• Eric Sawyer

Mental Health in the Age of COVID-19

To say COVID-19 took us by surprise is an understatement. One minute we were making New Year’s resolutions and the next, Coronavirus crept in like a thief in the night. This pandemic has brought fear, anxiety, and depression to many throughout the world, and forced isolation has fueled the deterioration of mental health across the United States. How can we, as Christians, cope with the complexities of mental health in a way that leads to growth? My hope is to provide useful tools to manage issues related to mental health. Even though it’s a strange time in human history, the Lord is still working.


Anxiety and depression have affected mankind since the Fall in the Garden of Eden. When sin became a reality in our world, mankind experienced deep consequences and ailments—all of which can be attributed to the initial rebellion of Adam and Eve. Not only do we have to fight off various diseases—from the common cold to cancer to COVID-19—we also deal with persistent mental health issues. About 40 million Americans struggle with anxiety disorders, making this one of the most common mental health concerns; and, when coupled with depression, we find a multitude of people searching for solutions and coping mechanisms.


Developing coping mechanisms can help with managing symptoms associated with depression and anxiety. Both disorders can develop from environmental, experiential, and genetic factors, and we must be proactive in offering help. The age of COVID-19 is unique in many ways and societies across the world are adapting in an effort to mitigate the spread of the virus. Social isolation and distancing can stem the tide of COVID-19, but it can also contribute to increased anxiety and depression. We must ask ourselves: how can we deal with these troubling times and reactions? As someone who deals with Major Depressive Disorder, I have put together a short list of coping strategies that have been helpful in navigating a difficult season:


Journaling

A lack of human interaction can lead to pent up emotions and thoughts that can be detrimental to our well-being. Although not a substitute, journaling is a common coping mechanism for many people dealing with depression and anxiety, since it allows a person to express thoughts and feelings without revealing deep personal thoughts that could result in embarrassment. Even though I spend time with my wife, I continually journal my thoughts and feelings. Journaling helps us to avoid bottling up our emotions, which can lead to increased depression and anxiety and unwanted aggression towards family and friends. With technology, we can journal on a laptop or, making this accessible and convenient. If a person enjoys the physical act of writing, then it is simple to grab computer paper or a cheap notebook to record thoughts and emotions.


Exercise

I live in beautiful Virginia, which makes engaging in outdoor activities simple. Even with our current “stay-at-home” orders, Virginians are still able to spend time walking, hiking, or exercising; and, I am grateful that our state government recognizes the importance of exercise during this season of distancing. Exercise is proven to lower symptoms of depression and anxiety. In March 2019, Harvard Medical School published an article on the benefits of exercise for those dealing with depression, indicating that low-intensity exercises sustained over time produces proteins called neurotrophins which causes the nerve cells to grow and make new connections within the brain. The growth of brain cells occurs in the hippocampus which is the part of the brain that controls mood, and exercise helps reduce depressive thoughts and feelings while simultaneously promoting healthy brain function.


People seeking exercise as a coping strategy must understand this is not an overnight fix; instead it must be sustained over time meaning people should choose an exercise they enjoy. My wife and I enjoy walking though our neighborhood each day, and love taking trips to the park where we can walk the trails. Some people do not have access to these types of activities, and for those who cannot go outdoors, there are many online resources for in-home activities like exercise and yoga. Simply start small—five minutes of exercise each day can go a long way to creating healthy habits.


Music

Music is another effective strategy to help improve anxiety and depressive symptoms. Right now, I have a Spotify playlist that is labeled ‘Peaceful Piano” and is a must for me when I am struggling with my mental health. The soft piano helps calm my nerves and thoughts, offering comfort in difficult moments. If you struggle with mental health issues and enjoy music, my encouragement is to put together a playlist to help when needed.


Breathing Exercises

Like calming music, breathing exercises allow the mind to reset and the nerves to settle in tense moments. These exercises slow a person’s heartrate, effectively lowering elevated blood pressure associated with anxiety. A simple breathing exercise to try is to escape to a secluded room where a person can lie down and practice deep breathing, which consists of closing your eyes, breathing in through the nose long enough for the chest to rise, holding the breath for 6-10 seconds, and slowly releasing the air through the mouth repeating as needed. As with exercise, there are many online resources readily available.


Praying and Reading

Prayer and spending time in God’s Word are easily the best strategies for a Christian. For me, there is great comfort in knowing Jesus deeply understands the struggles of our lives and the inner workings of our mind. God wants us to be in direct and honest conversation with him daily. When I come home, I tell my wife about my day. Why? Because I am deeply in love with her, and my love compels me to tell her about every detail of my life. Likewise, our love for Jesus should drive us to communicate with him daily. Christians should not start off with hours of prayer time if their prayer life is dry. Again, start small—five minutes at the beginning and end of the day is a good way to developing a healthy prayer life.


We need to be constantly reading and meditating on Scripture as well. Being constantly reminded of God’s goodness and His promises gives us perspective to see the bigger picture. Understanding that COVID-19 is temporary and not eternal comforts the mind in knowing that ‘this too shall pass’. During this season, Psalm 79 serves as a constant comfort for me and my wife. In this Psalm, the writer is in the midst of trial and tribulation, and the struggle in his life has driven him to have an honest conversation with God. He asks the Lord, “How long will this last?” and like many Psalms, he is reminded of God’s person and work—He delivered Noah from the flood and Israel from Egypt. Our God saves and delivers, but he does this work in His timing. We can find comfort that no matter the circumstances we encounter, the Lord will deliver us once and for all!

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