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Coping and Caring for Oneself During COVID-19

by David C. Wang

Practical Steps for Staff & Faculty

Infectious disease outbreaks can be stressful and take a toll on our mental health and well-being. Because many of us have never lived through an outbreak in our lifetime, chances are that the strategies we utilized in the past to cope with difficult life stressors may no longer be adequate to meet the needs and challenges of this present season. Now that the world has changed, we too need to change and adapt, and this applies to how we cope and care for ourselves, now more than ever.

Especially for those of us in positions of leadership or care-providing roles, our tendency is to put off our own needs to focus on others. With the uncertainty of when the COVID-19 pandemic will end, at some point, our own unattended needs will compromise our capacity to be helpful and carry out our typical work functions. Continuing to care for others and attending to the tasks at hand well during this season of COVID-19 requires us to learn how to care for ourselves at the same time. Here are some practical steps you can take to ensure that you are properly attending to your own needs, so that you can in turn sustainably attend to the needs of others and your department:

  • Take the necessary steps to protect yourself and loved ones.

    The World Health Organization suggests staying informed but avoiding overexposure to news that might cause you to feel anxious or distressed. Once you have taken reasonable and well-informed measures to ensure the safety of you and your loved ones, you need to acknowledge your needs.

  • Acknowledge that you need to cope.

    You can’t cope with an emotion or a problem you are unwilling to accept you have. “I shouldn’t feel anxious or tired or overwhelmed because my circumstances aren’t as dire as others” is the language of denial. Others can have legitimate needs AND you can have legitimate needs and stress, both at the same time. It’s entirely valid to feel burdened and on edge, even while we are trusting Jesus to guide us through a difficult season. Rather than denying or avoiding what is already on your heart, why don’t we acknowledge our needs and invite them to guide us (as a spiritual discipline would) back into our utter dependence upon him?

  • Be mindful of how you compensate for your lack of control.

    It is entirely human to seek out certainty and any semblance of control in the midst of a disorienting and rapidly changing environment. Some of us compensate through vigilant and meticulous micromanagement (which will often lead to angry outbursts at the slightest derailment), while others compensate through disengagement or helpless surrender. Both of these excesses can take on a certain spiritual veneer that masks the underlying issue. What is needed for such a time as this has been nicely captured by Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

  • Stay in the present moment.

    Broadly speaking, anxiety is reflected in a mind that is perpetually oriented to the future, while depression is reflected in a mind that is perpetually oriented to the past. Staying in the present moment (or even in the present day) ensures that the burdens we carry today are just today’s burdens (rather than the burdens of yesterday and tomorrow as well). As Christ states in Matthew 6:34, “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

  • Take care of your body.

    Eat healthy, regular meals — to the extent that you are able. Exercise regularly. Spend time outside. Breathe deeply. Get plenty of sleep and avoid strenuous mental or physical activities, and electronic screen use, as you approach bedtime. Avoid/limit alcohol.

  • In moments of acute distress, distract yourself.

    With a slew of new life stressors, there may be moments when you feel totally overwhelmed. When this is the case, try these tactics: While holding your breath, splash your face with cold water or press the area between your eyebrows with a cold pack (this triggers what scientists call the ‘dive response’). Engage in intense exercise for a short time, like running, jumping, doing sit-ups, then afterward, watch your favorite comedy on Netflix or YouTube, while also enjoying your favorite snack.

  • Stay connected with others and reach out for support.

    Research suggests that one of the most consistent and powerful predictors of resilience and recovery in the face of emotionally stressful situations is social support — being reminded that others care and that we are not alone. Being socially isolated can be taxing in itself, like not having the support of coworkers or not being able to see friends and family face-to-face. Further, as those working to benefit students at a Christian institution, many of us may be used to being on the side of giving support to others. It’s part of our gift that God has created and entrusted to us. It’s also a gift that we need to receive as well. There are many types of social support — it can be emotional (aimed at meeting emotional needs), instrumental (aimed at meeting practical needs), formal (with professionals such as psychologists or counselors), and informal (with family and friends). Though in a different format, all of these are still available if we know how to reach out. Every type is helpful and at any given point, we may find ourselves needing one form more than another. Let us all receive this Word for ourselves, “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Eccles. 4:12).

Additional Resources

The Biola Counseling Center is offering Virtual Drop-In Consultation, free of charge for staff and faculty. This is not online therapy. These are brief, problem-solving conversations in which the therapist will listen, provide support, offer resources and help brainstorm solutions.

You can find BCC's Virtual Drop-In Therapist "in the office" at the following days/times:

Mondays 2–6 p.m.
Tuesdays 10 a.m–noon and 5–7 p.m.
Wednesdays 3–5 p.m. and 6–8 p.m.
Thursdays 5–7 p.m.
Fridays 10 a.m.–noon and 1–3 p.m.

No paperwork is required. Simply find a quiet, confidential space where you can talk (a car works if where you live doesn't), then click or copy this URL into your internet browser on any phone, tablet or laptop with a camera and a microphone. If several people drop in at the same time, there may be a brief wait, so just hang out in "the waiting room," and the therapist will be with you soon.

This article is adapted from “Coping and caring for oneself during COVID-19: Practical steps for pastors and Christian ministry leaders” from the Humanitarian Disaster Institute, by David C. Wang, Th.M., Ph.D., associate professor at Biola’s Rosemead School of Psychology and licensed clinical psychologist.