Tag Archives: Stress

On Living in the Age of COVID-19

For anyone who regularly reads this blog, you might remember me writing a post in March of this year about C. S. Lewis’s essay “On Living in an Atomic Age,” from his book “Present Concerns.” As it’s become clearer to me that COVID-19 – particularly in the United States – is likely to continue to be a source of concern well into next year, and as my family increasingly exposes itself to the risk of contracting the virus (especially as school opens), I’ve continued to reflect on this essay as a way to come to terms with my feelings of anxiety.

Although I recognize the atomic bomb has substantially greater risk to humanity than COVID-19, I’m going to take the liberty to replace Lewis’s references to the atomic bomb with references to the COVID-19 pandemic to make the connections as clear as possible:

“In one way we think a great deal too much about COVID-19. ‘How are we to live in an age of pandemic?’ I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night… 

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before COVID: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways… It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are going to catch COVID, let the virus when it finds us doing sensible and human things – praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis… Disease may break our bodies, but it need not dominate our minds…

What the wars and the weather… and COVID have really done is remind us forcibly of the sort of world we are living in and which… we were beginning to forget. And this reminder is, so far as it goes, a good thing. We have been waked from a pretty dream, and now we can begin to talk about realities.”

There are three main insights I gain from this.

First is one of radical acceptance. In addition to the painful consequences of racism and job / financial insecurity that this year has brought to the forefront of our minds, COVID-19 teaches us how this world is broken.

This leads to a second realization, that I am in a state of mourning. And, I’m not the only one. In fact, Michelle Obama recently labelled her experience “low-grade depression.” I personally wouldn’t go that far, but there is a sense of loss I feel this year with my realization of the true state of the world. The more people I talk to about the state of the world, the more common I believe many people are grieving.

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Is Mental Health a Valid Reason to Not Socially Distance?

Even as public health experts and government authorities continue to advocate for physical distancing to minimize the spread of COVID-19, compliance appears to be diminishing. For example, mobile phone data across the United States reveals trends, beginning toward the end of April, of individuals spending more time away from their homes.

Of the many reasons why individuals may not comply with physical distancing guidelines, concerns about mental health may be most prominent. A Gallup poll conducted in April, for instance, indicated how emotional and mental health seemed to be the strongest consideration for individuals maintaining distancing, as compared with concerns about physical health and financial hardship.

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United Nations COVID-19 Response | Unsplash

The pandemic clearly is not just a crisis for physical health and the medical system; it also is an enormous challenge for mental health and the mental health system. New data released over this past weekend by Jean Twenge hints at the magnitude of these problems. In her survey conducted on April 27th, Twenge asked U. S. adults how sad or nervous they felt and compared those responses with demographically similar adults who answered the same questions in 2018. She found that roughly 70% of Americans demonstrate “moderate to severe” mental distress now, during the pandemic, a rate three times that reported in 2018. Young people show the greatest distress, a group other research has also found to be most socially isolated.

And yet, even as these problems become more evident, no major mental health organization – such as the American Psychological Association (APA) – publicly opposes physical distancing guidelines. Instead, mental health and behavioral experts point to ways to maintain distancing while at the same time attending to individuals’ mental health.

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Lessons from the Monks for the COVID-19 Pandemic

When people ask me how I’m doing in this time of “shelter-in-place,” I sometimes will make an attempt at humor and respond: “I’ve always thought I could have been a monk.” 

I’ve long been intrigued by monks and by monastic living.

Whenever I’ve had the opportunity, I’ve tried to learn what I can about monks and monastic living and to incorporate those insights into my daily life. Many years ago, for instance, I participated in the sunrise chants of the Benedictine monks living at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, and this taught me something about the vitality of intentional prayer, particularly early in the morning. Since it aired 13 years ago, this On Being interview with Shane Claiborne about “a monastic revolution” has challenged me to be a “real Christian” and follow the sometimes very straightforward and radical teachings of Jesus. Similarly, I’ve been struck by this publication of “the Monk Manifesto” a few years ago, particularly principle #3: “I commit to cultivating community by finding kindred spirits along the path, soul friends with whom I can share my deepest longings, and mentors who can offer guidance and wisdom for the journey.”

As I think about this, I wonder if part of the challenge many of us are facing right now is this: we’re living sort of like monks as we “shelter-in-place,” but without the knowledge of tradition, support, or intentionality that typically comes with monastic living. 

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Holy Saturday

I have always loved what Christians historically call “holy week.” Part of this is because, as someone raised Catholic, I remember this week as the time in the year when church services follow a different rhythm. That is, rather than repeating the same basic structure of the Mass like most Sundays, holy week consists of services for Holy Thursday and Good Friday that feel unique, more soulfelt and dark. But, then, I’ve long believed Catholics practice sadness better than Protestants.

Interestingly, as my theologian friend, Deanna Thompson, points out in her book “Glimpsing Resurrection,” most Christian churches do not mark “Holy Saturday.” She writes:

“It is a day that is attended to only briefly in the Biblical story, a space where meaning is elusive and hope can be hard to see… This day between cross and resurrection seems like a nonevent, a time of waiting in which nothing of significance occurs and of which there is little to be said.”

And, yet, this is the day that marks how, as the Apostles’ Creed acknowledges, Jesus “descended into hell.” It is, as Deanna mentions, “a story of abandonment and separation.” 

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The Science of Happiness during COVID-19

Yesterday, I participated in a webinar on “The Science of Happiness During Covid-19” (the discussion begins at 16:14 below). In this program, Marina Tolou-Shams (Director of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at San Francisco General Hospital) interviews my first Psychology mentor, Dacher Keltner (Professor of Psychology at the University of California – Berkeley and founder of the Greater Good Science Center) about happiness during this time of pandemic.

Dr. Keltner summarizes much of the literature on the science of happiness by discussing three important areas of individual practice: (1) coping, (2) gratitude, and (3) awe. Each of these may play a critical role in helping individuals through the various stresses we encounter during this pandemic.

Recently, I’ve written several posts about coping with this difficult time, including one the discusses much of the stress and coping literature, one that deals with self-worth, and another that discusses the theology of Christian suffering, in particular. Given this – and reflecting more of the emphasis of yesterday’s discussion – I’ll focus a bit more here on the importance of self-transcendent experience during this time.

As Dr. Keltner notes, there is an impressive research literature on the benefits of gratitude, some of which I discussed in this post about thanksgiving. Practicing gratitude during a pandemic is not meant to be pollyanna, but rather an acknowledgement that, even though the world is in crisis and we may be experiencing many difficult emotions, there also are aspects of life for which we can be thankful. Taking a moment everyday to talk or write about these good things can help shift us toward better emotional balance. For example, my family and I are taking a moment at every dinner together every night to discuss our “highs” and “lows.” The “lows” help us to express times of struggle or dissatisfaction, but the “highs” help us to be more aware of what is good, and also to look for patterns of behaviors that might be helpful for us to be intentional about implementing in the days, weeks, and months ahead. For instance, last night, all four of us had a “high” of exercising in one way or another, and this says something about how important exercise is for our well-being now.

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Seeking Control in a Pandemic

Few of us have ever dealt with a situation that feels as uncertain, unpredictable, and uncontrollable as the novel coronavirus pandemic. At this early stage, we don’t possess good information about how people are doing psychologically, but many behavioral scientists wonder how individuals are thinking, feeling, or acting differently.

Some insight may be found in a seminal research article from 2008, in which Aaron Kay and his colleagues write:

Imagine a glass that only when full represents a given individual’s preferred level of perceived order within his or her environment. As one way to fill this glass, this individual might rely on his or her perceptions of personal control over his or her outcomes: To guard against perceptions of randomness in the world, that is, he or she can affirm the belief that whatever happens, good or bad, will be due to his or her own actions and therefore not random. Often, however, such perceptions will only partially fill the glass because levels of perceived personal control, for a variety of reasons, tend to fluctuate. Much of the time, therefore, to fill the glass completely, he or she will need to complement these beliefs in personal control with one or more external systems of control.

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Source: Anna Shvets | Pexels

In other words, we all desire a certain amount of order and control. When that is lacking in our environment – such as in a time of pandemic – we look for ways to find it. We do what we can to personally increase feelings of order and control to compensate for what’s happening around us, sometimes in some interesting ways (hoarding toilet paper). The reality, though, is we humans only have so much control over what happens in life, and when that becomes evident to us – as is the case now – we depend more on secondary sources.

Kay and colleagues interestingly studied two such sources of secondary control in their research: (1) the government and (2) God.

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Suffering in a Pandemic Age as a Christian

A few weeks ago, when the novel coronavirus was just starting to spread in the Western world – and along with it, many people’s fears – I became aware of an essay by C. S. Lewis: “On Living in an Atomic Age.” The entire essay can be found in Lewis’s collection “Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays,” but the following excerpt has been most circulated:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

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C. S. Lewis

As noted by Aaron Earls in this response, many people seem to be misinterpreting Lewis’s thoughts here. As he suggests, Lewis would not tell us to ignore the coronavirus, to just go on with our lives by “doing sensible and human things” (in fact, that wouldn’t be “sensible”). Experiencing a daily threat of the bomb is not the same situation as experiencing a global pandemic, and our actions need to fit the situation. As the top scientific and public health experts are telling us, it’s key that we adapt our behavior to stay home and socially distance to decrease the spread of the virus to the fullest extent possible.

When I first read Lewis’s essay, I felt strangely comforted. Humans have lived through epic tragedies before –  such as during the days when there was significant threat of the atomic bomb, the great wars, and the plague – and the novel coronavirus falls in that long line of global crisis. This has helped me to connect with ancestors – including my dad who fought in World War II and likely had to deal with a lot of the same feelings as I am now – as well as many more before me. Many did not survive, but this crisis is helping me to connect with a sense of humanity common to all people across ages, races, religions, genders, etc., and that feels really important. If we are learning nothing else from this pandemic, I believe, it is that we are all far more interdependent than we previously realized.

I think Lewis’s main idea comes in his obvious point that we all are certain to die, many of us in rather unpleasant ways. Most have not really seriously entertained that thought or worked through how to deal with it. We have not yet prepared ourselves for suffering.

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What If It Was Alright Now?

“So here is my little nugget of gospel truth for you to take home. The truth is not that it is going to be alright. The truth is, it already is.” (Fredric Evans)

I’ve been chewing on this quote for the past week, and I’m still now sure what I think about it.

Of course, we need hope that this global pandemic, too, shall pass. And it eventually will. And we have responsibilities for making this happen and preventing as much suffering as possible by staying home, staying connected with each other, and caring for those in need.

But, on the other hand, from the perspective of my Christian faith, there is something deeply profound about realizing that, below the surface, some really important things are already settled. Some things are alright now and no matter what may come.

As we practice social distancing, it’s a perfect time for you to comment below and engage in some virtual discussion.

What, for you, is “alright” now and no matter what may come? How have you been able to connect with deeper truths and greater peace in the midst of this storm? Do you have a faith perspective, and has that helped” If so, how? What are you doing to connect with a deeper and more peaceful perspective intentionally in your daily life?

Spirituality and Breast Cancer, Part 2

With so much going on regarding the coronavirus crisis, it’s really important to remember that some are suffering for other reasons, such as breast cancer.
In this follow-up to a previous blog post about spirituality and breast cancer, my amazingly talented and beautiful wife interviewed me and my brilliant and wise friend, Dr. Deanna Thompson, about the trauma of breast cancer. I’ve personally learned so much from Deanna about suffering over the years, and I’m really honored to be included in an article in which we engage in “virtual conversation.”

Coping with a Pandemic

Concerns about the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) appear to be rising in tandem with the numbers of reported cases and fatalities.

Many of us are consciously or unconsciously asking ourselves: what are we going to do?

Until we can answer that question – at least to some extent – I believe our response will be wanting.

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Source: Unsplash

From the decades of research conducted on stress, one consistent finding is we need – and therefore seek – some semblance of control. When something such as COVID-19 comes along that is both threatening and uncertain, many of us experience great distress. Part of this is because our sense of control is lacking.

As I wrote previously in my blog entry called “What To Do When Stressed:”

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Spirituality and Breast Cancer

It’s not every day that my lovely wife asks if she can interview me! But, a few weeks ago, she did exactly that. The topic was spirituality, and the context was a blog series she was writing for Firefly Sisterhood on spirituality and breast cancer. You can see the blog entry here.

What To Do When Stressed

A few weeks ago, while watching old episodes of Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix before going to sleep, I noticed my right eye felt drier than usual. I tried different tactics to adjust to this and fix my dry eye problem, but none really worked. Then, one morning, I woke up to find this same eye felt kind of sticky. It would improve after a few minutes of heavy blinking but, about a week later, I noticed it felt grittier when I blinked. A few days later, my left eye was starting to show some of the same symptoms, and also was bloodshot. How aggravating. I then discovered some kind of yellow-headed growth on the underside of my upper eyelid of my right eye. What was that? I found that thoughts and worries about my eyes started to interfere with my ability to be fully present in my daily life. I was distracted and less effective than usual.

My eyes are on the mend now. I went to my trusty eye doctor who prescribed a few eyedrops everyday, and the inflammation she discovered is going away. The yellow-headed growth? A benign calcification. So, everything is good, really, and my problem only illustrates a minor inconvenience. Nonetheless, this story illustrates how even one small stressor can negatively influence someone’s life.

Anything requiring a new response can be stressful. Stressors can involve loss, challenge, the anticipation of loss or challenge, or even something positive. In the classic social readjustment rating scale, stressors range in severity from minor (such as a speeding ticket or major holiday) to major (such as divorce or the death of a spouse). Traumatic life events can be even worse.

When we experience stress, our sympathetic nervous systems are activated. Our bodies direct stress hormones such as adrenaline to respond. Salivation decreases, perspiration increases, breathing quickens, heart rate accelerates, digestion slows, blood pressure increases, and immune system functioning lessens. Although this fight-or-flight response often protects us when we face an immediate, tangible danger, it causes problems when chronically activated, as typically is the case with modern stressors. This helps explain why many distressed individuals regularly experience symptoms such as dry mouth, sweaty palms, labored breathing, irregular heartbeat, nausea, high blood pressure, and vulnerability to sickness. Problems such as headaches, depression, and heart disease all become more likely as a result of chronic sympathetic nervous system activation.

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The Psychology of Religion

One of my first memories happened at church. We always seemed to arrive early enough to say the rosery, but this one particular Sunday morning, my mom, brother, and I were late. We double-timed it up the concrete stairs to heave open the austere metal doors of the traditional red brick Catholic church only to find the sanctuary doors to be closed. It seemed we were not allowed entry because of our tardiness, so we were confined to a small, cold foyer filled with nothing to look at but posted advertisements for local businesses and two holy water stations. Being only 4 at the time, I quickly became bored. A hymn had started, and I snuck a peak through the closed passageway. The congregation was being led in song: “Here I am, Lord! Is it I, Lord? I have heard You calling in the night! I will go, Lord, if You lead me!…” Powerful words, I thought, and yet I observed no sign of emotion among anyone in the church. Much of the congregation didn’t even sing along.

The fact that I so clearly remember this incident reveals something about my strong religious and spiritual inclination. But the incident also raised a question for me that has become the focal point for much of my professional life: What explains why some people are more religious than others?

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Protesting God

This article was inspired by conversation with Deanna Thompson.

Marian Fontana was living a good life. She had been happily married to her husband, Dave, for 17 years, with whom she had a young son. Marian had frequent “conversations with God,” as she put it. As a normal part of her daily life, she would thank God for all that was going well and ask God to bless others in need.

Then came September 11th, 2001.

When Marian saw the World Trade Center crumble on television, she knew her life was crumbling as well. Dave was a New York firefighter who was called to the scene. After sensing his death, her initial response was to wander into every church in her neighborhood to pray and pray and pray for Dave’s life. But, this prayer was to go unanswered.

After several months of total grief, Marian started to see beauty again. However, her spiritual life was different. As she stated in the PBS documentary, “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero:”

“I couldn’t believe that this God that I’d talked to in my own way for 35 years could… turn this loving man into bones. And I guess that’s when I felt that my faith was so weakened… My conversations with God that I used to have, I don’t have anymore… Now I can’t bring myself to speak to Him… because I feel so abandoned…”

Years later, Marian is doing better. She has written a memoir about her experience (“A Widow’s Walk”), and she reports being less angry. Yet, as she said in a live chat organized by PBS 10 years after Dave’s death, “[I] still don’t have conversations with God the way I used to.”

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The New Ambivalence for Warm Weather

16997511_1428387143916581_19124497_nWe may be bearing witness to the dawning of a new human experience: “warm weather ambivalence.” This experience may take somewhat different forms in different locations, but in places where there are four seasons, above average temperatures in Fall, Winter, and Spring may yield mixed feelings for some people. The recent unseasonably warm weather across much of the United States is illustrative. On one hand, we are delighted by the warmth as we feel the energy of the sun on our skin and we feel freed from some of the constraints of Winter. On the other hand, some of us sense that something has changed – and is changing – for the worse.

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