Life is coming to a standstill. Many of us remember something like this happening on September 11, 2001, when planes were grounded and fear was palpable.
But today’s standstill has spread worldwide as almost every country has reported confirmed cases of coronavirus. Because our economies are more intertwined, and the internet, media and social media report everything to everyone within milliseconds of it happening, this is now a truly global event.
Colleges have shuttered campuses, schools are closed, restaurants are shut down, and hospitals are overburdened. Uncertainty about symptoms is leading to panic, distress, and turmoil for many, even though most people are showing no signs of COVID-19.
As a Christian psychiatrist, I have been asked by family, friends, coworkers and ministry colleagues for some help in navigating this unprecedented worldwide predicament. Here are some powerful, practical tips I teach others—and use myself—to navigate adversity and uncertain times such as we find ourselves in today.
You’ll hear a lot about the coronavirus on social media and various news or medical websites. For good information about COVID-19, I recommend the CDC website. There you can find reliable material on the virus (SARS-CoV-2), practical cleaning and hygiene tips to avoid getting the virus, a list of symptoms to look for and what to do if you have them, and what to do if you have been exposed.
But I want to give you something different, something you won’t find in other places, focusing on the practical, spiritual and psychological aspects of pandemic management. This is information you can use in any time of adversity, challenge, or testing.
Here are 12 Tips to follow:
1. News Flash! Good News: God gave us a powerful mind. Unfortunately, our powerful minds are often tricked into serving Satan’s purposes rather than God’s.
As he does with all of God’s creation, Satan will try to corrupt, distort, and undermine, using even the blessings God bestows upon us for harm. Food, sex, money, and work are all things that were intended for our benefit. Satan’s modus operandi is to twist blessings into potential stumbling blocks. With the coronavirus outbreak, information and misinformation is coming fast and furious. But you can use the mind of Christ that is in each Christian (1 Corinthians 2:16) to thrive during this pandemic and beyond, and return to the promised land of abundant living.
2. Uncomfortable or disturbing feelings like anxiety, uncertainty, fear, sadness, anger, or frustration are normal. These uncomfortable—notice I didn’t use the word negative—emotions are the warning system God designed to let us know something important, dangerous, or wrong has happened, or to alert us we aren’t looking at the facts accurately. When the smoke detector starts screeching or a red light on the car dashboard comes on we might get stressed, but we can be thankful for the warning because it saves us from a bigger catastrophe. Most people are indoctrinated to believe these uncomfortable feelings are bad, and even sinful, so we often see them as a problem or ignore them.
Emotions get us in trouble, however, when we let them become not just our warning system but our decision-making system. We’ve all made some lousy decisions when we were angry, anxious, sad, or lonely. Don’t ignore your warning system, but don’t let it paralyze you either.
3. We need to have a Godly perspective of the circumstances and situation. Perspective is vital. It’s the key to navigating this pandemic and making healthy decisions—not just physically with respect to COVID-19, but spiritually and psychologically as well. Unfortunately, the main distorter of our perspective is our emotions. Think of expressions like ‘green with envy’ or ‘seeing red with anger.’ Emotions can be a dangerous filter for perspective. How about ‘love is blind’? You can’t get much more distorted filtering than blind. We’ve all seen people make horrible decisions in the name of love!
Usually our emotions push us into a flesh driven, me-centered perspective, instead of a Godly perspective. God is omniscient. He knows our future, He knows the course of this pandemic, and He knows what our needs are. Most important, He loves us and is the perfect Father. His goal is growing us to fullest maturity and to enjoy abundant living. Satan’s goal is to steal, kill, and destroy. He uses deceit to distort our perspective of God and our circumstances.
Here are several concrete applications to avoid some distortions:
- God hears and answers prayer. During this adversity, I hope you are praying. If our prayers seem as if they’re not getting answered as we’d desire or think is in the best interest of all involved, we can be tempted to see God in the wrong way. Or we may think we are failing somehow. As I pray during uncertain times, God answers my prayers in only two possible ways: either “Yes, that is the right thing to ask for,” or “No, I have something even better for you.” I go to work then, wrapping my head around what is better than the agenda or outcome I’d thought was best, for me and the world around me.
- God can use this pandemic to help people recognize an eternal Savior, who defeated death and the grave. Christ alone can provide lasting and eternal protection from sin, danger, and evil. Keep your eyes open to see who He is putting in your life right now. Be a lighthouse built on a rock-solid foundation, shining God’s glory and love and providing guidance and safety for those feeling endangered in this storm.
- Possibility doesn’t equate to probability. Whenever we drive our cars we know there’s a possibility we could be hurt in a car accident. Yet we still drive with minimal anxiety or concern because the probability is low. When we watch the news and see a blizzard coming and then see one out of five cars in a ditch, we know the probability of an accident is greatly increased. At this point our warning lights (such as anxiety) offer some good guidance. For instance, we may reckon that going out for a pizza is not worth the increased chance of an accident.
Unfortunately, our anxiety and fears often make a possibility seem like a high probability. More and more people are testing positive for the virus, and we might assume that we’ll soon have it. But more confirmed cases are to be expected as we continue testing more people, especially if tests are made available only to those who are sick.
To paraphrase Jesus, trust God for today and don’t borrow trouble from tomorrow (Matthew 6:34).
4. Try to stay in routine as much as possible. We love spontaneity, surprises, something new. At least we think we do. In actuality, we function our best when we are in a routine. Most of us have routines for how we wash our body, brush our teeth, put on makeup, and even which leg we put first into our pants. (Tomorrow, try starting with the other leg!) As much as possible, try to keep to the same wake/sleep schedule, as well as mealtimes.
Changes in life rhythms due to the social isolation recommendations from the government can feel unnerving, so do whatever you can (in healthy ways) to stay within your usual routine. Continue those routines to maintain connection to your pre-pandemic way of living.
5. Isolation recommendations are physical, not emotional or relational. You can and should still connect with God, others, and self. The biggest changes being imposed involve social-distancing or isolation. We need to be careful not to allow the mindset of isolation to spill over into all aspects of our life. You’ll probably have some extra time on your hands with the shutdown of so many workplaces and schools. Isolation from face-to-face society doesn’t mean isolation from relationships. We can use this time to connect in these three relational areas:
- God – Pray more frequently. Have some conversations with the Lord during the day. Also, add some Bible reading. I got a Chronological Bible so I could read about Jesus’s life in the gospels and Acts in chronological order, as I was always frustrated jumping back and forth in the Bible, trying to figure out the order of events in Jesus’ life from one gospel to the next. Try something new to reinforce and reinvigorate your time in the Word.
- Other people – Invest in more connection with those in your household. Plan activities like playing games, watching a movie, learning a new activity, gardening, walking your dog, or cooking. Make plans to connect or re-connect with people outside your immediate locale using video chat. Encourage one other.
- Self – Journaling is a great way to slow your mind down, dig a little deeper inside, and learn about what is going on. It’s also an excellent opportunity to vent some of the fears, anxieties, and anger you are feeling below the surface. Start by writing what’s on your mind. Ask yourself “why?” and “what if?” questions as well, and allow God, not anxiety, to lead your thoughts.
6. Know yourself. If you do well with media and more information, great. But limit it. If you get too worked up by all the coronavirus information, then shut it down. Find a person you trust who is willing to give you an update each day on the current status of the pandemic and check in with them.
- If you’re older or have chronic illnesses that weaken your immune system, then be diligent about quarantining yourself, and be careful to practice good hygiene.
- If you’re healthy, continue to follow good hygiene guidance but look to see who you can help in your neighborhood. Service is a great way to experience the blessing of helping others in need, and it also allows you to do something tangible to fight the pandemic.
7. Adversity is an opportunity to grow. Knowing that God is a loving and perfect teacher, coach, and parent is vital to having a clear perspective of this pandemic. For any teacher, coach, or parent, the goal is never to allow the student, athlete, or child to stay where they are. The goal is to push them to a higher level of skill, wisdom, and character. God wants us to grow into the likeness of Christ and to live the abundant life of the Spirit. While we don’t always like it, that growth often comes at times of pain.
8. Be careful to not impose a premature finish line on a situation. Many times, when people are in adverse situations, they assume this is the finish line, the game is over and they’ve lost. In reality, you may only be in the first quarter of the game, or the second act of a five-act play.
Many people give up hope too early, assuming the worst outcome. As we read through the Bible we see irrefutable evidence that God is the author of great comebacks, no matter how bleak the circumstances.
I recently read that an Italian hospital was out of valves for a complex piece of life-sustaining machinery. A 3-D printer from a local business was reprogrammed to make the valves, saving the day for many patients. Don’t assume the game is over!
God has incredible plans, that may include comebacks and advances ready to unfold in your life. You must maintain a Godly perspective and a long-game approach instead of imposing a premature finish line.
9. Life is like a bowling alley. A strike, the perfect outcome, happens when the ball hits the pins just right. When the ball veers off course and goes into the gutter, the worst outcome occurs.
We are the ball. We try to stay on course to do our best living, but we get off course. God is nudging us and sending others to direct us back on course. Often it works, and we begin rolling down the middle of the lane again.
Sometimes, though, we prefer the gutter. The gutter looks easier to us than striking the pins. Remember the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. They were continually thinking that life would be better if only they were someplace else. But it’s not true.
Thankfully, God redirects us. He’s like the bumper that saves us from the gutter and its consequences. View this pandemic as God bumping you back on course and saving you from something. Like getting a flat tire that causes you to miss a car accident at the next intersection. Because the flat tire prevented the accident, we don’t even realize God saved us. Take this opportunity to see God moving you back on course to focus on the things that are most important in life.
19. If you are really struggling psychologically, don’t be afraid of professional help. So many times, I’ve seen Christians struggle psychologically, afraid to seek professional help from a psychiatrist or therapist. I have treated many Christians and ministry leaders and seen amazing life turnarounds and significant healing occur.
We tend to forget that Jesus is the Wonderful Counselor and Great Physician. Yes, Jesus is the Perfect Psychiatrist. He came to set the captives free and heal the broken-hearted, and give us an abundant life—not in material wealth, but a psychospiritual abundance here on Earth.
Jesus’ healing of mind and spirit is available to all. Psychiatry and psychology are sciences God uses to reveal to us how we are designed, so we can be better stewards of our minds for His glory. Find a Christian therapist or psychiatrist to make sure the science is being interpreted accurately to maximize the healing process.
Don’t be afraid of psychiatric medications. I have prescribed them for more than 30 years. As a temporary patch for our chemically imbalanced brains, they help reduce psychological symptoms for many. But realize, they are not a cure. As medications lessen symptoms of anxiety or depression, your ability to function will improve and then psychological and spiritual skills will be easier to learn, practice, and use to renew your mind and transform your life.
- Pray for wisdom, courage, humility, compassion, energy for our leaders and decision makers. Pray for our President, Congress, financial systems, state and local government officials, business leaders and owners, ministry leaders, and parents.
- Pray for those with symptoms of COVID-19. Pray for their healing, that they might have peace and joy, and that they would feel God’s love and grace in their life.
- Pray for yourself—for wisdom, humility, empathy, compassion, and a grateful heart. Ask God to show you people to serve. And pray that His power, grace, love, joy, and peace would be clear and meaningful through this challenging time.
12. To avoid getting psychologically and spiritually dizzy, keep your eyes fixed on Him. My life verse is Isaiah 26:3: He give him perfect peace whose mind is fixed on Thee, because he trusts You. This sustains me during any storm, no matter the size.
Here’s an example of how this works. If you’ve ever seen a ballerina do a pirouette you’ll notice that she fixes her eyes on a certain point and then turns her head around quickly each time she rotates. That’s how she keeps from getting dizzy.
According to the verse above, life works the same way. God is immovable and unchanging, the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. He is the point we can fix our eyes and our mind on. Many things in our lives— money, alcohol, food, status, our education or status, our career—catch our attention and draw our eyes, as if they can provide the sense of stability we crave. But they can’t.
If you find yourself disoriented, confused, and overwhelmed, or you feel that you are psychologically or spiritually stumbling and veering in the wrong direction, your gaze is probably not fixed on God.
Recalibrate. Tune into God and tune out the world.
This list of tips is different from most lists you’ll see about how to deal with the coronavirus crisis, but these recommendations are ones that everyone can apply, in this or any other worrying situation.
Remember, decisions determine the course of your life, so choose well.
Karl Benzio, MD, is a board certified psychiatrist and medical director of Honey Lake Clinic in Greenville, FL. He is also the founder of Lighthouse Network. Dr. Benzio is a member of the Physicians Resource Council of Focus on the Family.