Mental Health and Social Distancing: Practical Tools in Tumultuous Times

Updated: Oct 1

From Pastor Stephen Ganschow, Pastor of Counseling – Bethel Church & Ministries





Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul.” (3 John 1:2)


Our culture continues to change rapidly. As stay-at-home orders remain effective in most states through May 1st and there are a growing number of predictions that the cultural ramifications of these unprecedented times may extend for the rest of the year, it is important that we consider the implications this has for our lives. Social distancing is no longer a recommendation. It has temporarily become a way of life. Short of trips out for necessities and limited in-person connectivity with those other than our immediate family is required for the next few weeks at a minimum. Even major retail and grocery stores have begun to limit the number of customers inside their walls. Because of this, I believe it wise that we take a hard step back and consider our spiritual, emotional, and mental health and well-being through the lens of our faith in Jesus and his sustaining work in tumultuous times such as these.


Even in the best of one’s life circumstances, it is easy to slip out of a Christ-centered mindset, and into the mindset of the material world right before our eyes. If we are being honest, much of that material world is a pretty scary and uncertain place right now. These are unprecedented events in an increasingly unprecedented time with no fully perceivable end in sight. There has been no other event so extreme in nearly all of our lifetimes.


In isolated and anxious circumstances much less tense than these, it may seem God is distant; maybe even uninvolved. It is increasingly easy to be swept up in the intensity of this global dilemma and forget or neglect that we press on toward a heavenly goal of rest, security, and unending, confident love from an ever-present God (Philippians 3:14; Hebrews 12:1-2). It is all too easy to remove our focus on the saving work of Jesus and live as though God is not sovereign or in control, or perhaps even that he is not real at all. Thoughts like these can shake our faith, and result in uncertainty—spiritually, emotionally, and mentally.


While the number of positive COVID-19 tests and the number of related deaths draw attention each day, there are a number of other lesser recognized statistics that are becoming concerning as these events proceed. Namely, in countries where the virus has been prevalent for a longer period of time, issues such as hopelessness, depression, and anxiety/worry are on a steady rise. There have already been a number of confirmed suicides due to fear of quarantine. Those in the psychological community have begun to study similar, historical events (The Great Depression; World War II; the SARS epidemic) and the period of economic recovery that follows, and generating predicative models to discern the number of, as well as how to prevent a spike in, suicide(s). What is undeniable is that we are seeing that this is having a tremendous effect on the global populace.


While not being alarmist, my goal in drawing this to our attention is to create awareness and vigilance. I hope for us to have a proactive culture of care in our homes and digital communities where, through the lens of our faith in Christ and the strength he provides, our church weathers this crisis with a minimally negative effect on our spiritual, emotional, and mental well-being. I assure you: this is a very real concern. None of us are immune to the effects of lengthy isolation. It is natural to go a little “stir crazy.” There are many, from pre-teens to adults, who already struggle with faith and the healthy tension it brings (Hebrews 11:1), as well as the emotional complexities of depression, anxiety, and fear.


In an effort to care for you and get ahead of this, I’ve put a series of recommendations together to help those of us who may be vulnerable to take proactive steps, as well as equip those of you (parents; spouses) who may or will be caring for those who battle in this way.


Routine


Most people, from children to adults, live a fairly routine life even if they do not realize it consciously. Between scheduled school, regular work hours, extracurriculars, or church events and other social gatherings, our day-to-day life is fairly predictable. This routine serves us well in meeting our daily obligations and breeds helpful anticipation of what extra time we have for rest, leisure, projects, etc.


It is my strongest encouragement to you to form a routine. Do not completely disregard the former rhythms of life. Massive disruptions to one’s schedule are likely to exaggerate feelings of isolation, loneliness, and anxiety. As such, keep as many components of your previous routine as possible. Where you can, build in a few enhancements to your schedule. Here are a few practical recommendations for you (and your family) to consider:


  • Get up and go to bed at a consistent time every day. Do not take this opportunity to stay up too late binging a new show, scrolling on social media, watching an unnecessary amount of news, and not taking care of yourself. This, and the result of sleeping in, is very likely to increase feelings of overall disruption.

  • Spend consistent time in the Bible every day (more on this below).

  • Have a consistent e-learning or homeschooling time, with breaks to burn a little energy.

  • Maintain as many of your employment rhythms as possible.

  • Eat meals (preferably as a family) with social media put away and the TV off at consistent times every day. This will increase communication and make it less likely that thoughts and feelings associated with isolation or depression can take a foothold.

  • Exercise at the same time for 30 minutes a day (more on this below).

  • Limit time watching TV, playing video games, and scrolling on your phone, tablet, and computer. Schedule this in, with hard start and stopping times (more on this below).


The more of these scheduling basics you can utilize, the more rhythmic and seamless this new normal will be, and the less likely it is that you or your loved ones will be left feeling disjointed, resulting in troublesome thoughts or emotions.


Spiritual Health


  • Spend daily time with Jesus. This is where the lens of faith moves from being a “pair of glasses we wear,” to “the way we see.” While I recommend a disciplined time of Bible reading simply because it is good for your brain, the most important thing is that we spend time with God every day. John 1:1 tells us the Bible is the very thoughts and words of God Himself. Psalm 46 reminds us that God is our refuge and strength, and he is present when we need Him. He is immovable when the earth shakes and a firm foundation upon whom we can rest. Verse 7 tells us the Lord is with us! He is not absent or aloof. Knowing this, it is not a matter of if we spend time with God, it is a matter of when and how.

  • If you struggle reading, download the YouVersion Bible app and listen to the audio Bible. It’s free and easy.

  • Listen to a sermon or a podcast. There is a great deal of tremendous gospel-centered and practical content being distributed (some from the staff of our very own church); take advantage of these resources and utilize them for spiritual growth.

  • Accountability: stay connected to your small group, crew, crew leader, and your Christ-following friends. God designed us to be in community, and we need each other. Talk about what God is teaching you. Actively pursue sharing your honest thoughts and feelings with one another!


Practical Wisdom


  • Designate a “space” for each activity. If possible, have a work and school space. If that space happens to be the kitchen or dining room table, ensure that the space changes when you are going to eat. Put your school and work away so that the space becomes something different. Change your environment for different activities, and have it only reflect the task or event at hand.

  • If you can work or do school in a group space, I recommend you do. Avoid prolonged isolation. Even if you did not interact with others throughout the day prior to social distancing, you were almost always in the presence of others (other students, coworkers, etc). At the very least, stay connected by proximity. Try not to hole up in your bedroom, recreation room, or a space where others are not present.

  • While trying to accomplish work or school, avoid having the TV on or social media in front of you.

  • Set limits for media intake. Do not spend vast quantities of time watching the news or repeatedly checking social media. Studies have repeatedly shown that high media intake results in depression, anxiety, and loneliness. If something significant occurs, you will know soon enough. There is no specific allotment of time for this, but hours-on-end is simply unwise.

  • Exercise for 30 minutes a day. Almost every fitness professional would agree that 30 minutes of exercise, a minimum of three times a week, is wise. Many of the same professionals are offering free exercise routines on YouTube, Instagram, and various social media platforms. Take advantage of these resources. You could also ride a stationary bike, stretch, or go for a run. Exercise releases endorphins in the brain, which naturally make us feel better. This also burns off excess energy which goes unreleased otherwise, leading to feelings of being unsettled, which lead to more concerning thoughts and emotions.

  • Read. It is good for the brain. If reading is not your thing, listen to a good audiobook. It passes the time, expands your horizons, and helps you dwell on things beyond your own thoughts.

  • In the midst of routine, take designated breaks to fight boredom. Get up, move around, take a deep breath, go for a walk, or text a friend. We are accustomed to things like coffee breaks, recess, and time between classes. These are good to break up the day and keep you engaged in the priorities of life.

  • Get out of your own story. Stay connected with others. Check in on your neighbors (when you knock on their door, back off six feet to talk). Reach out to single friends, widows, and those who live alone. Use social media to check in on your friends – especially those you know who might be struggling. Try not to only dwell on what is happening in your own life; get into the lives of others.


Finally, if you find that you or a family member, friend, or loved one are struggling, there are a lot of emerging resources for help in this era of social distancing. Reach out to a trusted friend to talk. Or to a Pastor or counselor in the community. Most have transitioned toward being available via social media platforms like Zoom, Google Hangouts, or Skype and are actively desirous of being available to you. As both a pastor and counselor myself, I want to implore you: please, do not hesitate to reach out. There are those that desire to journey with you if you are struggling.


I cannot encourage you enough to heed these considerations. Think of them like proverbs: general principles that when applied yield a desirable result. It is these basic things that promise to make all the difference in our spiritual, emotional, and mental health in the days ahead. As you read this, know that you are prayed for. May God bless your efforts as you apply these things in your home.


You can follow Stephen Ganschow on Instagram @sganschow.

For more content like this, follow my writings on social media (Instagram and Facebook) and on my website kimcaifano.com.

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