Panxiety - safeguarding your mental health in the current crisis
I dutifully sang ‘God Save The Queen’ whilst washing my hands in the staff toilets yesterday. I wasn’t sure what was helping my anxiety more; thinking about our wonderful Queen or using lots of powerful soap: If you are of an anxious disposition the Corona Virus outbreak is an emotional nightmare come true. As a Christian it feels like navigating a minefield, so what to do?
What should our Christian response be to the anxiety of pandemic? How can we be both faith-filled and do everything we can to avoid getting sick?
Plagues are nothing new! I was watching The Prince of Egypt musical just before this all erupted (smugly singing along whilst all of the Egyptians were getting boils and being overwhelmed with frogs). It all seems so matter of fact on the page of my bible, now I am living in it and I realise it must have been utterly TERRIFYING! At the same time, there is comfort in the knowledge that illnesses have come and gone throughout history. God promises never to leave us or forsake us whatever our circumstances.
OK, so I have met a few Christians who totally dismiss the threat like they have some sort of spiritual forcefield around them that will protect them from Covid-19. Should we all adopt this faith-filled position? I don’t think so. In fact, this sort of spiritual showboating is one of the reasons why the virus has taken such a firm grip in South Korea. As Christians, I believe that we have a social responsibility to model the best practice guidance of our government, whether we believe we have some sort of spiritual immunity or not (which I don’t believe I have!)
1 Peter 2:17 says, “Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king (or queen).” I believe that our Christian duty to honour others by washing our hands as instructed and taking the difficult guidance of social distancing seriously. A young guy turned up to church last week, he had been to a high-risk area and was supposed to be in quarantine. The conversation went along the lines of; “Hi, you are here? I thought you were in quarantine?” “Oh yeh, I have done ten days but I am so bored, plus I really didn’t want to miss church!” I understand the sentiment but actually, it wasn’t that helpful!
If you are reading this you are probably not in Camp Confident and that brings me onto the worried well (of which I am a member). I was at Luton airport ten days ago and most people were following the sensible advice that we all now know. However, a few people had pretty much bought HAZMAT suits on the internet and we looking at us like we were part of a Zombie apocalypse! Whilst it is tempting, I believe that we need to resist the anxious energy that leads us to take disproportionate steps to self-preservation.
Faith is not about recklessly flaunting the guidance about self and community protection, it is equally not about running blindly for the hills. As a priest, what I fear more than the illness itself is the sort of xenophobia and hostility that rises-up in people when they feel under threat. People keep reassuring themselves that only the 'old and vulnerable' are at risk of dying, like Jesus hasn't called us to take special care of the old and vulnerable! In its worst guises, fear can drive us to lose all compassion and become wholly self-interested.
Panic buying is another example of the same principle, which ultimately says, “I don’t care about you, as long as I have a years’ worth of toilet roll that’s all that matters!”
I’m not going to pretend that I find all this easy: Those strong fear instincts, that usually have little legitimacy in normal life, are being powerfully activated. So if you are having a hard time, what can you do?
- Accept that ‘uncertainty’ is as anxiety-provoking as the disease itself. Try to stop yourself catastrophising the future and try to stay present in the moment. Remembers Jesus invitation to attend to today but leave tomorrow alone (Matthew 6:34).
- Do only the things that you have been instructed to do. As tempting as it may be to dig yourself a nuclear fallout bunker in the back garden, don’t! Decide to follow the guidance but not to go further. If you do, you might find your anxiety becomes a bigger health problem than getting the virus.
- Give yourself a break from the media. Many anxiety sufferers are hoping to get reassurance from the media that; ‘everything is going to be alright’. Instead they constantly trigger themselves. I have read some totally sensational headlines over the last couple of weeks that would make good movie titles. Accept that the media are trying to sell newspapers, not give you a sensible overview of what is happening.
- You may need to physically isolate but you don’t need to become isolated. Chat to friends and family as much as you can through phones and apps but don’t spend all of your time talking about the illness. You may choose to use a capsule technique and decide that you aren’t going to talk about Covid-19 for more than 30 minutes a day.
- Press into God in prayer. God is with you and he has promised never to leave you. Try to make every consideration about this illness a prompt to speak to your heavenly father. Ultimately your life is hidden in his. Whatever happens, your life is secure in him. Read the amazing promises of Psalm 91 if you want a god place to begin your prayer time.