The outbreak of this pandemic began in China at the beginning of 2020, and it has now spread throughout the world: first to Asia, then to Europe, and now to North America. The world seems to be under catastrophic doom from which no one is able to escape.
Let me share what we have observed in our counseling and shepherding based on our experience serving the churches in our field. These churches have gone through the devastation of the virus over the past two months. The remind us it is not just the economic and physical toll that matters, but the spiritual toll that matters the most.
While this pandemic is caused by a virus, its effect on the psychological realm is far greater than on the physical realm. It doesn’t only infect people who live in certain geographic areas; rather, its threat has spread to different parts of the world. Fear is just as contagious as COVID-19, if not more so.
When news first leaked out about this deadly disease in early January, many people, both in and outside of China, were startled. Those who had previous experience personally or who knew people who had experienced SARS in 2003 reacted more strongly and more quickly. The initial phase of the pandemic was in East Asia, but people in the United States responded to the news differently: some started preparing themselves to brace for the disease, but many were more aloof to the situation.
We have noticed there are four common phases people go through. They are: 1) anxiety/fear, 2) isolation, 3) helplessness, and 4) hopelessness.
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Phase 1: Anxiety/Fear
In my counseling during the initial phase of the pandemic, I noticed people’s anxiety about COVID-19 was causing fear-driven actions, exposing their inner hearts as full of uncertainty and vulnerability. Hoarding food and essentials are actions that people perceive as keeping them “safer” from COVID-19. People are glued to social media or news outlets which provide great amounts of information to their audiences, but the constant bombardment of information about the devastation of COVID-19 evokes people’s unrealistic fears and heightens their anxieties. People have even resorted to hostile and violent behavior in response to survival instincts and concern for family well-being – we have heard of people literally fighting for food and supplies at grocery stores.
As the number of confirmed diagnoses increased, I noticed in my counseling sessions that the anxiety and fear over COVID-19 heightened exponentially. People are fearful of contracting the virus and infecting their loved ones; they are fearful of suffering and even possibly dying. The more people monitor the progression of the disease, the more anxiety and fear they have.
This is especially true as the typical distractions of our lives are taken away as businesses, communities, and recreation facilities shut down. Our normal routines have been disrupted, which further fuels the fear/anxiety: most people are not able to go to work, while essential workers are overworked. We are not able to go out into the community on our own time or at all; we face decreased availability of access for a variety of needs, including healthcare; and we are separated from our families and friends. People often become “virus investigators:” hyperalert to their environment and suspicious of anyone who may be contagious.
Phase 2: Isolation
Although it is necessary to enforce social distancing in an attempt to stop the virus, such isolation brings out the worst in people, who were created by God to live communally.
People have found themselves facing life-threatening problems alone, without the usual support of one’s social network. These problems include uncertainty about future financial stability. Most people don’t have enough disposable income saved to endure a long-lasting shutdown. As days and weeks go by, the stresses of unemployment and long-term financial instability, which may cause an inability to provide decent food and shelter for the family, are no longer theoretical, but real. Yet we are also socially distanced, meaning it seems like we’re drowning in the middle of the ocean with no help in sight.
During the period of isolation, the people that I’ve counseled have expressed that even family relationships have been forced to change. For example: before the quarantine, most members of the family each had their own business and rarely spent time together. Parents went to work, children went to school and often had afterschool activities. But now, families find themselves spending all of their time with each other. At first this may sound romantic, but usually every family has its own family issues and tensions that have not been dealt with, and now nobody is in the mood to resolve them. This is not to say they don’t love each other; but they find it hard to adjust to the changed roles of an isolated environment, even if it’s in the comfort of their own home. While they are at home, they are no longer able to depend on their work/school/social network to get their satisfaction, they cannot hide or avoid their family problems by busying themselves in other tasks, and they can no longer depend on recreational activities or friendships to fill their sense of belonging.
People’s roles in other areas are also forced to change during this isolated quarantine period. We have to perform jobs or tasks that we are either not familiar with or the demands have increased, such as cooking for the family rather than eating out, and teaching and monitoring our children’s schoolwork. Even conversations with one another quickly become awkward and may frequently end up in arguments or ridicule.
Phase 3: Helplessness
Uncertainty of when this will end makes people feel like they are losing control of life. Continual fear of contagion, infection, illness, and death causes stress and anxiety to increase exponentially. Shock, numbness, confusion, depression, grief, anger, and frustration results. All of a sudden, our environment poses a real threat and we are forced to adapt to this new normal, with no end in sight. Prolonged response to threat makes us exhausted and causes us to feel helpless.
The lack of control over our lives makes us extremely sad and angry, along with other mixed emotions, because in the face of this pandemic, everything that we once thought was important all of a sudden loses its significances in our lives. For example, most people’s usual activities have been forced to stop, including significant life events such as weddings, graduations, and even funerals.
In addition to the anxiety and lack of social support, people use different ways to cope with their negative emotions. Some are more tempted by sinful behavior and activities as a form of escape, or as an attempt to seemingly regain control in life. Some withdraw and exhibit signs of depression. Some project their anger and fear onto others by blaming certain racial groups, and some deal with their fears and anger by attacking others, both verbally and/or physically. There are great spiritual battles taking place during this phase.
Phase 4: Hopelessness
With seemingly no end in sight, individuals may start to act or think in extreme ways. I have seen loss of faith in the government and health institutions, and loss of trust between people. People are more prone to conspiracy theories and to believe themselves to have been treated unfairly (i.e. as victims of unfairly distributed medical care or supplies for daily needs). I see a lot of blame-shifting, along with being prone to sins and temptations. In some rare cases suicidal tendencies have started to occur.
The longer the period of social distancing and the continual increase of the death count, the more helplessness people feel about the situation. When people are first put in this situation, we have the adrenaline to keep going. Thinking we can prevent ourselves and our loved ones from contracting the virus gives us a false sense of control. But the lack of routine makes us more introspective, often negatively so. We begin to find more negatives than positives in our lives.
In an extended period of isolation, we may lose our battle with our hearts. Our hearts deceive us by thinking there is no way out and we are all alone in dealing with the inevitable.
By looking at the chaos of this world, it may seem logical to conclude that we are powerless victims of others’ wrongdoing, we have absolutely no control over anything, and there is no hope. As the world becomes hopeless, life becomes hopeless.
After Life Goes Back to “Normal”
The emotional phases people go through as a result of COVID-19 will remain with them if they are not counseled and shepherded properly. The harm is already done on a deep spiritual level, so that, even if the virus is completely eradicated, the psychological effects of the virus persist.
Even as China reopens, we are witnessing our counselees slowly going back to “normal” life with much fear and trembling, uncertainty, and frustration. For some, the continual reality of financial instability will cause them to be in a constant state of negative emotions. People will continue to live in the shadow of fear of losing jobs, being sick, not being in control, of death and dying, and especially of the next wave of COVID-19. Fear and anxiety will continue to be a dominant theme in their lives that will not go away by flipping a switch.
The virus may be eradicated, economies may switch back on, but spiritual distress expressed as anxiety or depression will remain, and for some, this will remain for a long time. We have seen this pandemic destroy spouses, families, friendships, and love between neighbors. The church must be ready to shepherd a flock that may not be infected physically, but deeply wounded and hurt spiritually.
Biblical Ways to Counsel and Shepherd People’s Hearts
– The first thing to recognize is that social distancing does not mean social disengagement. Technology has enabled us to stay engaged socially with one another. I encourage you to go beyond texting. Voices matter, and video streaming is the best. If you are a pastor, elder, or deacon you must live stream with your flock and have engaging conversations. Likewise, friends must mutually encourage and support one another through video calls. Images of God are comforted and encouraged just by seeing one another.
– Pray constantly for one another in Christ. Always make each live stream prayer-centric. Prayer immediately forces the pray-er to remind him or herself of the true ultimate reality – God is still their God; they are still God’s people; and Christ is still their Lord and Savior. We need to courageously pray for our negative emotions and offer them to Christ, give them unto Christ, and ask Christ to give us heavenly hope and love, keeping our sights above. The heavenly glory and crown are for those who persevere to the end.
– We remember the words of Christ in John 9: 2-3 as we pray: “ And his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.’” Do not fall into the deception that your sins caused this virus, as if you are personally responsible for the death and tragedy of the world. You and your repentance (as important as it may be) will not heal the world of this virus: the only answer is the return of Christ and the arrival of the new heavens and the new earth. John 9 reminds us that God has a glorious, grand plan in the world of sickness, and we pray that God’s great works will be displayed in this time of COVID-19. The glory of God will be revealed.
– Finally, now is the perfect time to have daily and consistent family worship. Singing hymns, sharing God’s words, praying for one another, and as Paul says, not giving Satan any ground for sin, let us every day set our family focus on the heavenly. Let the Spirit of God guide us in this turbulent time, as God has guided his people in the past. The path ahead is full of challenges and at times, despair, but we trust that his love and blessings will overcome, and lead us to the promised land of the new heavens and the new earth. There will be no more sickness, no more tears, but only the fruit of the Tree of Life and the healing power of its leaves before the throne of God and the Lamb.