Breaking the Habit
with Rev. Alex Lang
October 10, 2021
One of the greatest fallouts from the pandemic was our mental health. On Sunday we are going to address the global mental health crisis brought on by the pandemic and how our faith can guide us towards healing!
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. 2 It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. 3 So watch yourselves.
“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. 4 Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”
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During the fall, we are doing a sermon series called Making Peace with the Pandemic. Each week we are going to examine a different aspect of how the pandemic changed our lives. Some of us have struggled in really challenging ways. Others used the pandemic as opportunity to reset our priorities. The goal of this series is to talk about what happened to the world, what happened to us and how our faith can guide us towards healing.
Each week we will begin our sermons in this series with an interview of members of our congregation. This interview will set the stage for what we are talking about for the rest of the sermon. The people who did these interviews, many of them were extraordinarily vulnerable. If you see them, please thank them for what they’ve done. Today, we begin our sermon series with Brianna Smith and Kim Nowak. Brianna is going into 6th grade and is part of our youth group and Kim Nowak is a member of our congregation who is also a therapist. Let’s hear what they have to say.
So today, we are going to discuss the mental health impacts of the pandemic, which were far reaching. I want to begin with something that Kim Nowak said, which is that we are social creatures. Humans are designed to be around people. It’s built into our genes. Even if you’re an introvert like me where you prefer to be alone most of the time, you still need interactions with other people on a regular basis. In fact, if you don’t spend time with other people, it can very quickly destroy your mental health.
To help you understand how critical socialization is for human beings, I want to spend a few minutes talking about the effects of solitary confinement in our prison system. Solitary confinement is utilized when a prisoner is deemed too dangerous to comingle with the general prison population. In other words, if you get into a fight, which happens a lot in overcrowded prisons where violent prisoners are often housed with non-violent prisoners, you will likely be placed in solitary confinement.
Solitary confinement is perhaps the cruelest form of punishment in the prison system. Solitary confinement was first utilized in the United States in 1829 when Pennsylvania built Eastern State Penitentiary. At the time, Eastern State was the most expensive prison in the world. It was designed so that every prisoner would be placed in their own individual cell. The effect was that the prisoners would live in total isolation.
This concept of isolating prisoners was inspired from the practices of monks whose deep spirituality was shaped by large amounts of time living in solitude. The belief was that time in isolation would inspire penitence, or regret, in the hearts of the prisoners. This is why they are called penitentiaries, because they are designed to help the prisoners become penitent or remorseful of their actions. They were to have no communication with any other prisoners and were to live with only a Bible and their thoughts. To this end, each cell was equipped with a single glass skylight, termed the Eye of God, suggesting to the prisoners that God was always watching over them.
It was innovative for the time. More than 300 prisons around the world copied the design of Eastern State Penitentiary. The Christians who promoted this model of imprisonment did so with the hopes that it would reform the prisoners and make them law abiding citizens. Indeed, the primary function of the penitentiary was not punishment, but rehabilitation. Unfortunately, the outcome was not what they had hoped. Most of the prisoners confined to Eastern State Penitentiary went mad and today we know why.
Stuart Grassian, one of the earliest researchers to delve into the psychological effects of solitary confinement, discovered that prolonged solitude can actually change the biochemistry of the brain. The prisoners he spoke with suffered from hallucinatory tendencies, paranoia, and delirium. He found they were hypersensitive to noise and touch, insomnia, PTSD, and uncontrollable feelings of rage or fear. These psychological symptoms would often lead to incidents of self-harm. Those in solitary confinement make up only 5% of the prison population, but they represent half of all prison suicides.
What’s worse is that, even if you make it out of solitary confinement, the effects of solitary will follow you into the outside world. Many prisoners who have spent significant time in solitary confinement have trouble reintegrating into society. They struggle with intense depression and anxiety. They have trouble interacting with the people around them and often will turn to drinking or drugs as means of coping with the psychological wounds of solitary confinement.
Now, why I have I spent all this time talking about solitary confinement in our prison system? Because when the pandemic began and we were placed on lockdown, our society began to function as though we were all living in solitary confinement. We were all sequestered in our homes. We were not allowed to go anywhere and our interaction with other humans was greatly minimized. At first, most of us were able to cope. But as days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months, our mental health began to decline.
As you heard Kim discuss, depression and anxiety began to sky rocket, substance abuse with drugs and alcohol became more prolific. Overdoses and suicides started to increase. Even if you were talking on the phone and zooming with your friends and family, being sequestered inside of your home coupled with the fear of contracting a virus that could kill you was something no one was prepared for.
Everyone, and I do mean everyone, dealt with some mental fallout during the pandemic. For some, the fallout was minor; for others it was more severe. Whether you realize it or not, you were part of one of the greatest global mental health crises the world has ever experienced, the aftereffects of which are going to take a lot of time to unwind and heal from. What I want to talk about this morning is how your faith can help you heal.
So you heard Brianna Smith (who was so brave, by the way, for being vulnerable about her struggles with mental health) talk about how she deals with her anxiety. So for her, one of her triggers that really peaks her anxiety is change. Can anyone here relate to that? Of course you can! Because, besides being very social creatures, we are also creatures of habit. We like our routines. We like to do what we like to do when we like to do it on our schedule. When the pandemic reared its ugly head and everything shut down, we were prevented from doing our routines, which threw everything out of balance.
Moreover, when the future is uncertain and you can’t anticipate what’s going to happen, that’s a huge anxiety trigger for many of us because we feel so out of control. Brianna was dealing with these types of feelings before the pandemic and she talked about how she works with Dr. Liz and her social worker to overcome those situations. What Brianna really emphasized to us is how she develops a strategy. Sometimes it’s yoga, sometimes it’s a conversation, but as soon as she recognizes things aren’t quite right, she will take steps to alleviate those negative feelings.
My therapist always emphasizes to me that anxiety and depression are two sides of the same coin. Anxiety can very easily lead to the depression and vice versa. But where exactly do these feelings come from? Well, a big aspect of these feelings comes from thinking about the future. In particular, anxiety comes from when we spend a lot of time thinking about what might happen. The root of these thoughts revolve around things that are really out of our control.
So you can’t control a virus. You can’t control how deadly it is or how much it spreads. You can’t control the impact that it has on the global economy. The only thing you can do is protect yourself the best you know how. But the specter of possibly becoming infected in spite of your best efforts is a really daunting thing to think about and, for many people, those thoughts, over time, can be crippling. This is what leads to us utilizing negative coping mechanisms like alcohol or drugs or over eating or checking out by watching endless amounts television and movies.
So we need to be like Brianna and develop strategies to cope in a positive way. One strategy is something that Jesus talks about during his Sermon on the Mount where he tells his disciples not to worry. Jesus says, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” In essence, Jesus is saying that you need to keep your mind on the present. You need to be focused on right now; on what’s happening directly in front of you.
Why? Because the only thing you have control over is what’s happening right now. You can’t change the past and you can’t determine the future. In many ways, the only thing you have any ability to influence is what you’re doing right now. What Jesus is telling us is that there is amazing power in the present moment. Indeed, it is in the present moment that you have the ability to change your circumstances in dramatic ways, but you have to seize that power if you want it to make a difference.
So a big part of seizing the power of the present is understanding how you are reacting to your present circumstances. One of the most important skills Brianna has developed is her ability to become aware of how she is feeling in the present moment. She can tell if she feels a ton of anxiety. She can tell if she’s feeling overwhelmed or sad. By knowing how she feels, this enables her to do something about it.
I tell you this because many of us (and I fall into this category) are not really fully aware of how we’re feeling from one moment to the next. We’re a bit disconnected from our feelings. And when you’re not in a place where you understand what you’re feeling, then you tend to react out of a negative place. For instance, I will often become very angry and snippy when I’m feeling anxiety and that’s because, when I feel out of control, I try to control others. For some, they immediately try to numb their feelings and this is why addiction was such a huge problem during the pandemic.
But if you’re present to those feelings, then you can deal with them in a healthy way, which is what Brianna does. Once the feelings have been identified, she tries to work through them in positive ways with yoga or talking about them with adults. For me, I can tell you that I often pray. It is through my connection with God that I’m able to center myself. I will often use Jesus’ words as a mantra: do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. This helps me to focus on those feelings, identify exactly what they are and work through them in a healthy way.
Now I wish I could tell you that I was really good at this, but I’m not. I would say I’m hitting about 50%. Half the time I’m in touch with what I’m feeling, the other half I’m simply reacting to what I’m feeling. And for that 50% where I’m reacting and utilizing my negative coping strategies, like getting angry at the people around me, that’s where I know I have to follow another piece of Jesus’ advice.
The other scripture we read this morning comes from Luke’s gospel where Jesus tells us “occasions for stumbling are bound to come.” In other words, you’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to do things that you regret where you hurt yourself and other people. But when that happens, you can’t just let it go and sweep it under the rug. You have to find the people who you hurt, repent and seek forgiveness.
During the pandemic, I said things to my family that I shouldn’t have said. I got angry when I shouldn’t have. And in those circumstances, where I caused a rift in our relationship, I sought them out, I apologized and I asked for their forgiveness. When I made mistakes where I hurt myself, when I used negative coping mechanisms to deal with my anxiety and depression, I asked God for forgiveness and worked hard to forgive myself. Rather than allowing guilt and regret about my past actions to occupy my mind, I used Jesus’ words of forgiveness to show love to myself.
All this to say: we’ve all suffered a lot of mental anguish as a result of the pandemic. I know some of you are still suffering right now. But what I want you to know is that it’s going to be okay. Be kind to yourself. Love yourself. Forgive yourself if you’ve made mistakes. Remember God has forgiven you. And for those who’ve you hurt, offer your apologies. Do your best to right the relationship.
But most importantly, do your best to not worry about the things you can’t control and develop strategies for focusing on the present. Take Brianna’s advice: if you need to get help, get help. Don’t keep it all in. Talk to a family member, a trusted friend, or a therapist, like, Kim. Express what you feel and, even though it can be hard to talk about these things, remember, this is how we can all heal from trauma of the pandemic. Amen.