The impact of a world-record 247-day COVID lockdown in Melbourne has clearly been unsettling and disconcerting, no matter how resilient any of us might be. People’s levels of anxiety are, however, a matter of degree. Contributing factors can include external stressors, health concerns, financial instability, relationship problems, and more. Identifying and remedying even the more controllable factors, though, is still not easy. What are some tell-tale signs that all is not well internally and what can we do about the anxieties we might not even realise we are experiencing?
It is said that we live in a ‘VUCA’ world that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Think of the impact that COVID has had on the volatility of local economies and workplaces, the uncertainties of each passing month with new leadership responses to the crisis, the complex readjustments to circumstances, and the ambiguity of life compared to the predictable and safe world we once knew.
There are, however, four typical responses to these prevalent factors which can begin to evoke degrees of anxiety in any of us. Each of them can be a cause, but will also have an antidote.
Anxiety is a natural fear response to imminent trouble, a physical or observable reaction to the distress experienced. It may be characterised by an increased pulse or breathing rate, insomnia, or even restlessness. Unfortunately, anxiety can be subtle and unrecognised.
While it is a normal human reaction to a threat, too, such threats are often perceived or overstated. It is in these cases that intentional intervention needs us to choose a different response.
Of course, during the COVID pandemic, there have been significant concerns associated with the sickness of loved ones, job losses, long-term impacts on businesses, and more. These deserve empathy and support. Significant and persistent anxieties, too, whatever their cause, need professional assistance.
Factors within our control, though, are worth identifying proactively so as to guard our resilience from the kind of erosion that is not always recognised until it is too late to arrest. Preventative measures are ultimately good for our mental health and the following negative responses to social stress each have an important and helpful solution.
1. Distraction from our Cause – it needs FOCUS
When our gaze is diverted from the direction in which we need to be going, we can be distracted by the clamour of other voices, especially amidst a prevailing crisis. It is then that we start to become overwhelmed by life, given to hobby horses, or swayed by random opinions. Our attention is taken by those interests that begin to generate new passions, or a surge of emotions, when we begin to invest ourselves into them.
Jesus said that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also (Luke 12:34) and that it is out of the abundance of that heart (i.e. what we let our inner self become consumed with) that our mouths will then betray our present interests (Matthew 12:34).
The antidote to distraction is to FOCUS on the direction we need to take and to recommit to a pathway that will then again become our joy. Our conversation can then reflect our best intent to people who are close to us, who can hear the difference.
Our centredness is not found in righting the wrongs of the world around us but by making healthy choices about what should shape and preoccupy us.
This is ideally a minor corrective, like pulling back into the centre of a lane when veering on a freeway, but do we recognise it when it happens?
2. Disturbance of our Equilibrium – it needs ANCHORING
When the certainties and familiarities of life are in upheaval, as with the current pandemic, we can become confused and disoriented – discombobulated. If we struggle to identify what is happening, or to adjust accordingly, an emerging emotional response to the associated anxieties will typically impact the bystanders in our world.
If these emotions are expressed poorly, anger may result whether it is evident in its more passive and sullen forms, or as volatility or frustration. It’s not to say that there cannot be other overt or underlying causes, but those unable to adjust to their own unsettledness can struggle to find a healthy adaptability. The risk is that this then becomes a justified dysfunction.
What is required is some ANCHORING that prevents the boat of life being blown off course. This means finding security within the familiar, the true, the sure, but not necessarily the preferred.
Faith is the substance of things hoped for (Hebrews 11:1) and when hope is under threat, it is useful to ask where, and on what, our faith is centred. Hope keeps people fuelled and energised with the belief that all will be alright in time but it needs securing and its diminishment can be debilitating.
The discipline of finding our anchor points amidst crisis (prayer, belief, reflection, counsel) is especially important when focus is already lost. While exercise, right eating, and hobbies can help (and I have to remind my kids to “learn something,” “build something,” “read something” when they’re “bored,” too) these are not usually enough. Right anchoring will restore us and avert the internalising of deceptive thought patterns.
3. Dissociation from Reality – it needs REMINDING
When we start to embrace unhealthy mental connections that trend toward extremism, exaggeration or oversimplification, we are typically recalibrated by friends and family.
Forced disconnection during COVID, though, has naturally necessitated the use of online technology and phone calls to maintain some semblance of normality in our interpersonal interactions. Full isolation is ultimately a choice but our sense of belonging needs us to at least engage in less-than-ideal settings that refocus social connection around ‘checking in,’ in preference to ‘checking out.’
Those of us still in protracted lockdown typically find that the usual people whose guidance we crave are not currently available in the preferred ways to impart the wisdom we need.
When the wrong messages begin to play between our ears in the absence of anchoring, faith gives way to fear. Anxieties then reverberate with newfound authority that will oppose the truer realities they begin to replace. This needs us to be alert to the brewing angst.
The key is REMINDING. Identifying where you need to head will typically attract others to help you get there, but this is less certain in lockdown. If we become too dependent on the prayers and support of others, despite the clear value in bearing one another’s burdens and living in community, we might well end up succumbing to unbalanced thoughts in the absence of sufficient care or attention.
It is in more quickly establishing healthy thought patterns through a recall of the principles and patterns of past success that can keep us calibrated.
The Ephraimites turned back in the day of battle, we’re told in Psalm 78:9-11 because their fear were not overcome with reminders of past success and of the power of God to transform hopeless situations. After all, what is it that we truly believe?
Taking the time and effort to remember certain truths will safeguard us from the lies: who we are, what we have learned, how we can succeed, why irrational thoughts are unfounded, when we have been at our best, and where the truth about us really sits. This is not usually self-determined without the input of others, but it is self-propelled by our ownership of our thinking.
4. Discouragement despite our Effort – it needs MOMENTUM
When we attempt to respond to adversity, reacquainting ourselves with healthy thinking and memory, it is still easy to lose heart. For those desiring to re-develop spiritual practices, it is all too easy to yield to feelings of being overwhelmed or overburdened.
Awfulisations such as ‘This always …” and “I never …” can quickly become “Why bother ….?!” It is not always easy for the strength of our ‘can’t do’ convictions to be combatted with a ‘can do’ mindset.
In truth, it is a choice to persistently meditate on what we would wilfully believe, and not on what we see unfolding all around us, that brings us back on track. It was when the disciple, Peter, saw the wind on the waters that he grew afraid and began to drown (Matthew 14:30). Jesus similarly rebuked his disciples for their lack of faith when the storm on the sea of Galilee threatened their journey to the other side (Luke 8:22-25).
The antidote to discouragement is a faith-filled inspiration that persists enough to build MOMENTUM that will become more self-sustaining.
A so-called ‘faith it ‘til you make it’ perspective is similar to that needed when establishing new habits, where weeks of perseverance are sometimes needed before they stick. The enculturation of mental conditioning requires our ongoing choice long before it begins to appear as a new reality.
This is not always as easy as it seems. It may then be that some intentional counsel (albeit online) or some other professional assistance (a doctor or psychologist will be needed). Even professional people sometimes need to know their limits and reach out for a short-term circuit-breaking conversation. As mentioned, factors outside our control need help too, usually sooner rather than later.
For Christians, though, living by faith must ultimately be based on embracing biblical truth, being transformed by the renewing of our minds. It may well be that the current disturbances we experience are a helpful reminder to us that some thinking perhaps needs to change. All is not as bad as it might seem. There is a silver lining in today’s COVID cloud that can urge us to grow stronger and then assure us that our best days are still to come.