Guest Blog Post: Anxiety in the midst of a global pandemic

Carilyn makes an appearance on our podcast! Check it out!

I suspect many of you, like myself, have been watching the unfolding of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic with a profound sense of unease. I suspect many of us have watched with a growing sense of anxiety, fear, and uncertainty the evolution of something that was at first far away and frightening, now invading our communities, grocery stores, homes, and relationships. We have rapidly been disoriented and isolated, watching through small screens the regression of our jobs, economy, and infrastructure. I have personally felt this and witnessed it in the stories, and fears expressed by my family and friends as they navigate loss of childcare, income, and contact with loved ones. All of us feel a little trapped right now – we feel the pressure to “do” something at the same time we don’t really know what to do.

For the thing that I fear comes upon me,
and what I dread befalls me.
I am not at ease, nor am I quiet.
I have no rest, but trouble comes.

Job 2:25-26 (ESV)

Anxiety is a natural phenomenon; a part of the psychological immune system that we were imbued with in our creation to survive. Humans are remarkably resilient. We have survived plagues, pestilence, famine, drought, persecution – every loss nature can imagine. Part of what helps us to survive is our innate shrewdness – our judgement and assessment of situations as potentially dangerous. Anxiety “kicks in” as a natural process, like body temperature and other forms of homeostasis, it is not a character flaw, rather a biological response to the environment. Anxiety manifests in two key ways: 1) by a series of physiological changes and 2) by a series of changes in the way we think and feel.

Anxiety is the product of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), a part of your body’s communication that is sympathetic (sensitive) to the world around you. Its command center is the amygdala, a pair of nerve clusters in the brain. Think about what happens when someone unexpectedly jumps out in front of you and yells “boo!” You have a sharp inhale of breath and you might “jump” a little. This response flips the amygdala switch, which then wakes up our respiratory system (breathing), cardiovascular system (heartrate) and our adrenal system (nervous system communication). We hold our breath or start breathing fast and shallow, our heartrate gets fast, and we get a burst of adrenaline getting our body ready to “fight, flight, or freeze.” Because reasoned thinking is not really helpful when we’re being threatened, the amygdala does a lot of “thinking” for us, meaning we often find ourselves feeling disoriented, unfocused and struggling to remember things.

There is also a lot of evidence to suggest that anxiety intimately involves the tenth cranial nerve, the Vagus nerve, which innervates (is wound around and through) our lungs and digestive tract. The polyvagal theory of anxiety explains why we also have a lot of stomach upset, nausea and problems with our gut when we have anxiety, because this nerve is involved in our feelings of anxiety.

Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.

Exodus 16:3 (ESV)

(Note, this was only three days after Moses led them out of their captivity in Egypt)

Perhaps the worst part of anxiety is what it does to our thoughts. Anxiety automatically assumes the worst and comes up with a bunch of thoughts and scenarios that can be outright terrifying. We call these automatic negative thoughts (ANTS). Everyone knows what its like for their brain to be infested with ANTS. A loved one doesn’t call or text us, and 3 minutes later we’re thinking they’ve been in a car crash or they don’t love us anymore. The Israelites in Exodus give us some excellent examples of ANTS, as they freak out about water, food, and direction despite Moses telling them they’re going to be fine daily.

The moral of the story is anxiety sucks, and it’s so uncomfortable, we feel compelled to “do” something to get rid of it. Again, the Israelites give us a great example of this when they tried to hoard the bread the Lord was providing for them daily. Anyone who has recently been to a grocery store knows this firsthand. People were so afraid when COVID-19 became a pandemic, that they immediately started buying up toilet paper. 

Have I not commanded you? 
Be strong and courageous. 
Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, 
for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.

Joshua 1:9

So what can we do when we feel anxiety? I know, I know, after I just got done telling you part of anxiety is the compulsion to “do” things. The gateway to anxiety is breath and physical tension (that jumpiness), so the path away from it follows the same trail. Begin by trying to regulate your breath. Think about what happens when you’re afraid of something, like getting test results, and they come back to you, and everything is okay. You give a “sigh of relief” – you breathe out. If the onset of fear is a sharp inhale, then it’s release is a long, slow breath out. Take a moment to breathe in like you normally do and let it out long and slow. Try breathing a prayer. In with “Lord,” out with “Have Mercy.” 

Why do you think people are having so much fun online with memes about the virus? It’s not because COVID-19 is funny, it’s because laughter is a systematic breathing out “ha ha ha ha ha” that helps to soothe anxiety. Many people cope through humor, so please feel free to laugh instead. Here’s one for you: What kind of jokes does the CDC recommend during the COVID outbreak? Inside jokes. See – that groan is a great exhale to help with anxiety.

If you’re a person who struggles with breathing, that’s okay. A LOT of people struggle with breathing exercises. Try relaxing your body instead. From yoga, to tai chi to the simple stretches we did in elementary school, you can relax the body and the mind will follow or you can relax the mind and the body will follow. It’s all about what works for you.

For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; 
but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.

2 Timothy 1:7 (KJV)

What do we do with those thoughts? Anxiety is a normal part of our existence. Negative thoughts are going to happen. Coping with anxiety isn’t about not having anxious thoughts, it’s about being able to balance them with a sound mind. For everything anxiety is telling you can go wrong, start by asking yourself, what could go right? Seriously, if you could predict the future, you would be a millionaire. How many times has EXACTLY what you were afraid of happened? Not many, if at all. How would things be different if you were operating under the assumption things were going to be okay?

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.
Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now.
You are not obligated to complete the work, 
but neither are you free to abandon it.

Attributed to Rabbi Tarfon, the Talmud

God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the Wisdom to know the difference.

The Serenity Prayer

I know this is going to sound strange, but nothing has changed. But have you seen the stock market, and the economy, and the toilet paper aisle at the grocery store Carilyn!? I know, I know, they are frightening, but you are no more in control of these things than you have ever been. You don’t single handedly keep the economy afloat, or the supply train of toilet paper running. The economy, the global climate, the world as you know it, have and always will be changing. 

It is the LORD who goes before you. 
He will be with you
He will not leave you or forsake you. 
Do not fear or be dismayed.

Deuteronomy 31:8 (ESV)

To whoever is reading this, first thank you, but more importantly, know that I genuinely care about you and am thinking about you in this moment. You are not alone. This isolation is incredibly hard on us. The bible tells us to lift one another up and bear one another’s burdens (1 Thessalonians 5:11, Galatians 6:2), and it is very hard to do this when we are all apart. But know that you are not alone. The Lord is with you, fully present, as is the New Hope Family. I know this firsthand, as I have had the support of my home group and the prayer team helping me to get through this time. Please, go to inewhope.org, call (503) 370-8886, or email church@inewhope.org to ask for prayer, help, food, emotional support, and/or to hear a word of encouragement.

And behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.

Jesus, Matthew 28:20 (ESV)
Carilyn Ellis, PsyD, MSCP
Carilyn Ellis, PsyD, MSCP

Dr. Ellis became a psychologist because of a profound personal belief that everyone has the right to an advocate: someone completely on their side. An avid believer in the strength and resilience of people, she finds consummate joy in working with people to discover who they are, and to live life according to their personal values, goals and passions. She lives by one of her favorite quotes by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

Dr. Ellis received her Masters and Doctorate in Psychology from George Fox University, and her postdoctoral Masters in Clinical Psychopharmacology from Fairleigh Dickinson University. She completed her APA accredited internship with the Salt Lake VA, Residency with the Boise VA and Providence Medical Services. She has worked in oncology, pain and palliative care for years, having completed formal training as well as professional development in the areas of trauma, neuropsychology, chronic medical conditions, pain and end of life.

For more information on Dr. Ellis and her practice, please go to

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