This sister psychologist has some tips for you
How is the coronavirus affecting your community?
NEW YORK — Feeling stressed and anxious? Me, too.
I live in the New York City borough of Queens, and two neighborhoods over from mine is “the epicenter of the epicenter,” with a disproportionate number of COVID-19 deaths given population density, particularly in immigrant communities.
As The New York Times reported last week, “[As] the death toll has mounted, the contagion has exposed the city’s stubborn inequities, tearing through working-class immigrant neighborhoods far more quickly than others.”
Not to overdramatize it, but this is a moment of real tension and anxiety for everyone in Queens. I live about five blocks from one of the borough’s major hospitals, and we’re hearing a lot more sirens, which can be particularly haunting at night.
So it came as a balm to hear Australian Sister of Mercy Maryanne Loughry’s recent advice about how to deal with such anxiety. Loughry is a trained psychologist who has led numerous psycho-social and well-being trainings as part of research and ministry in many parts of the world, particularly among refugee communities. Loughry has worked with Jesuit Refugee Service and is a part-time faculty member of the Boston College School of Social Work and a research associate at the University of Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre. She holds a doctorate in psychology from Flinders University of South Australia.
On April 1, Loughry led a webinar by the International Union of Superiors General on ways to deal with anxiety and stress that drew nearly 200 viewers: individual sisters, but also sister communities watching as a group. (You can watch the webinar on YouTube. On April 21, Loughry plans to host another webinar on ways to face social and personal grief.)
The insights Loughry offered included sister-specific advice about what congregations and communities can expect in the coming weeks and months. Noting that the “pandemic is still rolling out,” she said economically poor countries with fragile health care infrastructures are going to face real challenges.
She also noted that community life “isn’t always easy,” but it is “extraordinarily challenging at the moment,” with frictions and tensions rising to the surface.
“There will be times we’ll be sorry about what we said,” Loughry said.
Though this is the time for sisters to be compassionate with one another, she said, “it might be the time we need to have that tough talk with a sister about her behavior.”
Beyond the specifics of sisters’ community life, Loughry provided sage advice about how all of us, not just sisters, can deal with anxiety and stress at this unprecedented moment.
Here are some of the takeaways that stood out for me from Loughry’s helpful webinar.
These really are difficult times.
A colleague told Loughry that the virus affects people “fundamentally” because the physical distancing required has stopped the normal interactions of hugging and shaking hands. “It interferes with us,” Loughry said, and “we grieve those losses.” We grieve at “not being able to do what is fundamental to us.”
It’s all right to feel anxiety and stress given the pandemic’s “threatening and unpredictable” nature.
“It’s a perfect recipe for stress,” she said, so it’s normal “to be sad, stressed, confused and scared. I’d be worried if people weren’t anxious or scared or stressed at this time.”
The challenge is how to manage such stress and anxiety so they are not causing physical ailments, such as headaches, stomachaches and poor sleep.
Loughry noted that the terms “stress” and “anxiety” are often used interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing. Stress is a reaction to an external trigger, like bad news. Anxiety, frequently caused by stress, is a deeper, often longer-lasting mental health condition.
Embrace “circuit-breakers” that can help stop or at least minimize anxiety.
These include talking to friends and family, listening to music, reading fiction, even gardening. Other ways: meditation, cooking and embroidery. Having “circuit-breakers,” she said, can stop the constant loop and “reruns” of worries, such as, “What if we can’t get to the bank?” or “What if we run out of toilet paper?”
Don’t be a news junkie.
One way to reduce your worrying is by not being obsessive about the news. Don’t constantly read, watch or listen to reports about the pandemic. Loughry tries to limit her news consumption to three times day: morning, afternoon and evening. People need to keep up with the news, certainly, “but not every hour,” she said.
She advised keeping a balance between “what you can manage” in terms of bad news and staying responsibly informed. In other words, limit exposure to bad news “without ignoring the bad news.”
Affirm the current trends of physical distancing.
However, also affirm social interaction in new ways, such as online interactions. It’s important to keep connections with people, even if they are, for the moment, not done in person.
“People need that social component,” she said.
Keep an eye out for those you know.
Vulnerabilities can emerge at a time like this, so watch out if people you know suddenly start smoking or drinking or engaging in other risky behaviors. Help people find resources if they need professional help.
Secular resources focused on anxiety and stress are valuable but often neglect the role spirituality and religious faith have for many people.
“A lot of people around the world rely on religious faith,” Loughry said.
Such faith has deep historical roots. In the Christian tradition, “the people of God have faced plagues and pandemics before. You just have to look at our psalms. Our psalms are laments.”
As such, they deal with life experience like “what we are experiencing now,” she said. “We bring our lens and faith to this pandemic.”
Be compassionate and forgiving.
That may seem obvious, but Loughry noted that in times like this, anxiety and stress can lead to barriers going up. Avoid them. Don’t shame people who are infectious with the virus. Affirm the mental health needs of the elderly, including older sisters who may be dealing with high levels of worry.
Be kind to yourself.
To be available for others, be easy on yourself. This may not be the ideal time “to go on a diet,” “to clean out the files” or “read the original Aquinas.” To offer comfort to others, perhaps this is the time to take comfort in the books, food and routines we enjoy. But at the same time, be open to new perspectives. Older people may have much to learn from younger people at this moment. And keep in touch, however you can, with family and friends.
Keep things in perspective.
Loughry concluded her remarks by not minimizing what is ahead, reminding her fellow sisters that now is the time to put into place strategies “to ride out what is happening at the moment.”
But, she said, “this time will pass.” It’s going to get more difficult in many countries, she said, “but it will pass.”
[Chris Herlinger is GSR international correspondent]
Culled by me, today, from the U.S. National Catholic Recorder (NCR), I believe this article by a Religious Sister with qualifications in Psychology could be helpful to those of my readers who may be overly anxious about the current situation of the COVID 19 Pandemic.
We are all concerned about how this will affect ourselves and our families – especially those who may be more vulnerable than others because of inherent health problems. However, this must not make us lose a sense of true perspective. We, here in New Zealand, seem to be doing better than other countries with larger populations and more easily accessed borders. It could be that these mitigating factors could help in the process of our recovery from the Level 4 Situation that currently obtains here in Aotearoa.
This does not mean that we could, or should, relax our watchfulness, or our precautions against the possibility of spreading the community infection rate. The present policies of our Prime Minister and the Government of NZ seem to have had the effect of slowing down the on-going rate of infection – together with the containment of the number of people hospitalized, as well as the number of people dying as a result of the virus.
Sister Maryanne Loughry, S.M., being herself a member of a Religious Community in the U.S. District of Queens, New York, has insights into the reality of the situation in a place where the most vulnerable are the poor and homeless. This should make us even more aware of the FACT that poverty and homelessness are major factors in the incidence of infection from all sorts of diseases that afflict society from time to time in its history.
We, who are more fortunate to be able to separate ourselves out from others in this time of stress, could better be occupied in wondering about conditions exist in our society that allows our less fortunate members to bear the major burden of suffering in times of peril – such as the world is now experiencing in the wake of COVID 19.
As Sister Maryanne well knows, one great recovery tool for any of us who are presently experiencing stress as a result of the medical and economic situation in which we find ourselves – is to consider how OTHER PEOPLE might be coping with their own particular state of being at this time!
We Christians are fortunate in that we have the benefit of Faith to help us in situations where we find ourselves in difficulty. There is also the virtue of Hope, that militates against the sort of abject fear that might otherwise consume us. But perhaps the major attribute for us all ought to be the virtue of Love (Caritas) without which not only we, ourselves but also others for whom we ought to be caring; may lose any sense of how our common humanity is meant to overcome the difficulties in times of shared disaster.
I am reminded of the outlook of Mother Julian of Norwich – another ‘Religious’ living in England during the times of plague in the Middle Ages. Her amazing proclamation at that time must have been quite helpful to a people under threat of death from the plague:
ALL SHALL BE WELL. ALL SHALL BE WELL. ALL MANNER OF THINGS SHALL BE WELL!
This was not just a case of ‘Whistling in the Wind’, but the product of faith in a God who cares for each one of us – in the same way that we are encouraged to care for each other.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand