The chaplain of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis recently forwarded a really helpful article about managing anxiety. Unfortunately, I don’t have the information to give credit where credit is due. But the author is a psychologist with an expertise in the area.
She began by acknowledging that fear has a real survival value for us. Our fear of covid-19 motivates us to wash our hands and practice social distancing, which is a good thing. But the stress we experience from prolonged fear has all kinds of negative physical, emotional, and spiritual consequences. Hence the need to manage chronic anxiety, particularly in times of crisis.
But managing anxiety is difficult, and for all kinds of reasons. She described several, of which I can only remember a few. One was catastrophic thinking, the tendency to focus on the worst possible outcomes, no matter how improbable they might be. A related pair are our tendency to focus on the negative rather than the positive, and “confirmation bias,” which inclines us to pay more attention to evidence supporting our (negative) beliefs than to evidence that might challenge them.
But the challenge that particularly strikes me is the one with which she began: emotions are contagious. When we are with happy people, we tend to get a little happier. The same is true for anxiety. Anxious people inspire anxiety in us.
Even before the outbreak of covid-19, we had ample cause for anxiety: a dysfunctional political system in an election year, climate change, fears of violence, and so on. Loud voices in our culture seem intent on stoking that inevitable anxiety for their own benefit. And now we are in a pandemic that isolates us from meaningful contact with each other, while still leaving us vulnerable to each other’s pervasive anxiety. It is like a perfect emotional storm.
In times like these, the article went on to say, each of us need to do what we can to manage our anxiety. That means things like limiting our consumption of scary news, doing things that make us feel good like spending time with family, and being physically active to blow off nervous energy.
The strategy that is most relevant to me, of course, is maintaining our spiritual practices. Today more than ever, we need to be cultivating our relationship with God, particularly in prayer. My small contribution is to stream Morning Prayer at 8:00 each morning on our Facebook page.
Staying connected to God will not protect us from getting infected with covid-19. We need to follow proper health precautions for that. But staying connected to God can protect us to some degree from getting infected with excess anxiety. And that, in turn, will help us to avoid infecting others with our own anxiety. Right now, we all need that. May God help us to do it!
Fr. Harvey Hill
This blog is my occasional reflections on life, God, Christian faith, and the Church. I hope you find it helpful!