Don't neglect spiritual, mental health during this time of health crisis

March 25, 2020

WACO, Texas (March 25, 2020) – In a difficult and ever-changing time of crisis surrounding the spread of coronavirus, the basic needs of health and safety come first. But as these basic physiological needs are met, the more advanced care for spiritual and mental health can remain overlooked or ignored altogether.

Baylor University’s Holly Oxhandler, Ph.D., LMSW., associate dean for research and faculty development and assistant professor the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work, is an expert on mental health, primarily anxiety and depression, as well as religion and spirituality in clinical practice.

In this Q&A, she shares tips and resources to help unhook from the baser instincts of fear and anxiety, even momentarily, to monitor and care for spiritual and mental health needs.

Q: During a crisis, why do spiritual and mental health needs tend to be overlooked or ignored?

A: In the midst of a crisis, our natural reaction is to go into a fight-or-flight response to the situation. Our most basic needs must be met, such as finding a sense of safety, and our bodies are doing what they were designed to do: to protect us. For example, if we were to encounter a bear on a hiking trail, our sympathetic nervous system would be activated to meet the basic need of keeping us safe. Our spiritual and mental health are not primary needs in that moment of crisis.

If we were to run from that bear and reach safety, our emotions would eventually become regulated, our breathing would become normal, and we could return to a generally balanced way of being that allows for attention to our spiritual and mental health.

However, we are in a prolonged moment of crisis surrounded by uncertainty, constantly evolving news updates and daily threats to our and loved ones’ safety regarding our health, finances and sense of normalcy. In this state of constant stress, it can be really hard to unhook from the fight-or-flight response and remember to tend to our spiritual and mental health.

Q: How can people tend to their spiritual health during this time of crisis?

A: In this moment, most of us are being forced to be still and/or surrender the illusion of control in ways we have never faced before. In this stillness, our spiritual practices can help remind us of a divine Love that is with us through each moment, but we must intentionally set time aside to practice them. Plus, many research studies have shown healthy, positive spiritual practices have the potential to support our mental and physical health.

One thing that’s very important, especially in the midst of this crisis, is that we do not spiritually bypass what’s happening.

It may be tempting to want to jump to hope and ignore the pain, but to the best of our ability, our faith traditions teach us we must sit with and feel the grief rooted in the overwhelming change and loss we and our neighbors are facing.

As Fr. Richard Rohr says, “If we do not transform the pain, we will most assuredly transmit it – usually to those closest to us.” We must be with the fear and uncertainty, grieve the loss of life as we knew it a few weeks ago, pray the psalms of lament, and feel the freedom to wrestle with and/or cry out to God in ways we read about others doing so in our sacred texts.

The important thing is that each of us engages in something tied to our faith, regardless of what we believe in, and to be consistent in the practice, continually learning to surrender that sense of control we’re all finding ourselves learning to do right now.

Spiritual Health Tips

Reading our sacred text
Centering prayer (my personal favorite, which teaches us silence, solitude and stillness)
Breath prayers (here are some examples)
Engaging in creativity (music, dance, art) as an act of worship
Practicing gratitude
Seeking beauty in the mundane
Especially in this time of increased isolation, I would recommend inviting others into these practices for a sense of solidarity and community, including those within our home or via social media, video conferencing or by phone.

Stay in communication with loved ones but just as you would seek a medical doctor for a broken arm, seek a therapist when you notice changes in your mental health.

Q: How can people tend to their mental health needs?

A: The first practice I would recommend is to pause and breathe deep for 4-5 seconds, noticing your belly rise instead of your chest, and breathe out for 6-7 seconds.

The second would be grounding. When our brain is flooded with information and emotion, it is hard to stay present. In grounding, we take a deep breath and ask ourselves five questions to return to the present moment:

What do I smell right now?
What do I taste?
What do I see in front of me?
What can I touch and feel the surface of?
What do I hear?
A third recommendation would be to get outside as often as you can and, ideally, into some sunlight.

I would also recommend the practice of tuning into our bodies. For many of us, it can be difficult to pay attention to what our bodies are trying to tell us, in the same way our thoughts and emotions communicate with us. Especially now, pay attention to the tension in your neck, the overall exhaustion, the pain in your arm muscles, the tightness in your chest, or any other experiences you notice by tuning in. Your body may be trying to tell you to spend less time watching the news (maybe cut back to 1-2 times a day), to take a nap or to move it and exercise.

Last, and perhaps most importantly, do not hesitate to reach out for help if you are noticing changes in your appetite, sleep, mood, thoughts or feelings. Stay in communication with loved ones but just as you would seek a medical doctor for a broken arm, seek a therapist when you notice changes in your mental health. Many therapists are quickly adapting to telehealth services in this moment to meet growing demands and social distancing expectations. Some sites for finding a therapist include Psychology Today or HelpPRO, and if you or a loved one are deeply struggling, please reach out to the National Suicide Hotline or call 800-273-TALK (8255). Reaching out for help with your mental health is a sign of courage, not weakness.

Q: During this time of crisis, what populations do you feel are most vulnerable to mental or spiritual health decline?

A: Honestly, I think every single one of us are vulnerable to mental and spiritual health decline during this moment for varying reasons. As mentioned before, these parts of us are easily brushed aside when we’re most focused on ensuring our basic needs of safety and security are met.

Still, there are a few groups I’m especially sensitive to. The first are the helpers on the front line facing far more need than resources, time or energy to meet those needs. These include our health care providers, social workers, therapists, grocery and restaurant employees, teachers, parents, nonprofit organizations, faith leaders, volunteers, community leaders, pharmacists, lab technicians, scientists and more. These helpers are at such high risk of burnout and my hope is that, to the best of their ability, they are caring for themselves holistically in order to care for others well.

I’m also sensitive to a few other groups who are vulnerable to mental and spiritual health decline. First, older adults are the most religious cohort and are already at risk for depression and isolation even without a crisis, so I worry for them in light of the necessary social distancing.

Second, in light of added pressures, those with various mental illnesses must continue to care for themselves via the medication or therapy they need.

Third, I’m sensitive to those who are recovering from a substance or behavioral addiction and are now surrounded by overwhelming stressors that put them at a higher risk of relapse. Thankfully, recovery groups are now moving online and I would encourage those in recovery or remain plugged into a group.

Q: Many people are unable to access a doctor or professional therapist to get help. What are some resources for those that may need free or low-cost options?

A: There are a number of websites that can help individuals find a professional mental health care provider, such as a licensed clinical social worker, psychologist, counselor or marriage and family therapist. I mentioned Psychology Today, HelpPRO, and the Suicide Prevention Hotline above, but there are others. Better Help and Talk Space are two growing online therapy sites and Low Cost Help elevates providers with affordable rates. I also host a weekly podcast, CXMH: Christianity and Mental Health, which has a ton of episodes on various topics related to this intersection, including a recent one specifically on COVID-19.

You can also contact your insurance provider to see who is in network or, if you do have a primary care provider, see if they have any recommendations. Your local faith communities may also have a list of mental health care providers to consider. There are also many organizations committed to providing resources, including the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the National Institute on Mental Health.

Q: How can neighbors help neighbors and individuals help individuals outside of the professional or therapy setting?

A: I really want to emphasize that, especially in this moment, we must practice extending grace, being still and holistically caring for ourselves so that we can care for others well. We can do our part to serve those who are serving others, even if that means practicing social distancing and stillness, while tending to our spiritual and mental health. Discerning what is ours to do in this moment to offer help, healing, hope and love to our neighbors as well as ourselves, and to help protect our helpers from burning out, will be critical in the days and weeks ahead.

As Chris and Phileena Heuertz shared in their prayer, A Call to Solidarity During COVID-19:

“You’re not alone.
We’re in this together.
We’ll do everything we can to help.”