Don’t Neglect Spiritual, Mental Health During this Time of Health Crisis, Baylor Expert Says [guest Q&A with Baylor]

Baylor Social Work professor offers tips, shares resources to help in ‘state of constant stress’

Q&A CREDIT: Jonathan Hill
In a difficult and ever-changing time of crisis surrounding the spread of coronavirus, the basic needs of health and safety come first. But as these basic physiological needs are met, the more advanced care for spiritual and mental health can remain overlooked or ignored altogether.

Baylor University’s Holly Oxhandler, Ph.D., LMSW., associate dean for research and faculty development and assistant professor in the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work, is an expert on mental health, primarily anxiety and depression, as well as religion and spirituality in clinical practice.

In this Q&A, she shares tips and resources to help unhook from the baser instincts of fear and anxiety, even momentarily, to monitor and care for spiritual and mental health needs.

Q: During a crisis, why do spiritual and mental health needs tend to be overlooked or ignored?

A: In the midst of a crisis, our natural reaction is to go into a fight-or-flight response to the situation. Our most basic needs must be met, such as finding a sense of safety, and our bodies are doing what they were designed to do: to protect us. For example, if we were to encounter a bear on a hiking trail, our sympathetic nervous system would be activated to meet the basic need of keeping us safe. Our spiritual and mental health are not primary needs in that moment of crisis.

If we were to run from that bear and reach safety, our emotions would eventually become regulated, our breathing would become normal, and we could return to a generally balanced way of being that allows for attention to our spiritual and mental health.

However, we are in a prolonged moment of crisis surrounded by uncertainty, constantly evolving news updates and daily threats to our and loved ones’ safety regarding our health, finances and sense of normalcy. In this state of constant stress, it can be really hard to unhook from the fight-or-flight response and remember to tend to our spiritual and mental health.

Q: How can people tend to their spiritual health during this time of crisis?

A: In this moment, most of us are being forced to be still and/or surrender the illusion of control in ways we have never faced before. In this stillness, our spiritual practices can help remind us of a divine Love that is with us through each moment, but we must intentionally set time aside to practice them. Plus, many research studies have shown healthy, positive spiritual practices have the potential to support our mental and physical health.

One thing that’s very important, especially in the midst of this crisis, is that we do not spiritually bypass what’s happening.

It may be tempting to want to jump to hope and ignore the pain, but to the best of our ability, our faith traditions teach us we must sit with and feel the grief rooted in the overwhelming change and loss we and our neighbors are facing.

As Fr. Richard Rohr says, “If we do not transform the pain, we will most assuredly transmit it – usually to those closest to us.” We must be with the fear and uncertainty, grieve the loss of life as we knew it a few weeks ago, pray the psalms of lament, and feel the freedom to wrestle with and/or cry out to God in ways we read about others doing so in our sacred texts.

The important thing is that each of us engages in something tied to our faith, regardless of what we believe in, and to be consistent in the practice, continually learning to surrender that sense of control we’re all finding ourselves learning to do right now.

Continue reading this Q&A, including my responses to the following:
* How can people tend to their mental health needs?
* During this time of crisis, what populations do you feel are most vulnerable to mental or spiritual health decline?
* How can neighbors help neighbors and individuals help individuals outside of the professional or therapy setting?

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