How Not To Freak Out

Dear ones, as I walk through these days, I’ve been really noticing the wisdom of folks for whom, for various reasons, this strange season is at least somewhat familiar territory. Here are some things I’ve gathered that I think may be helpful to others as well. I’d love to hear what’s been helping you – or what’s especially hard.  – Rev. Miranda+

On life during a crisis…  

Wisdom from Emily Scott, who was pastoring in New York City during and after Hurricane Sandy, and learned some things from that experience that may be more broadly helpful now. 

1. Your brain won’t work as well. This week I’ve forgotten what I was doing a thousand times. Stress messes with your sequencing, and ordering your thoughts gets hard. Try to do one thing at a time.

2. Touch down once a day for the big picture, but focus on the tasks in front of you most of the day. There’s a lot to take in about how our world has changed. Take in news and new information once during the day, to make sure the work you’re doing in is in line with the new reality. But the rest of the time, focus on your work. Having something to focus on always gives me a sense of agency.

3. Pause to assess your gifts and your vocation, and how they might meet the need in this current moment. We’ll all have to adapt in this new time, but lean on gifts God gave you, and take a breath to decide how to focus your time.

4. Savor the sweet spots. It might be snuggling down under the covers when you first wake up or a cup of tea each night on the porch, but linger in the moments that give you comfort as long as you can. 

5. Do less. Our capacity has changed; we are able to do about 50-75% of what we did before this crisis hit. Let extra stuff fall away and streamline what you can. Extend grace to yourself and others. 

6. Adapt and pivot. Be as nimble as you can. We’re in a world that looks very different. I know I said “do less” above, but also, it’s a time to “do differently” as well.  What resources can you or your organization offer to the work of taking care of our neighbors and community at this time? 

7. Don’t be surprised if past trauma shows up. Under stress, we can expect past traumas to influence our reactions and our days. Notice the signals your body’s sending you, and plan in time and energy for caring for yourself. 

8. Rituals and structures of self care are key. Meditation or a set pattern of prayer at the beginning and end of the day. A long walk. A regular talk with a dear friend. Set up structures that will hold you through this time.

9. You’re not God. If you’re the kind who thinks you have to rescue the whole world, remember that we’re in this together, and God is still here. There are people working for good in every setting — hospitals, libraries, schools, grocery stores. You can trust them to do their job, while you do yours.

What’s going on inside of us: Grief… 

Wisdom from an expert on grief and grieving. I found this article really helpful. Here’s an excerpt: “With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. I don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this. Individually or as smaller groups, people have felt this. But all together, this is new. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.” Read the whole article here: That discomfort you are feeling is grief

What’s going on inside of us: Anxiety…  

Wisdom from a friend who has lived with anxiety for a decade & learned many coping strategies. Catastrophizing is the psychology term for “when your brain runs away with you and tells you that the worst case scenario is about to happen.” 

Avoiding it: Gently notice if certain kinds of information tend to activate this reaction for you. Be selective about what information you take in, and when. Remember: what you *need* to know is only the information that will impact how you act. Everything else is optional and it’s OK to avoid it. 

Countering it: Firstly, get mental health support if it’s really crippling. (Yes, you can still get that kind of help even in these times. Start by calling your primary care doctor if your don’t know where else to start.) But if it’s not crippling, there are many coping strategies you can try, like: 

  • Distraction. Take your mind off of it, and let it fade out.
  • Exercise. Intense exercise, even for 1 minute, can help dissipate your anxiety hormones so you can relax. 
  • Relaxation exercises: Sometimes you can trick yourself out of your anxious thoughts by relaxing your body enough. This works best if you do it often, and not just when you are feeling anxious. 
  • Shift focus to things you *can* do and control. 
  • Check the facts. Sometimes, seeking more (better!) information can help you pull back from spiraling anxiety. 

Read the whole article here:  Fighting Anxiety – What I Learned

Responding to others…

Wisdom from Sarah Knoll Sweeney, an Episcopal priest and hospital chaplain, whose vocation is to accompany people going through hard and frightening experiences.

Compassion rather than empathy…  Lots of us – not just pastors! – are being asked to help others manage their anxiety or struggle right now. Friends or family members may be reaching out and leaning on us. Sarah advises us to think in terms of compassion rather than empathy. Empathy means feeling what someone else is feeling – which can add to our own anxiety, and drain our capacity to respond or even care for ourselves. Compassion, Sarah writes, is different. “Taking a [pause] to send our loving-kindness to those we serve is a renewable resource, and moves us to caring action rather than burnout…. [Between phone calls, or while washing your hands,] visualize the care-seeker you just encountered. In silence, send them loving-kindness. Then, send it to the next person who will encounter them… As you rinse off your blessed hands, send one more push of kindness to [someone else –  maybe someone you struggle with or find difficult.]”

Letting others have their distress…  More from Sarah Knoll Sweeney: “I haven’t talked with a single person who is not in some form of distress, [physical, moral, spiritual…]. In your current distress, whatever it looks and sounds like, which helps more: someone who says, “Don’t worry, it’ll be over soon,” or someone who listens intently, capturing and reflecting that they actually heard you, and doesn’t try to put a lid on it, dismiss it, or minimize it?… You have no power to take away physical illness, to solve moral dilemma, or to spin lament into joy. [But] if we say, “Oh! I’m sure you don’t have it, you’ll see,” or “Calm down, you’re all worked up over nothing,” we tell the person, your distress is wrong. Your distress is invalid. Your distress isn’t worth hearing. That’s a toxic message in any encounter, but right now, we all have to let our distress be real and keep going anyway. If you want to be allowed to have the distress you feel right now, please, [let others] have theirs… Don’t reassure it or invalidate it. Reflect it: “You’re at your wits’ end.” “This doesn’t feel right to you.” “You need some relief.” See how you’re not even in that sentence? In not insisting on solving it, you have held an actual moment of space for the other person. Right now, this kind of encounter is priceless. That kind of moment is gold. [Offer this to others, and seek out] someone who can do this for you.”

Extending grace, lowering expectations… Sarah writes, “When we’re under pressure, our oldest roles try to take over because in our lizard brains, we still believe these will get us through (for better or worse, they did!). Those with whom you’re working closely are wrestling their own.” Try to be self-aware about how you may be reacting from your own deep patterns, more so than in “normal” times, and realize others around you are doing the same. “People are going to be deeply entrenched in their favorite ways of coping right now.”

Leaning on faith & the tools and heritage of faith…

As Christians, we strive to trust that God is with us in all circumstances; and we know that God’s people have been through many hard times in the past. The apostle Paul wrote to a church assembly whom he could not be with, loved, and missed, in the letter to the Philippians. Julian of Norwich, one of the saints we hold in special honor in our congregation, lived in a time of plague and chaos  (here’s a wonderful short paper about Julian & some ideas for reflecting on and praying with Julian, from the bishop of one of our neighboring dioceses). Many of the Psalms speak of distress, longing, and seeking – and sometimes finding – peace. Here are a couple of starting points: Psalm 90 and 130 are cries for God’s help; Psalms 121 and 131 are psalms of trust. If you would like more suggestions for praying with the Psalms, let me know!

Setting aside time for daily prayer – even a simple, short practice – can help anchor you as well. Daily prayer both gives us routine and structure, and offers us a chance to rest in God’s presence and perhaps hear God speaking to us. One very simple practice is this shortened Compline – prayers at bedtime. If you are using this on your own, simply read both the leader & response parts.

Music is a touchstone for many of us – both familiar songs (hymns and church songs, and not so churchy songs too!) and, sometimes, new songs that help us face the present moment. Deanna, our music director, and I are working on plans to continue offering music to our congregation in this time. If there’s a song you really miss and want help finding, so you can sing it at home, please let us know. Here is a song by Martha Burford, based on prayer #59 in our prayer book (p. 832), and performed by friend of the congregation Paul Vasile, that speaks to our need to rest in God in this time.

Finally, remember to do things you enjoy.  

On that subject, I really love this video (OK to watch with kids!):

Bonus resource: One of the priests in our diocese is also a counsellor and has started posting short videos about how to deal with these times. You can find them here: