.
For the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, people were busy coping, under significant stress and running life fueled by adrenalin. It will take time to slow down and get your nervous system back into normal range. It is like slowing a speeding train. Putting margins back allows you to slow your spiritual train down, especially while relying on divine intervention for help.
Prioritize rest and recovery.
The concept of creation is not just the one-time divine creation, but rather the continuous, creative work within you by the spirit. If you are tired all the time, you are prone to illness, more prone to accidents, and less innovative and creative. There is also some value in that God rested in the Bible. Rest and recovery are more than a recommendation. They are necessary for the body and mind to function, and the spirit to succeed.
Pandemic stress has affected many people, while also creating the ability to develop spiritual discipline to increase resiliency. As a tree's root system often digs deeper to maintain structure and stability during a storm, a pandemic storm also can help with stress relief through resilience growth of spirit.
The omnipotent spiritual entity is gracious in giving such grace to all of us, but we need to ask for it. I am reminded of a pastoral mentor who would say, "God gives free will, and God helps those who help themselves." What is the level of your investment in your own healing of your pandemic stress?
While thoughts of God or the divine vary, the goal of the spiritual relationship and accompanying religious concepts are similar across many faiths. May you reach out to God in your own way and draw strength for overcoming obstacles, whether these stressful obstacles be identified as pandemic stress or something different.
These resources can help improve your spiritual health by maintaining healthy habits, like exercising and eating healthy:
- 4 As of stress relief
- 5 tips for walking your way to better health
- 5 tips to manage stress
- Eating healthy on a budget
- Using physical exercise as a spiritual practice
Chaplain William Creech is a clinically trained, board-certified chaplain in Mankato, Minnesota.