"You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land, there is no other life but this." — Henry David Thoreau
You know what happens when people are forced into a stressful situation for an extended period of time? Quite a few things, actually. And none of them are pretty...
They get more easily agitated, frustrated, and moody.
They start feeling overwhelmed, like they are losing control.
They find it harder to relax and quiet their minds.
They start feeling lonely, or worthless, or depressed, or all of those at once.
They start struggling with low energy, insomnia, physical aches and pains, and headaches.
They worry a lot more about things. They lose hope.
They start forgetting things; they can’t seem to focus like they used to.
They procrastinate more, avoiding responsibilities.
They make increasingly poor choices when it comes to how they treat themselves, and other people.
I could go on, but I’ll spare you. (But hey, if you want more stuff to worry about, you can find a more exhaustive list of all the bad effects of long-term stress right here.) Suffice to say that this long-term stress thing is very bad for humans, and results in a very compromised capacity for good judgment and behavior.
So if any or all of these negative effects are happening to you, then let me begin by saying something you really need to hear:
There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not broken. You’re just exhausted.
The truth is we all are.
Let’s face it: We thought the pandemic was over—or at least, fading. But it’s not. It’s on the rise once again. Variants are sweeping through our communities. Mask mandates and mandatory lockdowns are once again hanging over our heads like a drunk uncle everyone wishes would just shut up and leave. Many of our first responders, including great swathes of our medical personnel, are dropping out of the fight, exhausted by the unrelenting stress and strain this pandemic has brought on them for way too many months.
In a lot of ways, those brave nurses and doctors and chaplains and aid workers are our collective canary in the coal mine. Their departure is signaling to all of us that what we’re all facing right now is serious. Something dangerous is happening to us, and we each need to stop and address it before it starts taking many more of us out.
I’ve heard it said that the crisis of this pandemic has hit us in three successive waves. The first wave was the physical crisis of the disease itself. The second wave was the economic crisis that emerged from all the restrictions put in place to contain the viral spread. And the third wave is the mental health crisis that has emerged from living under the constant weight of so much uncertainty and stress for so long. We’re well into that third wave at this point. And now a new wave of physical crisis is flooding over our already battered lives and livelihoods.
I don’t say all this to further discourage anyone. Rather, I just want to lay out our current reality as clearly as possible, so that what I’m about to recommend might have a better chance of getting through. More than any other time in our recent history, we all need to stop and take a close look at ourselves. We each need to pay attention to what this extended stress is actually doing to us—mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually—and we need to start employing additional self-care practices to keep ourselves as sane and healthy as possible.
You may already have a strong self-care regimen, and if you do that’s great. But here are some additional practices I recommend you consider adding to your regular routine during these extraordinary times.
Stop wishing for the crisis to be over. When you fixate on “just wanting the pandemic to end,” you cheat yourself out of learning how to thrive in the midst of it right now. Instead of dreaming about the arrival of some future event that you have no control over, focus on designing your life so you can thrive right now—regardless of how long the pandemic might last.
Pay extra attention to the care of your body. Our bodies naturally carry a lot of our stress, including stress we may not be consciously aware of. In times of extended crisis, then, it’s all the more important that we tend to our bodies so they can stay strong and carry us through. This means sleeping well at regular intervals, eating healthy, and exercising every day. Such practices are always a good idea, but are especially essential right now.
Confide in a friend or loved one every day. This doesn’t need to be a lengthy conversation (except sometimes, when it does). Think of it as a daily check in where you each share what’s on your mind, what you’re feeling, what’s got you stressed or afraid, or what’s made you angry. Also share what’s good about your life at the moment, what you’re thankful for, what or who you’re really enjoying right now. The point is not to have a counseling session or try to fix each other. Simply naming what’s going on with someone you trust is a terrific release valve for stress, and a simple way to help you process your own experience.
Take a full day for solitude every month (or even more often if you can). On that day, avoid all social media, all news, all outside voices, and let your soul be quiet and at rest within yourself. Depending on your personality, this might mean a day of quiet reading, a long hike in nature, or a road trip to someplace fun or interesting. A regular soul cleanse like this really helps you detox from the constant barrage of stress and worries the world throws your way.
Pray and/or meditate every day. Just 10 minutes of prayer and stillness in the morning before you start the day pays huge dividends over time in developing stress resilience and maintaining mindfulness under pressure. By the way, if you're looking for something new to try in this arena, I recently published a video course I'm really excited about! It's called "How to Start a Spiritual Writing Practice." You can learn more and sign up for it here.
Which of these practices has helped you most in this extended season of stress? What other regular practices would you add to the list?
I'm confident we can get through this. But we have to take special care right now, to mind our own stress levels and tend to our mental health—not just for our own sake, but for the sake of our neighbors as well. Remember: the first essential step to overcoming a crisis is to say yes to the challenge it presents.
"Life moves on, whether we act as cowards or heroes. Life has no other discipline to impose, if we would but realize it, than to accept life unquestioningly. Everything we shut our eyes to, everything we run away from, everything we deny, denigrate or despise, serves to defeat us in the end. What seems nasty, painful, evil, can become a source of beauty, joy and strength, if faced with an open mind. Every moment is a golden one for him who has the vision to recognize it as such." — Henry Miller