Coping with Anxiety in a Pandemic | Sojourners

Coping with Anxiety in a Pandemic

Inhale: I am.

Exhale: Here now.

Our breath is our life source, God within us, all day, every day. But we don’t think about the gift of air until something goes wrong.

As I write this, COVID-19 cases are soaring in real time. With more than 400,000 confirmed cases globally and deaths climbing above 18,000, the World Health Organization is now saying that U.S., which has over 50,000 confirmed cases, might soon become the new epicenter of the coronavirus. Nationally, we are experiencing anxiety we haven’t known since 9/11. We haven’t felt this helpless, fragile, and mortal for nearly a generation.

And it shows. Mental Health America, a community-based nonprofit, reports a nearly 20 percent increase in clinical anxiety screenings beginning in February. The CDC dedicated an entire subpage to managing COVID-19 stress.

My inbox echoes the data. It’s full of uneasy community college students ticking off boxes of anxiety symptoms: panic, distress, uncertainty about the future. Some are jobless or soon-to-be. Community college students, many of whom are first-generation students, students of color, veterans, DACA recipients, and rural adolescents from lower socio-economic backgrounds, are already caught in the achievement gap. Stretched thin, my students are worried warriors sustaining families struggling to survive. Our seated classes together were their opportunity and communal balm, and even that’s been ripped from them.

To be sure, it’s normal for students — and all of us — to feel a pandemic’s urgency. The brain does not discriminate against triggers. Once we encounter stress, the body responds and anxiety is a natural response.

Two years ago, my mother was diagnosed with a sudden and traumatic illness that landed her in the intensive care unit (ICU). My brother and I remained at her bedside and she died just 14 days after her diagnosis. Though my theological education and ministry includes service as an ICU chaplain specializing in care for the dying and grieving, I found myself in a 24/7 panic after her death. I couldn’t sleep, eat, or think. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the acute anxiety was my brain carrying over a hyperalert posture of constant worry and exhaustion.

I was advised to calm my body’s automatic response to anxiety through deep breathing. Though I resented this remedy, I began the meditation practice. More importantly, I learned why deep breathing works and I wrote a book on how to make it work for all of us.

Our body’s homeostasis is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, comprised of two parts: sympathetic and parasympathetic. These two systems regulate our respiratory and circulatory processes, among other essential functions. The sympathetic division is the “fight-or-flight” response that prepares our bodies to cope with urgent situations like COVID-19. It releases norepinephrine to increase our pulse and blood pressure, diverting essential resources to the heart, lungs, and muscles. Anxiety fuels this system, so much so that we feel we are always on alert mode. 

But anxiety is not sustainable — it never was — especially in what is likely to become a months-long global crisis. Even when we move through COVID-19 together — and we will —there will always be another crisis. The key, then, is learning simple and practical ways to help us cope.

So, while our sympathetic system feels sorry for us and feels it must remain “on call” especially mid-coronavirus, it is our parasympathetic division that is the real key to coping. This system, stimulated by deep breathing, releases acetylcholine to slow down the heart rate, lower blood pressure, and relax airway muscles, soothing anxiety.

While it’s normal to fear in these moments, our fear is not isolated to the virus. It can also be tied to unexpected isolation. It’s our reluctance to face what 17th-century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, author of Pensées, names as the root of all of humanity’s problems: our inability to sit in a room alone. We are now in a room alone. What are we going to do about it?

In his book, The Plague, Algerian-French author and philosopher Albert Camus wrote of our inescapable death and how a mere acknowledge of it is a revelation, not an invitation into despair. While Camus’s prose may not be your desired binge-worthy pandemic read, his existential notion of “the absurdity of life” is redemptive. In other words, when we name our fragility, we are free to do the “inside work.” We are liberated to be practical and patient. Free-floating anxiety loses its grip. As Rev. Benjamin Boswell puts it, “Mortality is our a pre-existing condition.”

Might this pandemic be the “rich lens of attention” Mary Oliver wrote of? Or, the call to “emancipate ourselves from mental slavery” Bob Marley invited us to? Were we to look to our wise ones, the modern and ancient mystics, Jesus, Buddha, St. Teresa of Avila, Sojourner Truth, Gandhi, and King, we would encounter a return to the ABCs of inner, contemplative work that softens the anxiety of the time. When we sit at the feet of these gurus, we learn that, when confronted with crisis, they chose the internal journey as much as the external. Anxiety did not get the best of them; they pondered the difficult questions of the human condition, rather than filling the time with a temporary, self-perpetuated frenzy cure that does not endure. They sat with themselves in order to sit with others. It’s so basic, and yet so difficult for us.

Is COVID-19 an invitation to get back to the basics of inner work? I think so.

For both the privileged remote-workers and the newly jobless, our proverbial and literal calendars are now cleared. We’ve stepped off the physical roller coaster only to be confronted with the cure to the absurdity of life: being present. Anxiety is reaching into the future and worry about what is unknown. While it’s normal, we are also called to sit in a room by ourselves and cope with our pre-existing condition. Doing so equips us to resist amid the growing divide between privileged and poor. Doing so allows us to advocate for the least-resourced who work amid systems of oppression perpetuated by the well-resourced who post obtuse COVID-9 virus-as-great-equalizer bathtub videos.

I see the ABCs of coping with anxiety playing out in struggling churches finding their legs to soothe the isolation of social distancing with digital worship. Pastors are keeping it simple: bolstering the faithful through webcasts and calls, making space for feelings, patience, deep-breathing, and calm in innovative ways.

No matter when or why we begin the ABCs of coping with anxiety, whether it’s during a pandemic, job loss, financial stress, or to soothe the visceral loneliness of social distancing, our bodies are telling us it’s time. We are invited to sit in a room by ourselves, confronting two realities: the absurdity of life and the fact that mortality is our pre-existing condition.

Inhale.

Exhale.

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