Use the pandemic to improve your mental health, not damage it

By Paul Prather

It’s been my observation that some people, sometimes—not all people, all the time—pass their lives spinning as many plates as they can, staying constantly occupied so they don’t have to confront their deeper problems.

They might not even be conscious this is what they’re doing, but they’ve structured their daily schedules so as to escape their spiritual emptiness or their narcissistic spouse or their spending addiction or their lack of self-awareness or whatever it is that gnaws at them when they’re alone and quiet. Their objective is to keep moving, always moving.

They run to another soccer game. They volunteer for overtime at work. They go out drinking with the girls or bowling with the guys. They reseal the driveway.

None of which is a bad thing. It’s only when such things are used as distractions—or more so, as painkillers—that they become troublesome.

Because when those distractions are suddenly yanked away, as with our current covid-19 pandemic and its attendant shutdowns and lockdowns and layoffs, a ton of deferred unhappiness comes crashing down. It can almost crush a person.

I suspect that in some cases—again, not all—those boiling worst today tend to be those who hadn’t dealt with their demons before the coronavirus struck, who hadn’t looked within much.

They’re the ones now railing loudest. They’re blaming others, ricocheting around whatever room they’re in, posting hateful memes on social media, defying public health advice.

Anything to deflect, to keep from confronting the real issue, which is the unresolved turmoil that’s long festered inside them.

There’s no doubt this pandemic is making a lot of people crazy, or at least exacerbating craziness that was already there—something I’ve written about before.

It’s a documented fact. In a study reported August 14 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 41 percent of respondents said they had experienced at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition due to the pandemic. Those issues included symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder, symptoms of a trauma- and stressor-related disorder and having started or increased the use of substances to cope.

I realize mental disorders are real illnesses. No one should dismiss them as moral failures or a simple lack of willpower or a lack of self-awareness. That’s not what I’m talking about here. If you have a mental disorder, please get professional help.

But that 41% doesn’t even include those who haven’t (yet) lapsed into a clinical condition, who’ve just become surlier, more hypersensitive and less patient.

So far, and I emphasize “so far,” I’ve fared pretty well during the pandemic. Yes, I’ve had the blues here and there. I’ve found my emotions more brittle than they normally are. I’ve even gotten bored once or twice, which is exceedingly rare for me.

Overall, though, I’m fine. I’m not drinking myself into a coma. I’m sleeping well. I’m upbeat. I’m praying more, and more happily, and more effectively.

Partly that’s because I have an advantage over most people, an advantage I never would have sought.

I already spent five years on a lockdown very similar to this, providing almost constant care to my terminally ill first wife. Five years of being locked in my house, watching someone I loved waste away, left me a scorched, husk of a man.

But I learned a lot of things then and afterward, and those lessons help me now. I mean, five months on lockdown, compared to five years? No biggie. I just go work another crossword puzzle or read a good western. I take a nap.

One thing I learned is that an unsought and unwanted lockdown—seen through a long-range lens—can even provide us opportunities to learn and grow, to perhaps beat down a few of our besetting demons.

Everyone’s situation is different. After caregiving all those years, I don’t judge how anybody handles any difficulty. You never know what you can or can’t bear until you’re forced to bear it. You’re never as strong or as secure as you think.

Yet if you’re one of those people who feels as if you’re coming apart at the seams, the good news is that you can actually use this time of discontent to your benefit. Ask yourself what, if anything, you were avoiding before this with all your busyness.

You can begin the work on yourself that maybe you could have done earlier but didn’t. No shame in that.

Sit down and stare in the mirror at those devils staring back at you (I speak metaphorically). Get to know them. Get to know yourself. Talk to God, and then listen to what he says in return. Meditate. See a counselor, even if you have to do it remotely.

Make this the time you finally find a peace that supersedes your circumstances, a peace that will last, a peace that can thrive in the midst of silence.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at pratpd@yahoo.com. This was originally published in the Lexington Herald-Leader.