In these unprecedented times, I think it is safe to say that we are all trying, each in our own unique way, to handle the stresses of life under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Recently, I had the privilege to participate in a teleconference with several psychologists and a psychiatrist who work for various seminaries throughout the United States, in order to determine how best to help our seminarians emotionally and spiritually cope with the stresses of this situation.
As a fruit of this discussion, I wish to share a few psychological/spiritual insights with you, in the hope that you will be strengthened and encouraged by the “Good News” of our Lord’s message of Love for all of us.
The new ‘normal’
At this time, it would not be uncommon for most people to be experiencing various intensities of the “negative emotions” of fear, anger, and sadness. To be very clear, this is entirely normal. The Catechism tells us that the emotions (or “passions”) are natural responses that “incline us to act or not to act in regard to something felt or imagined to be good or evil.” (CCC #1763) The word “evil” here is better understood as an “absence of a good.”
As a result of the current pandemic, we are experiencing significant absences of the many “goods” that we used to readily enjoy: regular access to the sacraments, fellowship, routine, work, independence and even a sense of purpose or direction in the face of so much uncertainty.
Of course, the most profound negative emotional impact would pertain to those who have directly suffered the effects of the virus, most especially when it involved the tragic loss of a loved one.
To help us wade through the experience of these heightened “negative emotions,” it may be helpful to understand their God-given purpose:
Fear, the apprehension of the evil, arises when there is a real or perceived lack of one’s own sense of safety. It moves one to seek security and self-preservation. As a mood state, such as anxiety, it is often oriented toward the future, particularly when there is a focus on uncertainty, lack of control, and all of the possible negative outcomes that one imagines will occur.
Anger, which resists the evil, is ordered toward resisting injustice but can also be experienced anytime that we feel frustrated in any goal that is being blocked. Anger is also the normal fruit of having been hurt by someone, tempting the person to hold on to any related resentments.
Sadness is the experience of the absence of a good and it is normally associated with loss, disappointment and loneliness.
If the loss is significant, it can lead to the deeper experience of grief, which includes the five distinct emotional stages outlined by noted psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
If you find it difficult to manage these feelings, and/or if they are becoming more of a distraction in your own personal life, I encourage you to be honest about it, and seek appropriate help. Please don’t carry these burdens by yourself!
Increased times of stress and uncertainty will normally amplify the negative emotions, often tempting us to either retreat inwards or lash out at our neighbors around us.
What can you do?
If you are coping well in the midst of these challenging times, praise God! Be grateful! This is a gift that most fundamentally results from our faith and relationship with Christ.
If you are struggling, however, please know that you are not alone. Below are some important psychological and spiritual dispositions that can help all of us not only to endure the current sufferings but even flourish in the midst of them.
This is not a time for self-reliance. It is a time to open ourselves to the vastness of God’s love through the qualities of vulnerability, acceptance, surrender and trust: VAST.
Vulnerability: In simplest terms, it means an openness to the other, most especially to God.
This is not a time to try to be perfect and self-sufficient. Anxiety in the face of uncertainty will often tempt us to retreat inwards and try to deal with the challenge on our own. It means finding a trusted other to share one’s struggle with and ask for help, teaching us that we are not alone.
Acceptance: it means acknowledging and embracing truth in our lives, especially when we face circumstances that we can’t control. It is the willingness to admit our weaknesses and need for help, particularly the need for God’s strength.
Psychologically speaking, it is a willingness to acknowledge my emotions instead of trying to deny them.
Surrender involves surrendering ourselves to God’s love and keeping our eyes on him, rather than our own predicament. It also involves surrendering the future to God’s providence, rather than trying to “control” it through excessive worry.
Trust is the foundation for the three qualities above, and is marked by trusting in God’s personal love and mercy for us; trusting in God’s power and providence; trusting in God’s nearness, and his desire to be with us.
These dispositions will help us to avail ourselves to the presence of God within. They will increase our capacity to rely on God’s grace in all situations and develop the virtue of gratitude. They will also free us to become more aware and concerned for our neighbors around us.
There have been many good articles offering practical advice for dealing with the current pandemic. In my aforementioned teleconference, we discussed many of these things as well. Here are a few items that were mentioned:
— Be sure to reach out to others through video chat or by phone, not just through text or email. Speaking to someone can help reduce feelings of loneliness.
— Avoid excessive consumption of COVID-19 related news, particularly if it increases the negative emotions mentioned above.
— Pay attention to physical health, including spending time outdoors. This includes the important habit of taking long deep breaths, which can help reduce anxiety.
— Be sure to watch Mass and participate in other devotions online. This practice will reinforce your sense of communion with others.
— Focus on gratitude. This is an excellent antidote to sadness, anger and fear.
— Particularly if you have children at home, create a schedule for the day. Routine and order can be helpful in anxious situations.
— If there isn’t one already, create a specific place in the house designated for both individual and perhaps family prayer.
— Offer to have a prayer intention box in the house in which the family can place new intentions each day. Perhaps suggest that everyone prays for them together in some capacity.
In these extraordinary times, we are all trying to cope as best as we can. As people of faith, we are blessed to know that we are not alone. The God who suffered, died and rose for us is here! He is Risen!
And although we cannot be together in person for this year’s celebration of Easter, through the gift of God’s Spirit, we truly will be united! Be not afraid! May we all take comfort from this counsel of St. Francis de Sales:
Do not look forward in fear to the changes in life;
rather, look to them with full hope that as they arise,
God, whose very own you are, will lead you safely through all things;
and when you cannot stand it, God will carry you in His arms.
Do not fear what may happen tomorrow;
the same understanding Father who cares for
you today will take care of you then and every day.
He will either shield you from suffering
or will give you unfailing strength to bear it.
Be at peace, and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations.
Father Keith Chylinski is a priest of the Philadelphia Archdiocese who holds a graduate degree in psychology. He currently is a faculty member of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood.
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