Stress and Anxiety: Navigating The New World
Earlier this year I visited the Japanese Friendship Garden at Balboa Park in San Diego. It was the beginning of spring and the flowers were in full bloom. I had wanted to visit the previous year for my birthday, but the world shut down just a few weeks before my intended visit.
During my visit, there was a healing exhibit titled: WHAT DID YOU CREATE IN THE TIME OF CORONAVIRUS?! In this exhibit people were invited to share their creative artwork and stories. Aside from the amazing artwork, I fell in love with the stories shared by so many that told of their experiences and feelings during the COVID season.
As I read the stories, I saw blessings and courage, a reminder of who we were created to be, and acknowledgements of the difficult challenges that were faced, filled with hope for the future. This inspired me to be a blessing to others in who Christ has created me to be.
This past year has been challenging for all of us, completely reinventing societal norms and feelings about life, both the present and the future. The future promises to have residual effects; good or bad, fear and anxiety provoking, but how we respond is on us. The future begins today.
Adversity certainly has a far reaching cost on our well-being. It severely breaches the way we interact in society and leaves a devastation of losses in its wake. The COVID-19 pandemic has been no exception, leaving us with everyday fears and anxiety about not only our everyday life, but how to move forward.
How do we figure out what "normalcy" looks like and feels like as we navigate into a new post-covid world?
There has been so much loss. Lost loved ones, lost celebrations, lost vacations, lost jobs and income, loss of social interactions, loss of opportunities, and so much more. Employees unable to go to their physical places of employment. For some this has been a welcome reprieve. For others, there has been loss of everyday social connections and professional development opportunities in the workplace. Our students, also unable to attend school in person or even play at the nearby playground. And if that weren't enough we've had to endure racism and extreme political division. What would you imagine Christ would say to us - if He were here on earth with us right now? What has He taught us - but to love God and to love others (Mark 12:30-31).
I recall the first day, as the world shut down in March of 2020. The news hit about the stay at home mandate and announced the orders for people to work from home and students to have classes online. That Friday, my husband and I went to the local groceries store for our weekly shopping trip. As we made our way to the checkout, there was a line a mile long with people's carts overflowing with toilet paper and other necessities. Some people even had two grocery carts. I was a little baffled. I didn't know what to think exactly, but seeing the carts gave me an eerie feeling that "the sky is falling down." I could sense the fear in the air.
I'll be honest, I'm not a listener of the news. Listening to the news drains me, but of course everyone was glued to the news now - including me. It wasn't long before I started to feel it's toll on my mental health. I was starting to get anxious and stressed about the news. I was starting to feel extremely sad each time I heard the new death toll, as it kept rising and rising higher. I mean, it's not a number, it's people. Someone had just lost their father or mother a sibling or friend.
By this time a trip to the store became an uneasy trip. Should I be worried? As soon as I got home I had this pseudo feeling that I was sick, though I knew I wasn't. It was all in my head. I had to mentally tell myself, "Sandy, you're fine." You've been sticking to all of the COVID guidelines. And then I heard God's voice calm me:
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” A passage from Joshua 1:9 that has really helped me through some difficult season of my life.
So, I heeded His mighty words. I quit watching the daily news and would only watch the news updates during the commercials and watch a full hour news just once a week. That was all my heart and head could handle.
More recently the talk has centered around post-pandemic and what to expect with everything beginning to lift again. You might have heard talk on the news and in social media about "cave syndrome" or what scientist are calling COVID-19 anxiety syndrome. This is the fear of going out. People are feeling anxious around crowds, even when they've been vaccinated. Anxious to go back to their social environments, such as work or school settings.
And, they fear being apart from loved ones and the people they care about that they've been isolated with over the past year. People are also experiencing triggers in new situations and don't know how to handle them. Our brain that craved interaction is now registering being around people as a sign of danger.
The Bible teaches us that we were not created to live in fear. 2 Timothy reminds us: " For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind."
Fear robs us of our joy and it paralyzes us from living the abundant life we were created to live.
In what ways have you felt a sense of loss this year?
What are the areas of your life that have been challenging during this season?
Where have you found it difficult to put faith over fear?
Psalm 55:22 reminds us to bring our burdens to God and He will take care of us. And in Psalm 46:1 God reminds us that He is our refuge and strength, a great help in times of distress.
Busy - doesn't mean productive - and busy - doesn't mean going 100 miles an hour. What God wants is for us to live a life of abundance. Fear inhibits us from living the life God wants us to live when we allow our circumstances to paralyze us.
Some practical tools that we can use to help us find rest in Jesus is to take our burdens to the Lord through prayer. We also need to surround ourselves with people who care about our well-being. People who will listen to our burdens with empathy and pray with us.
It's hard for me to admit that I have not been lonely this past year, especially since I know so many people have been lonely. I have several friends who live alone, though I know that you can be surrounded by people and still feel alone or lonely. In addition, there is anxiety for those returning to the office after a year or a year and a half of working from home, not to mention students returning to the classroom.
How can we ease our fears and anxieties for adjusting in a new post-covid world as people begin to return to the office or school setting?
When I was working at Point Loma Nazarene University one of my favorite questions we'd ask during our weekly meetings was, "What are you most excited about this week?" I encourage you to find the positive aspects of returning back to the office to help you manage your anxiety. What are the things you are looking forward to that you've missed from not being in the office? Is it getting to know and talk with your co-workers, walking around the office or campus and meeting new people, having outdoor meetings, or professional development opportunities?
What about going back to school? I know for my daughter, she has been excited about returning to in-person classes and making new friends. What are some of the ways you can foster a sense of excitement for your child or youth's first day back to school? Is it a new outfit or school supplies? Maybe their favorite snack they can look forward to in their lunch box or a note that speaks their love language, such as "You rock or your amazing or you're going to do great." What about a trip or two to the school before the first day of class, so they can get some familiarity and comfort about going back to school? Maybe reminding them about the friends they get to see again or something fun to look forward to.
Another thing to consider is allowing yourself time to adjust. For some it's easier than for others. There's nothing wrong with that. I've worked for staffing agencies in the past, being assigned to different companies for both short and long term assignments. I remember on one occasion when someone said to me while I was on assignment, "I could never do what you do. Having to meet new people and learn new things in new environments would be stressful for me." I had never thought about it or felt stressed about it, but I loved that she felt comfortable enough to share her feelings with me. For some, going to new places or meeting new people on a regular basis is a high. That's me! But for others, staying in a comfortable environment gives them peace. There is nothing wrong with that. There is definitely comfort in the familiar, such as our home, our friends, our church community, and even our favorite hang out spots.
If you are feeling anxious about going back to the office, can you talk to your supervisor about how you are feeling? Are you able to continue to work from home? Are you able to ask for some flexibility in your work schedule? What are your options?
Finally, for me, there is comfort in knowing, "I'm not the only one." We've all gone through this challenging year together. Hopefully we've all been able to learn some new coping skills to help us manage our stress and anxiety. I remember when my kids started going to a new school and they were a little anxious that they wouldn't have any friends like they did in their old school. I told them, "That's okay. Don't worry. It's the first day of school and other kids will feel nervous just like you. They don't have any friends yet, but you can be their friend." It wasn't long before they were in sports or music and hanging out with their new friends.
Just a few days ago my husband and I stopped into a local cell phone store to purchase new cell phones. After some conversation, the salesman said, "I've been vaccinated." I thought it was interesting that everywhere I go now - people offer that information freely. "I've been vaccinated." As if to say, "Don't worry, I'm safe to be around." At least that's how I've been feeling since interacting with friends and new connections. A welcome statement to put one's mind at ease.
Then he said that even when the government gives the okay to take off our masks I will continue to wear mine a while longer. Personally, I loved that he had the courage to say that. It's like saying, "This year has been unsettling, so confusing, and no one knows anything for sure. I think I'll play it safe and wear my mask a little longer. That will give me peace." This guy had a plan and was putting in place a way for him to keep his stress and anxiety low. That's being proactive in taking care of ourselves.
There are times, especially this past year, when we can say, "I'm not the only one that is lonely, or sad, or unsure about what to say or do." There is comfort in knowing that we've gone through this difficult pandemic season together and we will get through it together.
"When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves." Viktor Frankl