Van Ens: Coping tips to reduce chronic holiday worry
Geysers in Yellowstone National Park surprise tourists, often erupting without warning. Breaking through the Earth’s crust, scalding water soars into the sky. Its searing droplets descend near these geysers, leaving adjacent land scorched.
Catching us off-guard like an erupting geyser, the delta variant makes us anxious. The Gospel of Luke tells of shepherds who worried after an angel interrupted their nightly routine of sheep tending on Judean foothills. Appearing from an inky sky, an angel stirred within these shepherds’ recollections in the Hebrew Bible of God’s everlasting brilliance.
Knocked off-stride, the shepherds trembled. Exceedingly anxious, they “were filled with fear” (Luke 2:9). Hearts racing, I suspect they gulped in chilled night air, as if doing yoga breathing. The angel calmed them, exclaiming, “Don’t be afraid.”
When worry controls hot emotions, some agitated people cuss like shepherds did when sheep disobeyed their commands. Some of today’s customers are nasty towards merchants and workers in helping occupations. Uncorked rage from worry over COVID-19 causes flare-ups. Like geysers spewing deadly spray, these customers vent ugly feelings. Ask restaurant servers, customer-service trackers and airline attendants who request unmasked customers to place coverings over their mouths and noses.
How do we cope with chronic worry, tense emotions, vocal blow-ups, and lingering anxiety caused by the delta variant?
Worry comes naturally when diseases linger and retreat for a brief time before striking again. When we cannot control outcomes the coronavirus causes, we get frustrated. This is a natural response.
“The whipsaw of renewed gloom from the COVID-19 delta variant following the burst of optimism from spring vaccinations makes the current pandemic phase more grueling than past ones, psychologists say. It’s getting harder to muster empathy or regulate our knee-jerk reactions,” writes Anne Marie Chaker in the Wall Street Journal.
Unhealthy reactions arise when we dodge what irks us. “The greatest stress-buster is to eliminate the cause of that stress,” advises David Burns in his book, “The Feeling Good Handbook.” “To do that, you’ve got to identify what’s bothering you, then confront the problem. Otherwise, all the leisure in the world will never succeed in totally de-tensing you.”
Once we mentally look a disease in the eye, finding time to engage Nature helps us cope, too. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus faced worry head-on and placed confidence in getting outdoors to calm jitters. “Do not be anxious for your life…” he teaches, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They do not toil [leaving petals frayed] neither do they spin [out of control when wind gusts hit]. Yet I say unto you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Matthew 6:25, 28-29).
A friend related how nature helped him rebound from severe mental fatigue after his tour of duty with Special Army Forces in the Vietnam War. His unit ventured ahead of U.S Army lines into territory held by the Vietcong. My friend barely escaped death in firefights with the enemy.
Returning home, his bitterness grew as he trudged in the Colorado wilderness. He barked at God for allowing combat to mess up his life. God never answered his insults, which infuriated this Vietnam War veteran. Then he stepped over a gurgling brook. He spied gorgeous mountain flowers. He arched his eyes to Colorado’s azure sky, surely a slice of heaven shining on Earth. My friend heard God’s bracing voice as He “talked to him,” using mental tonic Nature provided.
From heavens declaring God’s grandeur (Psalm 19:1) to swaying trees in fields clapping their hands to the beat of mountains uniting in a chorus of song, (Isaiah 55:12), we get fortified by walking in the woods or around a block.
Also, replenish mental energy by delving into an uplifting book, enjoying a hobby, or an activity that distracts us from excessive worry.
During five decades, Winston Churchill found solace in tough times by painting landscapes. This hobby “brought new enthusiasm…,” wrote an early observer Eddie Marsh. It worked as a “distraction and a sedative that brought a measure of ease to his [Churchill’s] frustrated spirit.”
His biographer William Manchester relates how other remedies failed Winston, leaving him wrestling with worry. “Exercise, travel, retreat, solitude, forced gaiety—he had tried these, and none had worked.”
“Change,” Churchill now wrote, “is the master key [pass key]. A man [person] can wear out a particular part of his mind by continually using it … the tired parts of the mind can be rested and strengthened, not merely by rest, but by using other parts …. It is only when new cells are called into activity … that relief, response, refreshment are afforded.” Churchill painted care-free scenes of the English countryside, which held anxiety in-check.
Besides taking nature walks and focusing on a relaxing hobby, try yoga to relieve worry. Yoga does more than stretch tight muscles. It helps us focus on soothing mental pictures. At the end of a 50-minute session, the yoga instructor guides my wife and me to close our eyes and focus on a favorite calming color, such as blue or green. She requests we “let anxiety go.” All that worries us, all that makes us restless, all that upsets us — let it go.
Intentionally take deep breaths like a baby naturally does from our diaphragms rather than from our nostrils. These cleansing breaths evict stale air from our bodies. Such aerobic exercise helps our bodies release hormones called “endorphins,” which function as “natural opiates” that keep us in sync with God’s creative energy.
Walk in nature. Cultivate hobbies to reduce stress. Capture creation’s soothing rhythms through yoga that stretches tense muscle.
Focus on lilies bending in stiff breezes that do not break, teaches Jesus. Today, lean into this floral metaphor to develop coping powers for dealing with anxieties COVID-19 unleashes.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (TheLivingHistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.