Warning: Extra long post alert!

When the Kenyan government extended lock-down conditions for yet a second set of 21 days, we all let loose a collective groan. “How long is this going to go on?”, many were asking. Chip & I had already endured a 14-day voluntary quarantine as soon as he touched Kenyan soil upon his return from the Democratic Republic of Congo in mid-March. We were all beginning to feel mentally exhausted by the whole corona virus situation. Kenya locked down very early, right about when the U.S. began doing so, well before our numbers of COVID-19 cases began to surge. Some were feeling angry and restless. Still many have been feeling listless and depressed, feeling like this could go on forever. We were seeing strained relationships in the home, especially where several people are all living in small one-room dwellings. Many have lost jobs and are struggling to get food on the table and pay rent. On top of all that, parents, some of whom are trying to work from home, are also having to care for and even teach their children, unable even, to talk their bored and restless children on an outing. Many have been asking how they can maintain peace of mind – how to keep relationships and mental health intact. The novelty had worn off and people are just tired. As a counselling psychologist, this is an area of great concern to me, even as I also have been striving to maintain my own mental health. As I was praying on the day of the extension of lock-down, I felt God prompting me to research and share tips to mental health in an extended lock-down context. I felt the nudge to share one tip per day on a couple of the Whats App groups I am on – to help me and my friends to maintain our mental health in as good a state as possible. You’ve heard the saying “An apple a day keeps the doctor away?”  This was a sort of “a tip a day to keep the psychiatrist away”! I began receiving messages from lots of people saying how the tips have helped them and that they are sharing the tips on other groups they are on and with their friends. I was truly surprised. Apparently, such practical advice was needed. So, as my last post on this pandemic era (whether the lock-down is extended or not, I’m moving on!), here are the 21 tips…some of which are still to be posted. Even when lock-downs are not in place, these tips are good practices for healthy psychological well being. I try to practice as many myself as possible on a regular basis. I hope you find these a blessing too.

  1. First and foremost, always remember to go to God every day. Tell Him your concerns, your worries, your problems. But don’t just tell Him and run away. Stay in His presence for a while. Learn to listen to what He may tell you. Soak up His peace and strength, so that it may stay with you throughout the day. Don’t neglect your daily devotions. Read His word. Worship and sing to the Lord. Listen in prayer. These times in God’s presence will indeed increase your mental strength and health.
  2. Maintain a sense of humour, even in hard times. There is a saying that goes “Laughter is the best medicine”. Even God’s Word says in Proverbs 17:22, “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones”. Science has shown that laughing helps the human body physically. It even helps strengthen our immune system. And it helps us to be strong in hard times. You may legitimately ask “But, there is nothing funny in this corona virus situation”. To a certain extent that is true. This virus is not funny. However, life, even in the midst of corona virus can still have humour. When our firstborn son was an infant and in danger of dying of heart defects, we were somehow talked into going to friends’ home one night – the night of the diagnosis of our son’s condition. They proceeded to feed us, then regale us with one funny story after another. In spite of ourselves, our low mood, the anxiety-producing fears of having a desperately ill new born son, we soon found ourselves laughing til the tears rolled down our cheeks. Was this thoughtless of our friends? Were they being callous, uncaring of our situation? No, indeed! Their humour had a true healing effect on our own hurting hearts and strengthened us to face the difficult days ahead. There is humour in all of life. Sometimes you may need to look for it, even pursue it. If you are not very good at finding humour in dire situations, get a friend who is good at seeing humour in life to help you find laughter again. Laughter truly helps the human heart, both physically and mentally. Let’s allow God to heal our sad or anxious hearts through seeing the ironic and funny sides of life.
  3. Help a neighbour or friend in need. Yes, helping others, actually helps us! Research shows that when human beings engage in good deeds to help one another, natural chemicals (called endorphins, or the ‘feel good’ chemicals) are released in our brains, which creates this warm, good feeling inside us. These warm, good feelings actually work to help strengthen our immune systems and lift our moods. Are you feeling low? Go help a neighbour or friend in need. You will both benefit!
  4. Eat as nutritionally healthy as possible, even in hard economic times. In our church’s series on health, we learned that good, balanced nutrition not only helps build strong healthy bodies, but also helps our immune system fight off infections. But did you know that good nutrition also improves one’s mental sense of well-being? God’s Word tells us that when one member of our bodies suffers, the whole body suffers (1 Corinthians 12). So, if poor nutrition affects our physical health adversely, it also affects our mental state. Research also supports this. It shows that people who eat a good balanced diet also tend to be able to fight off depression and anxiety. Let’s not eat carbohydrates only. Budget for some good veggies and fruits as well. Balance this with good protein. You don’t need meat for protein. Eggs are often called the ‘perfect protein’ because they are affordable, are a good source of protein, and are much more easily digested than meat. But there are plant-based foods that also provide protein. Let’s do our research. A balanced diet provides nutrients that help balance the natural chemicals our brains produce, promoting mental health. Eat well and feel well!
  5. Exercise to improve your mental state! Human beings were created to move. We do not do well as ‘couch potatoes’. The latest research shows that sitting for too many hours every day, increases our chances for such chronic, dangerous diseases as heart disease, dementia, diabetes, blood clots, back problems, and even some kinds of cancers. But did you know that exercise also helps to lessen anxiety and depression? Studies have shown that people who move on a regular basis, even just walking at least 4 times a week for 30 minutes, helps to lessen even mood disorders and stress related mental distress. Exercising stimulates the brain to release those natural pain-relieving and feel-good chemicals called endorphins These contribute so a state of well-being. So, if we’re feeling low at this time of lock down, economic problems, and social distancing, grab your mask and go for a walk around the neighbourhood. You can safely chat with people you may pass, wearing your mask and keeping 3 metres apart. Don’t let fears of corona virus keep you from moving and exercising to improve and maintain your mental health. Let’s walk!
  6. Maintain a regular schedule. We human beings always do better when we have at least a bit of predictability in our lives. Most of us already know that children need schedules and routines but even adults benefit from a regular schedule. Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, we quickly form patterns and routines. We rise roughly the same time in the morning. We wash and dress, get breakfast, go to work (remember those days?), lunch is roughly the same time daily, go home, eat dinner, maybe play with the kids or look over their homework, do some sort of relaxation before going to bed. When our comfortable, dependable schedules are disrupted for lengthy periods of time (such as during these days of lock downs and stay at home orders) we become uncomfortable, anxious and distressed. We long for things to go back to what they were because we are uncomfortable with the unknown. It has to do with a sense of control of our lives and the situations around us. When that sense of control is removed, we feel powerless and distressed. So, what to do? Flouting lock down measures is not the answer. We would only endanger ourselves and others. It helps us if we develop new schedules and routines. Keep getting up at roughly the same time in the morning. Keep doing whatever portions of your old routine you can and replace things you may have done before but now can’t with new activities. You may even discover new, healthier habits which you can now experiment with that you may want to keep even after lock down measures are lifted! If you haven’t already, develop a new ‘lock-down routine’ that helps you feel some measure of control in your life and offers you a bit of comfort of knowing what to expect.
  7. Exercise your brain! Take time to do a project you’ve always wanted to do or learn a skill you’ve always wanted to learn. When we are stuck at home so much it can be all too easy not only for our physical bodies to get out of shape, but also for our brains to lack exercise. We can get lazy, sleeping late every day, eating junk food, staying indoors doing nothing much at all. What have you always wanted to do but have not had the time to do? Do you want to learn to write? Or perhaps you have always wanted to learn to play an instrument or learn another language. Perhaps you have wanted to learn to bake for a long time or learn some new recipes. This would be the perfect time to start and invest some real time in it. Who knows? This could even be the start for a whole new positive direction in life. I have accomplished 2 major tasks that I have had on my To Do list for a very long time. Now I have my eye on a third project, now that lock-down has been extended. It sure feels good to accomplish some task you have wanted to do for a long time. What skill would you like to learn that will help your career, your work, or just something you are interested in? Rather than complain about our situation, let’s make good use of the extra time we have been given and use it productively to enrich our lives.
  8. Don’t neglect your spiritual growth. This is a bit different than tip #1, which had to do with your personal times alone with God. This has to do with connecting with other believers, particularly your church and other fellowships you may be involved in. Hebrews 10:25 says, “and let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near”. Many churches offer online services and prayer meetings. Connect with your church online services, or ‘visit’ another church if your church does not offer online services. You could also be reading good Christian books that can help augment Sunday sermons and help you grow spiritually. In addition, you can learn new songs online. Just like our bodies need good nutrition to grow in a healthy manner, so do our spirits. Keep connected and growing spiritually!
  9. Limit the frequency of bad news. Bad news is all around us, but we do not need to consume every article, update, video, or conspiracy theory that is posted. This only serves to unnecessarily scare us or plunges us into despair. A constant diet of bad news all day and every evening can actually lead to a form of post traumatic stress disorder or depression. It is good to be updated, but don’t make a steady diet of it. As an illustration, eating Sukuma wiki (kale) is very healthy and highly recommended because of its high nutritional value. However, if that was all I ever ate, I would be suffering from malnutrition because I would lack carbohydrates and protein and other vitamins and nutrients not found in Sukuma. We need balance even in the news we ‘consume’. Carefully choose reputable sources of information and stick to those. Let’s choose balance even in the bad news we hear.
  10. Reach out – call a friend or family member daily. Many are suffering in this pandemic, and the suffering is not only medical. Human beings were created as social creatures and even the introverts among us are discovering how much we miss human contact. It is a deep inner need that we all have in varying degrees. You probably are feeling it now and you can be sure, so are your friends and family members. Don’t wait for someone else to pick up the phone, take the initiative and call your parents, your sibling, your grown child living away from home, a grandchild, neighbour who can’t even come over for a visit, or other friends. Find out how they are doing. Show genuine interest. Find out if there is something you can do for them…then follow through. This is one of the easiest and best ministries a Christian can do right now…offering the warmth of human caring and contact. It just may make their day, and who knows, maybe yours too!
  11. Maintain your physical appearance…don’t get sloppy just because you’re home all the time. I keep hearing of Americans in their homes all day long dressed only in their pajamas! I simply cannot understand this. Take time to dress properly. Casual dress is quite appropriate since we are at home, but sloppy is another thing altogether. How about our hair? Perhaps we cannot visit a barber or get our hair done at the salon right now, but we can keep it clean and neat, presentable. Are we neglecting to shower or brush our teeth just because we are not going out? What about our spouses or our children? Is it right to make them put up with our smell or bad breath? Let us honour others, ourselves and yes, God, by remaining presentable and clean even in these days of stay at home orders. You’ll also feel better about yourself too!
  12. Get adequate rest. Perhaps this might be more for young people, connected constantly to the internet than for older, less connected people. However, it applies to us all nevertheless. Don’t stay up so late online to the point of not getting sufficient sleep at night. It is very easy to lose track of time when online! Many of us know this by experience. Conversely, don’t sleep in late every day. Maintaining a regular sleep schedule has been proven to be healthier for human beings. Wildly erratic sleep behaviour actually leads to stress and to health problems. Go to bed on time and get up at an appropriate time in the morning. You may not need to get up as early as you would when you travelled to work every morning, but you still need to maintain a healthy waking hour. Let’s get appropriate amounts of rest for our physical health and our mental well-being. You’ll thank yourself later.
  13. Name your fears. Learn to be able to identify and to talk about your fears, which create anxiety inside you. Whenever we keep our fears to ourselves, they tend to grow and eventually paralyze us. But counsellors find that encouraging and helping people be able to identify and talk about their fears and anxieties helps them to face them and gives them a release from emotions that can paralyze. A popular saying is “A problem identified is half solved”. Even if the problem does not seem to have any immediate solutions, just sharing the burden with another caring person helps make it lighter. Galatians 6:2 admonishes us to bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the law of Christ. Christ’s law is love. Let us help bear each other’s burdens and spread Christ’s love. Find someone safe with whom you can talk about your fears and anxieties. And then let us be that listening ear for each other that can help ease another’s burden.
  14. Take a break from time to time for your own personal enjoyment – reading, writing, stitching, experimenting with new recipes, sports, etc. – whatever ‘floats your boat’. In times of stress, internal pressures, negative emotions, and frustrations can pile up within. This can make us irritable and impatient with others or even with ourselves. It is like a pressure cooker. The pressure builds up inside that pressure pot, as the heat is applied. The pressure cooker needs a safety release valve, which helps ease off pressure little by little, keeping a balance of pressure within the pot – otherwise it would explode like a bomb! We too, need a release of that internal pressure from time to time. What is your safety valve? There are many ways to help relieve that internal pressure, including prayer, worship, and talks with a good friend. But, engaging in activities you find pleasant and relaxing is also a good release valve from that pressure. As we engage in such relaxing activities, again, those wonderful friends called endorphins are released by our brains, and we experience that feel-good sensation. It even makes us more friendly and relaxed in our dealings with those family members we are cooped up with day in and day out. The saying goes “All work and no play makes Johnny a dull boy”. I suppose you could also say it makes Johnny a cranky, irritable boy as well. Take a bit of time for yourself. Engage in those activities you love to do from time to time. Schedule a day for yourself or at least a half day. Take a break. We all need it!
  15. Take time to seek your purpose in life (or understand it better if you already have a direction). Many just go through life each day as it hits them…then wonder why they don’t seem to accomplish much in their lifetime. There is a phrase called the ‘tyranny of the urgent’. That is when we seem to spend all our time taking care of all the urgent things that pop up in our lives. If we do not have a definite purpose for our life, if we do not know what God has put us on this earth to do, our lives will be controlled by the tyranny of the urgent – and those urgent things will often be someone else’s idea of what you should be doing. In Psalm 139, we find that each person was created by God with a unique purpose. He knows us through and through – even better than we know ourselves. In Jeremiah 29:11, we are told also that God’s plan for us is only for our good, never to harm us. We can trust Him. But, do we know what that plan is? Do we know what God has uniquely designed us to do on this earth? He wants us to know. He will not hide it from us. Take some time while everyone is stuck at home, to ask God what your purpose in life is. Even if it seems like a long way off or a big calling that you feel ill-equipped to do. God will reveal to us each step we need to take towards that purpose, sometimes one at a time. Other times, he may reveal the big picture. Our job is to seek that purpose, then take courage to follow through as He reveals His wonderful plan for our lives. Let us not be idle in this extra time we have ‘locked in’; let us use it well. Knowing God’s purpose for our lives is an inspiring thing indeed!
  16. Set daily goals and work towards them…even if the goals seem small or limited. This is a bit different from yesterday’s tip, in that it involves the step by step process. Ever thought “Today, I think I’ll….”, then proceed to make a mental (or possibly written) list of what you hope to achieve that day? I do it every morning. In fact, I do it just after my morning devotions and before I officially start on my day. Having a road plan really helps many of us to avoid losing track of what needs to be done. There are 4 categories in which all the activities we do in a day, fall into. They are: 1) the unimportant and non-urgent (basically time-wasters & frivolous activities; 2) the unimportant and urgent (those things that others press us to do, but are not really so important); 3) urgent and important (crises, like serious health problems, emergencies) and 4) the important but not urgent (things that we should be doing, but don’t need to be done right now). This last category is the one that is most often neglected. If we don’t make sure we set daily goals, even writing them down if we tend to forget, then many tasks, especially in the 4th category, will never get done. We might spend all our time on meeting others’ expectations, trying to solve crises, or even wasting our time on non-important activities. When we set goals, we prioritize tasks, and help ourselves keep track of them and eventually, to accomplish them. It is a satisfying feeling to see important things being accomplished, whether they are urgent or not!
  17. Use what you have to the max, especially to stay connected with others. Too many times we limit ourselves, thinking we can’t do much because we don’t have much. This is true for physical resources like money and gadgets, but also for those inner resources God has given to us. Maybe you have a wonderful sense of humour. Perhaps God has blessed you with the ability to empathize with others or encourage them. Maybe God has given you great faith to believe in the seemingly impossible. In the Old Testament, when God was giving Moses his assignment to lead the Israelites out of bondage and Moses was giving God excuses why he was not qualified, God asked Moses “What is in your hand?” He asks us the same question today. What is in your hand? What resources, both physical and internal, has God given you already that you can use to help yourself, to help others, to somehow make any situation better? Even if we have only a little, we have enough to start being a blessing in our spheres of influence. If we have not done so already, let us start using what God has blessed us with to make even this lock-down situation better. It has the added benefit of improving our psychological health.
  18. Be honest with family members. If you are struggling, let them know and ask for their help – whether that be requesting their prayers, help with errands around the home, for more understanding from them, or even a hug. Reach out. Open communication in the home can be a great source of strength and helps build compassion in the family. Do not fear appearing weak before your children, whether they are still young or even grown. Your reaching out to then for understanding or help, models for them a healthy way of living. Human beings (yes, even introverts!) were not created to live entirely alone. None of us have everything we need for life within ourselves. We need each other. Those among us who tend towards discouragement and depression need the exuberant, even humourous among us. Those who are flighty need those who are more grounded in seriousness. We need each other. God has made us this way. One year, for my birthday, my 2nd son, Sam (who was a teen at the time) gave me a collection of…comic books! The inscription he wrote in one of the books said “Mom, you need more humour in your life. So here it is”! Wow…wisdom and from someone so young. From time to time I think of his words when I feel like life is getting me down. I still reach out to him from time to time. Yes, even for advice (especially in technology!) but also for humour, for companionship, for that wonderful something that only a grown-up child can provide. Husbands and wives…reach out to each other. Don’t turn away. Your spouse should be your biggest support in tough times. Let us reach out to our family members for that support that they, and we need. You will be glad you did.
  19. Plan for the future (this, too, shall pass!). This is related to but a bit different from seeking our purpose in life. The former is more of a big picture, the overall vision for your life. This tip is more of a road plan for seeing that vision come to pass. I suppose you could call it a personal mission statement. Do you feel part of God’s purpose for you is to be a writer? How will you go about doing this? Maybe you would take writing classes. You might find a writer to mentor you in the process. You could try blogging, writing newsletters, or poetry. What do you plan to do to begin the process of fulfilling your calling in life? Take some time to pray and seek God for the steps to begin this journey. After all, if it is His purpose for your life you have been seeking, isn’t He the obvious person to consult as to the way forward in moving in that direction? Some people ‘see’ their whole life’s road map before them. Others can see only one step at a time. However, you see the vision for your life, take courage, draw in a deep breath, and take that first step. Human beings naturally fear the unknown. It does take courage to start forward on the journey. Many of us fear making mistakes and messing our lives up. That is natural. And that is precisely why faith is needed…faith to believe that as we move forward, God will lead us. Even if we do make mistakes in the journey, is God too weak to overcome the obstacles we create with our mistakes? I think not! Let us begin today to consult with God for that plan for our futures. A side note for those facing retirement soon…you are included in this! Every season has a plan, a way forward. Let us keep moving forward in the Lord!
  20. Learn to look for the positives even in a negative situation. There is always good to find in every situation. It is kind of like mining for diamonds. You have to dig through a lot of dirt to find that gem…but it is certainly there! Romans 8:28 (NIV) says “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”. An earlier tip talked about finding God’s purpose for our lives. If God has created us and has called us for a specific purpose, will He allow anything to defeat or destroy that purpose? God is God and there is nothing too difficult for Him! The verse above tells us that God works for our good ‘in’ all things. The Bible never promises that all things that happen to us are good or pleasant or happy, but that God will work out His good even in the middle of tough, sad, difficult and bad situations. He is able to work even bad things for our good and for His glory. Remember Joseph who had been sold by his brothers into slavery? He made use of what he had in terrible circumstances and kept trusting God. Bad things kept happening to Joseph. He was unfairly put in jail…but prospered even there, then got forgotten when it seemed he would get his chance to get out…but continued to make use of what God blessed him with and to see God’s blessings…even in jail! In every bad situation, in every difficult challenge, there is a gem of blessing somewhere. Trouble is, like that diamond, we often have to dig for it. It won’t always be obvious. But if we look for it, we will find it and we will have real cause for rejoicing. Let us go get our spades today and start digging for those gems of blessings in the midst of the dirt of our trials!
  21. Be willing to embrace the new reality. There is no doubt that this pandemic will change things for a long time…some things, permanently. Just as 911 brought permanent changes in world travel and introduced the world to the war on terrorism, so COVID-19 will bring its own permanent changes. It is uncertain what these changes will be right now, as the world is still feeling its way around this new territory, but there is no doubt that a challenge with such epic repercussions worldwide must bring new realities. When this becomes clear, we will have 2 choices: fight the new realities and try hard to live life the way it was before the pandemic or embrace the new reality and use what God has given us to do the best we can in the new reality. I am reminded of Nic Vujicic – a man born with no arms or legs. He could have spent his life in one big pity party, bemoaning his bad luck and fighting against the bad lot he got in life. But he did not. Instead, he embraced his reality and took up the challenge of living his life to the fullest. He doesn’t let anything, or anyone stop him from facing challenges, doing what he can, the best he can and even with a cheerful, God-honouring attitude. Post-pandemic realities may involve dramatic, new travel challenges, especially internationally. We may need to adopt new, permanent ways of relating socially. We may find life not as convenient as we used to. Instead of fighting these new realities and bemoaning our lot in life, let us accept the challenges life throws our way, face these realities and do our utmost best to live our lives to the fullest, entrusting them to God’s care, protection, and enabling. We will find joy in the process, and strengths and abilities we never knew we had!

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