Voices: Addressing heightened anxiety during COVID-19

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The global health crisis presented by COVID-19 has been ongoing for nearly a year. If it continues to behave similarly to the last global pandemic—the Spanish flu in 1918-19—we will continue to struggle and deal with it for another year.

I think it is fair to say we are tired of it and all the changes that have resulted. The changes leave me and many others feeling isolated. Or they have cost money, jobs and even a place to live. In my case, I’m almost 70 and have pre-existing conditions.

When COVID-19 first appeared in January, I had a distinct sense of peace, regardless of what might happen to me personally. I took that peace as a sign of God’s peace over me. I know others have not sensed the same peace I felt.

As the days, weeks and months have progressed, a tiredness, resignation, rebellion and worry have arisen almost everywhere we turn—including in our churches.

So, what about our churches? Are our church members feeling a sense of peace driven by faith in our Lord and God the Father? Or are some caught up in the “what if” questions of this pandemic and its havoc?

Are our church members worried, afraid or anxious? How can we recognize the signs if they are—especially when many of us are meeting virtually? For someone captured by anxiety, or who is in a small group or Bible study with some who are, what can be done do to help?

Recognizing signs of worry, fear and anxiety

During a pandemic when we likely are physically distanced, we need to pay closer attention to one another. We can do this by increasing the number of phone, video, email or text contacts with each other. It is easier to recognize worry, fear and anxiety in a person when we have regular contact.

The basic characteristic of anxiety is an overwhelming sense of uncertainty. It involves struggling with a lot of “what if” and worst-case scenarios. An overview is available here.

Anxiety manifests in excessive worry and fear, as well as struggling to reframe or refocus one’s thinking away from it.

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Some common signs of excessive anxiety include:

• excessive worry,
• feeling agitated,
• restlessness,
• fatigue,
• difficulty concentrating,
• irritability,
• tense muscles,
• trouble falling or staying asleep,
• panic attacks,
• irrational fears, and/or
• avoiding social situations.

Children also may experience headaches or stomachaches. Teens have been observed to experience chest pain and vomiting in addition to the above symptoms.

Isolation is another possible symptom. Isolation and silence tend to support one another, and our friends, family members or church members may isolate or remain silent to hide what they are struggling with.

I would encourage all of us, as sons and daughters in God’s family, to be on the lookout for these kinds of signs.

Remember, all of us experience worry, fear or anxiety at various times during our life. That doesn’t necessarily mean one’s life is being affected by a mental health issue. For some, though, the symptoms last long enough and debilitating enough that they need particular help.

Breaking silence, living in community

The apparent silence with which we too often respond to mental health questions and struggles is a problem.

Many believers are unwilling even to seek help or counsel and prayer, let alone mental health resources.

“I have to go through this by faith, I have to manage this alone,” they think.

We are meant to live in community, not alone. God did not create the “American-go-it-alone” mentality as a model for living; we did.

As the family of God, we need to encourage each another to speak up and seek help (2 Corinthians 1:4-7; James 5:16-17; Galatians 6:2; Ephesians 4:16). The woman who reached out to touch the hem of Jesus’ cloak is a great example (Luke 8:43-48).

Those who struggle with worry, fear and anxiety need a few trusted individuals with whom to share daily living and challenges. These individuals can be in one’s immediate family or small group or can be a pastor, counselor or medical professional. Those struggling with worry, fear and anxiety need to let others come alongside them to help with healing.

What we can do

If you observe some of above the signs, prayerfully begin to give support by asking open questions about what a person is facing. Then, listen, listen, listen. Then, reflect back what you heard, and speak little.

Once there is a sense of welcome and trust, ask the person what she or he thinks would help. Help explore options, and help connect the person to resources.

Walk alongside them.

If a mental illness is involved, there are several steps that need to be taken:

• If possible, communicate with the person’s physician to rule out any medical issue causing the symptom.
• Seeing a psychiatrist or psychologist is needed for a proper diagnosis and medication, if needed.
• Therapy or counseling to address the thought patterns of anxiety should be engaged.
• Provide support through walking alongside, support groups and the church making mental health issues OK to talk about.
• Address spiritual health by helping the individual grow in faith. Pray with each other.

If you feel anxiety is interfering with your daily living and faith and has been occurring for weeks or months, seek help. Reach out to a confidant, pastor or family doctor. Don’t isolate, and don’t be silent.

John Hereford is the pastoral ministry associate at The Woodlands First Baptist Church. The views expressed are those solely of the author.

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