March 25, 2020

Keeping Your Mental Health During the Times of COVID-19

The current pandemic is bringing out all kinds of psychological challenges: death anxiety, social isolation, uncertainty, worrying about having access to basic necessities, and keeping our jobs. The words isolation, confinement, imprisonment, and the like, carry a powerful mental weight. Not only the mind but also the body pays a substantial price.

There are many good recommendations out there as to how best to cope with this pandemic, particularly if you are confined at home. Let me remind you of what Jesus said in Matthew 6:25-27: “I tell you, do not worry. Don’t worry about your life and what you will eat or drink. And don’t worry about your body and what you will wear. Isn’t there more to life than eating? Aren’t there more important things for the body than clothes? Look at the birds of the air. They don’t plant or gather crops. They don’t put away crops in storerooms. But your Father who is in heaven feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than they are? Can you add even one hour to your life by worrying?” (NIRV).

Now, if anyone tells you, “don’t worry,” would you stop worrying? Most of us would have a difficult time following the advice. But Jesus gives us five recommendations:

1. Observe nature in detail (Matt. 6:26, 28-30). This is not just a “mere look,” but a detailed observation of beauty. This generates a sense of awe, which has a positive impact on your emotions and helps you to appreciate the hand of the Creator. If you are not able to step outside, be sure to look for pictures of nature. Spend time observing the colors, imagining the texture of what you see, and “smelling” with your mind what it might be like to be there.

2. Dwell in the caring love of God (v. 26). You may find it helpful to briefly journal about the ways that you have seen the hand of God in your life today. See what you can be grateful to the Lord for, and spend some time meditating on it.

3. Live according to the values of God’s kingdom (v. 33). When we feel threatened, we are tempted to think of our needs first and forget others. Find simple ways to extend yourself to others. You can text, email, or call those that you know. I have decided I will continue to provide psychological services to my patients whether or not I receive compensation for the duration of this pandemic. You too can find a way to continue to serve others.

4. Don’t believe everything you think (v. 27). Our brains are a wonderful creation. Jesus wryly asks if we could add a single hour to our lives by worrying. Of course not! In fact, we are bound to take hours off our life if we worry too much. Cognitive therapists called these thoughts “cognitive distortions”: 

  • All-or-nothing thinking: when we tend to see things in extreme terms.
  • Overgeneralization: when we take one negative event and believe it to represent an all-encompassing pattern.
  • Negative mental filter: When we see things through a pessimistic lens.

And so on. You can easily Google “cognitive distortions,” and you will find exhaustive lists.

It is best if you write down what you are worrying about, then look up the list of “cognitive distortions” and see which one applies. Challenge the distortion. Remember, “The truth shall set you free” (John 8:32).

5. Set limits on the time you worry (v. 34). Jesus seemingly recognized that His recommendation “not to worry” (v. 25) would not necessarily be easily followed and suggested that we keep the worries of the day to within that day. Experts agree that if you are going to worry, set a time to do so. For instance, take 5:00 p.m. and dedicate a full half-hour to worry about all you need to worry about. Don't be distracted by anything else. If, during the day, you notice a worry coming up, just tell yourself that you will be dedicating a full half-hour to it at the appointed time. 

Finally, join the apostle Paul in Philippians 4:6-7: “Don’t worry about anything. No matter what happens, tell God about everything. Ask and pray and give thanks to him. Then God’s peace will watch over your hearts and your minds. He will do this because you belong to Christ Jesus. God’s peace can never be completely understood.”

Yes! Tell God everything. Paul means, leave out nothing! As you pour out your heart to God, know that you belong to Christ Jesus. For in Him, there is no fear nor pandemic that can separate us from His love (Rom. 8:38, 39).

The original version of this commentary was posted on the Inter-American Division news site.