A few weeks ago when the virus started to spread quickly in our part of the world, fear that clouded judgement was the emotional danger of the day. We encouraged one another to be cautious and conscientious without giving in to panic. After weeks of isolation, however, depression and discouragement are on the rise around me. In many of my conversations recently, there is an undercurrent of loss and sadness. I have felt these things in my own heart and have taken some time to consider what we can be doing to cultivate emotional health for ourselves and those around us in the days ahead.
1) Commit to a disciplined routine – Staying up until 3:00 AM to watch Netflix, sleeping until noon and eating ramen noodles in bed for lunch and dinner may be a good rest strategy for an occasional day off, but it doesn’t make for a very healthy routine. We set up a schedule in our house with regular times for breakfast, lunch and dinner, dividing the responsibilities for cooking and cleanup and other chores. We are gathering for short prayer times in the morning and after lunch, and we have a 45 minute devotional time every evening with all of the adults and teenagers taking turns leading (There are 10 people in our house right now!). We have encouraged even the adults to spend some time in study in the morning and doing work or chores in the afternoon. Everyone is expected to get dressed every day, to take showers regularly, etc. This kind of discipline creates structure for creativity and productivity and still leaves plenty of space for rest. I find it difficult to cultivate a positive attitude without a concrete expression of purposefulness.
2) Engage in regular communication with others – Interacting with the people around me, or with the people in my community via phone or internet, is a like mirror for the condition of my own emotional state, and it keeps me in a place to receive the input of others. Retreating to the bedroom with headphones or spending hours scrolling through TikTok (my newest discovery) can leave me trapped too long with my own unspoken anxieties or discouragements. Sometimes engaging with the people around us even when we don’t feel like it is a healthy part of our emotional nutrition. Alienation and isolation are fertile environments for discouragement and loneliness.
3) Grieve your losses – That sounds cliché, but giving yourself permission to feel sad or disappointed or angry about all of the things we have lost to the coronavirus crisis is healthy. I have needed to take some time to be aware of the things that I have lost and to acknowledge that I had all of those emotions churning in me, even though I didn’t really want to feel those things. So many of the Psalms are honest expressions of grief and loss. Reading them has been helpful, but writing our own psalms of lament to God can also be a healthy way to express the loss we feel.
4) Seek positive input – I don’t really listen to much worship music, but I have found myself turning to it more often these days. I’m also reading more and watching good things with the family. I want to consume more positive content as a way of shoring up my emotional reserves against the occasional wave of discouragement. Every evening one of us leads the group in a Bible study. We’re working through the gospel of Mark.
5) Leave room for silence – My instinct is often to fill my days with noise and busyness. I have to think intentionally about turning the music off sometimes to listen to the voice of the Spirit in silence and examine my own heart. Meditating in silence is a skill of its own, but just taking time to do nothing but listen quietly for even a short time is a good start.
6) Pray – We have been using the prayer liturgy from the Northumbria Community which is available online, but we are also taking other times for personal prayer. I have found this lockdown period to be an experience of “pruning” so that I can experience new vitality in my connection to God. A helpful way of praying has been to think about what it would look like for God’s will to be done completely in my life or in the place where I live and serve and to actively want those things to be a reality.
7) Encourage and serve others – Looking for opportunities to be a blessing to the world around me is an antidote to the cynicism and discouragement that threatens to encroach on my heart. When I take the time to find something positive to say to the people around me, I become a source of life and hope and that feels better than giving into the temptation to be critical and antagonistic. That isn’t magic, it’s just a commonsense alignment with what God wants for us. I can send an encouraging message, make a phone call, schedule a meeting or even like an Instagram post and all of those moments will be more fruitful than the time I give to negative thoughts and comments. Self isolation, social distancing, and regional lockdowns have created new avenues for ministry and new opportunities for serving one another, even from a distance. I have made a commitment to reach out in the days ahead to people I know who might be struggling with loneliness, loss, or depression in hopes that I contribute to the emotional health of those around me as well.