Slice me open and I bleed anxiety. I always have. I grew up in 80s/90s Northern Ireland; a place riven by chaos and conflict. If fear was a contagion, back then, we were all infected.
At the same time, the headlines (those I remember) were full of the AIDS epidemic — a terrifying and fatal disease with no cure. My child-sized skull echoed with warnings: you can’t be too careful. You can’t be too safe.
Aged 13, I developed anorexia. Over the course of the next few years I also developed obsessive compulsive disorder, self-harm, anxiety and depression. I starved myself to the point of extinction. I washed my hands with bleach until they bled. There were many reasons for this, not just those I’ve mentioned. But underpinning them was fear — that my body and my world were out of control. So I developed strategies to cope. I fought my fears with hunger and hand-wash.
OCD takes different forms. For me, it was a fear of contamination and a fear of running out. I hoarded soap and toilet rolls. I refused to touch surfaces for fear of catching an infection, or passing it on to someone I loved. Unless I washed my hands, over and over, in a certain order, I believed that something terrible would happen to me or to the people I loved.
This was not an overdeveloped sense of good hygiene. It was a life-dominating obsession that felt like a cage. I spent hours washing in a set pattern; and even the slightest deviation from routine meant that I had to start again. Left hand first, finger by finger, under the nails, 26, 27, 28 times. My skin broke apart and I had to have my wrists bandaged. My fingers were raw, like bloodied meat.
I’m no longer dominated by OCD. But let’s imagine that teenage Emma is transplanted into Britain today. 13 years old: dominated by fears about contamination and control.
The world is facing a new crisis — an epidemic that no one knows how to handle.
She’s terrified by germs, but the shops have run out of toilet roll and hand wash.
The one thing that will stop the plague is handwashing. And not just any handwashing: proper handwashing. Serious, lengthy, ritualised, handwashing.
She lies awake, obsessing about endangering her loved ones unless she gets things ‘right’. Now there’s proof. Her cough could kill granny.
All around her, people—grown-ups, online friends, world leaders, neighbours—are panicking.
The shops are running out of basic supplies. The whole world is taking on a scarcity mindset.
Everything is broken.
This is not the truth, but it’s how she sees it.
So what can you tell her to stem the fear? As pastors, parents, co-worker, friends, what do we say to those with other vulnerabilities such as depression, anxiety, addiction?
What do we say to ourselves?
Here are some starters for how to fight the fear:
1. Isolate physically but do not isolate mentally.
It is VITAL that you talk to others. All of us need community, especially at times like this. But it’s crucial for those with mental illness, (who often go it alone when stressed). It’s tempting to go around in circles in your own head or to turn to harmful behaviours to deal with your feelings. But there are other options. Your emotions may feel dangerous, but they don’t have the power to destroy you. If you speak them out (with trusted friends/church/professionals/helplines) you can process them in safe ways.
2. Distance physically but reach out practically
This is the same truth from the other side. We must look after one another. For some, this means offering to do the shopping. For others, it means regular phone calls (perhaps using Whatsapp, Facetime or Skype, etc). Check in and talk it out. You are not being a burden. In fact you may be casting a life-line to someone else. This outward focus is vital for your own mental health. So look out for the needy: elderly neighbours who are feeling alone; families struggling with child care; health-workers facing endless pressures and endless shifts; churches and charities who need extra support during the downturn.
3. Don’t feed your anxieties.
The internet can be a great tool for research (if it’s a trusted source) but it’s not a great confidante. Doctor Google has her uses but not if you go to her to confirm your deepest fears. Talk those things out with friends and family. When you speak out your latest anxiety or conspiracy theory, you’ll bring it into the light. And as it’s exposed, it starts to shrink.
4. Eat a healthy mental diet.
Monitor what you read and watch, especially on social media. By all means stay informed but be wary of sources driven by fear or outrage. Fill your mind with scripture, now more than ever before. If you’re confined at home for any period, now’s a great chance to read some of the Christian classics you’ve always meant to dig out. Think of three books you’ve been meaning to get around to. You can order them at the click of a button, or even read them for free online.
5. Be practical.
If you’re on medication, check that you’ve got enough for a self-isolation period (or ask friends to get it for you). If you’re working from home, try to build in new routines and stick to familiar patterns: getting up, getting washed, getting dressed, properly setting up your work space, keeping in touch with work colleagues even more than normal, exercise, bed at a reasonable time. Ask friends to get you groceries if you need them; but don’t panic. There is no supply shortage and even if you do have to hole up for a bit, you don’t need 400 bags of pasta.
6. Remember: Jesus does not self-isolate.
Pandemics do not catch the Lord off guard. In Exodus, Amos and Revelation we see the Lord acting in and through plagues. He is at work right now, in the world and in us. As we practice social distancing, the King of heaven is reaching out. As always!
When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy.Matthew 8:1-3
In bible times, when someone had leprosy, there was no cure and no help. Those who came close were contaminated. But Jesus spreads cleanness instead. Here is a God who cares for and walks among the sick. He says ‘I am willing.’ He stretches out his hand instead of drawing back. He meets us as individuals in our need, whatever we face. He leads us back into a loving community. He is doing that — not in spite of the pandemic, but through it. Jesus is at work and he’s reaching out right now.
7. Remember: Prayer is powerful.
Worries are really unarticulated prayers. So put words to your worries and send them heavenwards. Make yourself talk them out in the presence of Love. Notice the promise Paul makes: “Do not be anxious about anything but in everything, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6). When it comes to “petitions”, pray for the government, for health workers, the vulnerable and loved ones, doctors working on a vaccine, the church and its witness, folks close to you — and know that it’s not fears that surround you but God’s peace!
8. Remember: The Future is Bright
The Chinese government have released images of intensive care doctors from Wuhan, removing their masks and clocking off for the last time. Propaganda? Almost certainly. But what are such images tapping into? The sense that the sun comes out after the storm. In the bible we have a trustworthy source and this is its headline: a day of liberation and celebration will come. Jesus has taken on our greatest enemies: sickness and sin; disease and death. He has conquered them, weathering the storm and coming through to resurrection hope. He is Lord; not this virus. And He will bring his people safely through.
And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.1 Peter 5:10.
Places that help if you’re struggling now