Anxious about the global pandemic? Advice from a Catholic psychologist

Catholic News Agency

While the coronavirus has Americans scrambling for canned goods, respirator masks, and especially toilet paper, one Catholic psychologist has encouraged people to take deep breaths and remain calm.

The World Health Organization labeled the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, a world-class pandemic this week. Since then, panic and anxiety have become common experiences.

Dr. Christina Lynch, a supervising psychologist for Denver’s St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, told CNA that fear of the pandemic is normal. But even in the global health crisis, she said, peace is not beyond our reach.

“Being frightened about something that we don’t understand is normal. I think the first thing we have to do is normalize our emotions and realize it’s okay. We all are uncertain. We don’t know what the future holds,” she said. “We fear the unknown. We want to be in control.”

As of March 13, the virus has infected over 140,000 people and claimed nearly 5,400 lives, the NY Times reported. U.S. President Donald Trump declared the crisis a national emergency Friday afternoon.

Coronavirus expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said the situation will worsen, noting that the pandemic will last for several months. The option of a complete social shutdown is not off the table for Americans, he said.

Amid the anxiety, people have rushed to local supermarkets to stock up on medicine, hand sanitizer, and, curiously, toilet paper.

Videos have appeared online under the hashtags #toiletpaperpanic or #toiletpaperapocalypse, which show stores with empty shelves, and even fights breaking out over rolls of two-ply.

Lynch said that the hoarding of toilet paper conveys a panicked mob mentality taking root. But there are means to remain calm in the face of the upcoming storm.

She offered a few techniques to help quell rising anxiety levels.

Lynch encouraged people prone to anxiety to pay close attention to expert advice on avoiding the virus, like washing hands, wiping down surfaces, and limiting interactions with large crowds. She said that for most people, following substantiated advice will help diminish any sense of panic and worry.

She also suggested Catholics can make the practice of handwashing an opportunity for prayer. For example, she said washing hands while saying a Hail Mary takes about 20 seconds, the expert-recommended amount of time at the sink.

Lynch also said anyone can benefit from reflecting on how they’ve already conquered anxiety, and then practicing calming routines that have worked in the past.

“It’s a very normal reaction to be fearful or concerned…[but] you don’t want to fan the flame of that fear. So what are the steps that you can take, knowing yourself?” she asked.

In general, Lynch said, people can benefit from breathing techniques, which help equalize the body and reduce anxiety.

“Breathing is one of the best self-calming tools we can have. You know, just relaxing and creating a habit twice a day to just take some deep breaths, close our eyes, hold our breath and exhale… You [may] pray a Hail Mary while you’re holding your breath and then you calmly exhale.”

Lynch said there are also plenty of spiritual practices to help Catholics handle anxiety.

Lynch suggested Catholics look up the devotional practices recommended by their local diocese. Even if churches have canceled their Masses, she said, Catholics can also watch the Mass on channels like EWTN, or online, she said.

“We’re so blessed to have our faith, the Catholic faith because we have so many tools from a spiritual perspective. I think this is a great opportunity because we’re so busy in our daily life that we can use this to actually develop some spiritual habits, and incorporate them in this attempt to reduce her anxiety.”

“Maybe develop a habit of just spending five to 15 minutes every morning when you first get up. Maybe get up a little bit earlier and just pray, whether it’s silent … read[ing]scripture … or pray[ing] a decade of the rosary,” she said.

Lynch urged people monitor their intake of media, especially news sources that have politicized the virus or promoted fear.

“Some of the things that we know we can do to counteract fear is limit your media coverage from sources that want to instill fear. Like, those that politicized the virus or those that only focus on the bad stuff that’s happening with the virus or what could happen rather than the facts,” Lynch advised.

She acknowledged that the virus is likely to spread and there is a chance that many people will be impacted. She emphasized the value of taking practical steps in being prepared for self-quarantine.

And Lynch encouraged Catholics to see the spiritual opportunity in the weeks ahead.

“We’re so used to being in control. This is a great opportunity to know that God’s in control and to just give him more control and pray a prayer of trust to God every day.”

Photo by Isaac Quesada on Unsplash

COMING UP: Coronavirus (COVID-19) should cause reflection, not panic

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Lent is a time during which Catholics return to the basic practices of the faith – prayer, fasting and almsgiving – to promote deeper conversion in our hearts. This Lent, the world is being presented with the threat of the coronavirus  (COVID-19), which should cause us to reflect on our own mortality and seek conversion.

When priests go to visit the sick, the suffering, and especially the dying, we encounter a wide range of people. Some people are serene as the end approaches, but others are profoundly unsettled when the prospect of death becomes real. Similarly, some people are experiencing a wake-up call from the spread of the coronavirus. The big questions loom large: “Who am I?” “What is the meaning and purpose of life?” “I am not in control of my life, and death could arrive. Is there a God and is there life after death?” Suddenly, the importance of the next life and the shortness of this life become real.

While most people don’t think about it deeply to recognize it, their reaction to the unknown, to sickness, and to things like the coronavirus is rooted in their fear of death.

As counterintuitive as it may seem to modern minds, Catholics in a state of grace should approach death with confidence because Jesus has conquered it through his crucifixion, death and resurrection. Through our Baptism into Christ, our sins are forgiven and our relationship with God is restored so that, for those in a state of grace, death is a bridge to eternal joy. As the funeral rite says, “life is changed, not ended.” Each time we receive the Eucharist, we remember the promise of the Lord, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day” (Jn. 6: 54).

And yet, the reality for many people is that they feel unprepared for their final judgment by the Lord, let alone the challenges of daily life. People clear out whole shelves at the supermarket because they are afraid of being caught unprepared. But do we clear out the spiritual shelves, expending every effort to make sure we are prepared for what might come?

Thankfully, the basic practices of the faith that are emphasized during Lent – prayer, fasting and almsgiving – are the perfect starting point. All three of these practices help us reorient our hearts toward God and love for him in our neighbor.

These spiritual works are also beneficial in that they can still be carried out during the efforts the Church is making to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. We can renew or begin a commitment to praying every day, sharing our hearts with the Lord and reading Scripture. We can discipline our wills by fasting from different foods or practices, which reminds us that our life and strength come from God alone, not anything else. And finally, we can financially support the poor and the needy. We also should give them alms of our prayers for the sick and suffering and those who are distant from God.

As COVID-19 continues to spread throughout Colorado, you can read more about how the Archdiocese of Denver is responding at archden.org/coronavirus.

As we engage in the sacrifices of Lent, may each of us turn to our Mother Mary and ask her to accompany us in seeking out true conversion and to protect us in these times of uncertainty.