It was 5:00 in the morning, but I was wide awake. My foot was tapping on the airplane floor while I gazed out the window. I felt myself going back and forth between worry and hysteria. What had just happened?
Less than 24 hours before—the day before spring break—I had been sitting in my Research in Psychology course whispering back and forth with my classmates about the recent news: our sister school, Andrews University, had shut down for the rest of the semester because of the coronavirus. We thought that was ridiculous.
A few hours later we got an e-mail from our own university: We, too, were shutting down. In an instant, it seemed, students were crying, frantically emptying out their dorm rooms (tossing in the dumpster anything that they didn’t have room for—mini-fridges, food, furniture), hurriedly saying goodbyes to friends and expressing gratitude to professors. Some departments rushed to hold impromptu graduation ceremonies for the seniors who were suddenly losing their last moments on campus.
I dashed to my apartment, hugged my housemates, and tearfully looked for boxes to throw my belongings into. We had no time to process what was going on, and frankly, even if we did, we wouldn’t know how to. This was bigger than all of us.
Turning my phone to airplane mode, I got a text from a close friend—some verses from the Psalms: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? . . . If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. . . . Even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for the darkness is as light to you” (Ps. 139:7-12).
After this brief calm, feelings of anxiousness flooded back. Surely this would be a season of darkness. But no darkness is too dark for my God.
Since I left campus, my life has changed dramatically: sleep terrors, appetite changes, adjusting to being home again. I was curious about how my friends were doing—and of course, being a clinical psychology major, I felt it was my duty to find out.
So I posted an Instagram survey, inviting my followers to share their own COVID experiences. “What has COVID-19 taken from you?” I asked. “What has it given you? Have you added anything new into your usual routines? Are you staying connected with others? Have you felt your stress/anxiety levels increase or decrease?”
With responses from more than 60 people, I was struck by something: We’re learning to live in a way that psychologists have been urging for decades. Here’s what I mean:
Many of my respondents were refreshingly honest about their struggles and frustrations with their lives being suddenly uprooted. They felt robbed of their plans and dreams: graduations, spring break trips, even weddings.
I could relate. The first time my small-group Bible study met over Zoom, my university chaplain, Anna Bennett, opened up the session by asking us all a question: “What has COVID-19 taken from you?”
One of the biggest favors we can do for ourselves is to allow ourselves to be honest with our emotions.
We went around the circle and shared. For me, it was a summer internship that I had been looking forward to. For another, it was a student teaching opportunity. For yet another, it was the safety of living on campus away from a hurtful family environment.
At the end of the session we all took a deep breath, and many of the girls admitted to feeling so much better. It was as if we had let our bodies clench up for the past three weeks and we were finally giving ourselves permission to breathe and to feel.
Psychiatrist and trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk explains that our bodies do a remarkably good job of propelling us forward through stressful or traumatic circumstances or crises. But “long after the actual event has passed, the brain may keep sending signals to the body to escape a threat that no longer exists”—tricking us into thinking that the only way we can remain autonomous is by continuing to suppress our “inner chaos.”
There’s a reason that so many individuals who have experienced extreme trauma either go numb for years or find themselves triggered with bitterness or fear when they are reminded of past events. They keep their bodies in defense mode, and they never allow themselves to acknowledge what they have been feeling. This can result, says Van der Kolk, in “a whole range of physical symptoms, including fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and other autoimmune diseases.”
One of the biggest favors we can do for ourselves in a crisis is to allow ourselves to be honest with our emotions, mourn what has been taken from us, and just be real about being humans whose lives have been altered. Journaling can be an especially healing practice. “By putting our feelings into words,” writes Sheryl Sandberg, author of Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, “we give ourselves more power over them.”
The Bible says, “Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap” (Eccl. 11:4). After we allow ourselves to mourn our losses, we’re better able to focus with clear lenses on what has been given to us, on doing what we’re supposed to do next.
“Intense emotion and anxiety,” writes Ethan Kross, “can zoom us into our threats, which impairs decision-making skills and [our] ability to perform. Overfocusing on the threat will take away from [our] ability to be creative” in a crisis.
Just as we have promoted “social distancing” to maintain physical health, Kross suggests that we promote what he calls “psychological distancing” to encourage individuals to allow themselves distance from their worries and fears. Psychological distancing, according to Kross, incorporates a process called emotion regulation, in which we challenge ourselves to align how we currently feel with how we want to feel. By doing this, we are not shutting off our emotions, but reining them in so that we can think about our situations more objectively.
Many respondents shared how grateful they are to have time for self-care, deeper family relationships, and new things in their daily routine: walking more, digging into the Bible, cooking, baking, painting, reading for pleasure, and peppermint tea before bed.
Respondents also mentioned their shared gratitude for the people in their lives, including health-care and food-service workers. In the checkout aisles and drive-through lines, we are looking the workers in the eye and thanking them for what they’re doing.
My counselor, Tiffany Bartell, has been taking care of clients during the crisis. When I asked her about what she was seeing, she said that while she’s seeing increased levels of post-traumatic stress, she’s also seeing something else: post-traumatic growth. “One thing that I’ve been telling a lot of my clients,” she says, “is that just because something is hard doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. This is a hard situation, and I’ll have students that say, ‘I’m doing terrible.’ Then I’ll hear what happened in their week and tell them, ‘You are coping so remarkably well with what happened.’”
Tiffany says that it’s important to learn how to give ourselves grace. “If you are standing up in your life, and you are putting one foot in front of the other, you are doing marvelously well! It’s not about roses and sunshine all the time; it’s about making healthy choices, then making another healthy choice. Are you
going to feel like not getting out of bed sometimes? Absolutely! Going through tough times can be exhausting! But when you get up and get out of bed, and you have that drink of water and you take that walk, you won—even if it was hard.”
Tiffany says an experience such as a pandemic can bring us lasting cultural change. “I imagine a world,” she says, “in which we are better than we were before this happened—we’re stronger, we’re more tenacious, we’re resilient.”
At the close of my Instagram survey, I asked: “What’s your biggest fear in all of this?”
Most respondents shared their fear that life wouldn’t go back to normal—but one had a different response: “I’m scared that we will go back to normal.”
This stood out to me. After all that we have learned, I too hope for a new normal. One in which we will continue to prioritize intentional relationships, to look the drive-through workers in the eye, to get excited about nightly peppermint tea, and most important, to give ourselves grace.
Morgan Nash is a senior clinical psychology major at Southern Adventist University. In addition to her passion for mental health, she strives to empower young women to find their voice.