I’m always thinking about life difficulties in terms of redemption. How can the discomfort of our present situation with COVID-19 actually benefit us in the long run? On the surface, this is unprecedented chaos. We are asking ourselves: Am I at risk for getting the virus? Could someone in my family die from this? What is going to happen to our country? What is going to happen to our world? None of us could have guessed this was going to happen just a few weeks ago and now we all find ourselves adjusting to what many are calling our “new normal”.
So, how can we utilize this time and this experience for the benefit of ourselves, our families and our communities? Dr James Wilder in the book Joy Starts Here mentions the concept that societal crises have a devastating effect on the relational skills of a culture. With every crisis that happens, the psychological impact changes the way that we relate to one another. When fear and sadness replace joy and contentment as dominant emotions, we forget how to love one another. Instead we replace healthy relationship with unhealthy distractions. Compulsions and addictions become our false joy (1). We no longer find the laughter of a child or the snuggles of our pet as satisfying or fulfilling. Problems become more important than people. Our numb hearts turn to substances or unhealthy processes to fill us, and we lose touch with connecting to others and what it really means to be human.
We are either going to get weaker or stronger as a result of this pandemic. If we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to acknowledge and process our emotions, the result will be a loss of human connection and relational skills. However, if we give ourselves the space and time to process our emotional response and readjust/realign ourselves to this current reality, this situation can produce more growth than we ever thought possible. Here are some thoughts in regard to how we can grow in unprecedented ways from this unexpected universal crisis.
Learn to live in appreciation
During crisis, no one “feels” like being appreciative. Our reptilian brain takes over and we go into fight, flight or freeze when we sense danger. It becomes nearly impossible to focus on things that are good and that can provide comfort. However, it is possible for us as higher functioning species to learn the skill of calming our brain down with the appreciation. Appreciation, otherwise known and gratitude or thankfulness has the ability to boost dopamine levels, activate our brain’s relational circuits, resettle our nervous systems and release bonding hormones so that we can return to joy and peace (2).
Practicing appreciation is a simple concept, but its not so simple to put into practice. Focusing on the positive takes intentional effort. Start by making a simple list of people, places and things for which you are thankful. Then attach stories or memories to each item on your list. You can even go a step further by attaching sensory information to those stories and memories. What do you remember seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling and/or tasting in that memory? Practicing focused appreciation for five minutes, three times a day for 30 days will change the way your brain thinks during stress and conflict. Learn it yourself and then pass it on to your children. Slow down your life to reach your fullest potential.
Value what is truly valuable
The regular “rat-race” of life causes us to prioritize the wrong things. Crisis has a way of abruptly stopping us in our tracks and helps us to reorder or realign with the things that are really important to us. Relationships as well as individual emotional and physical health and growth get lost in the shuffle of events, responsibilities and activities. Slowing down our pace gives us the opportunity to look at ourselves and our choices for how to spend our time and money and adjust where necessary. Having no control over what is next in life, causes us to release our grip on life. When we relax and loosen up, we will smile and laugh more, pay attention to things that really matter and learn to enjoy life maybe even for the first time.
Spend some time reflecting on the way you have been living life. What are the things you love and want to continue doing? What are the things you want to stop doing, relationships that you need to adjust, or the priorities you need to get in order? Take the time to brainstorm how you will make these changes. Think through the details of what needs to happen so that when you reemerge into life as usual, you have a plan and can start living the life you want instead of the life to which you feel obligated.
Let go of compulsions and vices
When we are overwhelmed, we often soothe or distract ourselves with substances or processes. Food, shopping, drugs, pornography, video games, television, as well as many other options are at our fingers tips and can provides us with instant relief from anxiety or depression. The only problem is that the relief doesn’t last very long and it takes more of the substance or the process to continue to experience that same level of relief.
Overwhelm happens when anything that I consider bad or scary takes place. Sometimes overwhelm occurs when we are too busy and don’t have time to rest and replenish. Overwhelm can also happen when there is a crisis going on in our world, nation or community and there is no end in sight in terms of how long the crisis will go on or how it will end. All of us have unhealthy compulsions or vices that we use to soothe or distract unless we determine to choose other, more healthy alternatives.
A break from the “norm” is a perfect time to take an inventory of the unhealthy behaviors you typically choose and make changes toward more healthy alternatives. Start by making a list of the things you would like to change and the thoughts and behaviors that surround those things. Then make an even longer list of healthy alternatives. Finally, make a flexible schedule for yourself to add in those healthy behaviors. Don’t give yourself a choice. Don’t think a second thought about it. Change your life by changing your behaviors. You can emerge from this crisis, stronger than ever, more free from the things that have held you back and more determined to become the person you want to be.
Learn to act like my best self even in extreme difficulty
We know that diamonds and pearls are produced because of time and pressure. Without time and pressure, the stunning beauty of these gems would not be possible. Crisis has a way of bringing out the best in us if we allow it to happen. Our nation was devastated by 9/11. Being alive during that time, brings perspective to our current situation. When we feel a sense of connection with our fellow man, we call this the “fellowship of suffering”. Truly, I have never felt so connected to every human across the globe than during the current pandemic. There is a vulnerability to the human experience that is being felt acutely by all of us.
If I don’t hide from the crisis by avoiding or distracting myself, I can actual grow to become my “best self” and begin to live from my truest identity. Living from fear and overwhelm cause us to response out of our pain. Learning to live in appreciation, realign our values and let go of our vices and compulsions will open up a whole new opportunity to live and act like the people we want to be. Allowing pain to mature us will help us to use our power wisely, achieve mutual satisfaction in relationships and develop a unique identity that reflects our true hearts (2).
The best way to mature is to submit to the process. When the pressure seems too great and the unknowns crowd in and overwhelm, first practice calming your body with deep breathing, stretching or tapping. Then spend some time doing self soothing activities such as: interactive journaling (3), radical acceptance or connecting in relationships. Moving forward is always better than staying still or moving backward. Seize this opportunity for growth and movement in a forward direction.
Do I want to go back to normal? Yes, of course! But not without learning all that I need to learn from this crisis: how to live in appreciation, how to value things that are valuable and realign with the things that aren’t as important, and how to slow things way down and live at peace with myself and others. If I can’t learn these things, then maybe “normal” is a hazard to my personal health and relationships. Join me in holding this crisis with open hands and a heart ready for growth. Together we can reach toward our fullest potential as physical, emotional, relational and spiritual beings.
Redemptive Qualities of COVID-19: How Pain and Pressure Make Us Stronger
1) Wilder, E. J., Khouri, E. M., Coursey, C. M., Sutton, S. D. (2011). Joy Starts Here. East Peoria, IL: Shepherd’s House Inc.
2) Coursey, C. M. (2016). Transforming Fellowship: 19 Brain Skills That Build Joyful Community. East Peoria, IL: Shepherd’s House, Inc.
3) Wilder, E. J., Kang, A., Loppnow, J., Loppnow, S. (2015). Joyful Journey: Listening to Immanuel. East Peoria, IL: Shepherd’s House Inc.